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Understanding in the age of also
talking with Richard Saul Wurman

Ubiquity, Volume 2000 Issue March, March 1 - March 31, 2000 | BY John Gehl 

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UBIQUITY: When you created the expression "information architect" in 1975 to describe yourself, did you expect the term to catch on?

WURMAN: Sure. I thought everybody would join in and call themselves information architects. But nobody did‹until now, when all of a sudden everybody does. In the last two years, it's become a ubiquitous term. Of course, as is the case for any ubiquitous term, there are some "information architects" who legitimately meet the definition of the term, but there are lots who don't. But it's a term that sounds good, and so a lot of people are calling themselves, "information architects." I think it's not a bad term, even when it's misused. It's not unlike the case of a lot of people calling themselves lawyers; some of them are good lawyers and some are bad lawyers.  There is a real variation of their competence underneath the guise of a title.

UBIQUITY: Good lawyers tend to get their clients out of trouble and out of jail. What do good information architects do?

WURMAN: They make the complex clear; they make the information understandable to other human beings. If they succeed in doing that, they're good information architects. If they fail, they're not.

UBIQUITY: How do you approach the problem of making the complex clear?

WURMAN: The only thing we know is our own personal knowledge and lack of knowledge (our own personal understanding and lack of understanding). And since it's the only thing we really know, the key to making things understandable is to understand what it's like NOT to understand. What makes communication possible is my ability, sitting across from you, to know what it is you don't understand. If I don't sense your lack of knowledge or appreciate your capacity for knowledge, then I will have a hard time communicating.

UBIQUITY: Did your profession come to you one day as a sudden epiphany? You were educated as an architect of the traditional kind; did you wake up one morning and say, "No, I'm not an architect anymore, I'm an information architect"?

WURMAN: Not quite. What happened was that when I was an architecture student and in my very early 20s, I did have an epiphany. My epiphany was, not that I was an information architect, but that I wasn't very smart. I was, in a sense, an empty bucket; a bucket being filled up by others. All that I knew was what people were teaching me, with none of it coming viscerally from me.  So I decided that I would put into that empty bucket only those things that I truly understood. How would I know if I truly understood them? I'd know I understood them if I could explain them to another human being. So my epiphany had nothing to do with architecture. My epiphany had to do only with my personal limitations.

UBIQUITY: And so how did you proceed? Did your epiphany lead you immediately to a new life as an information architect?

WURMAN: Not at all. My epiphany was just a collection of my own thoughts, that had nothing to do with a career. In fact, it led to, for quite a number of years, a very unsuccessful life.

UBIQUITY: Why was that?

WURMAN: Because nobody cared about the fact that I was stupid or an empty bucket. Nobody cared at all. In fact, I was unpopular at meetings for admitting that I didn't understand what people were saying, because an admission of ignorance wasn't the behavior that was rewarded in our society.  It wasn't, and still isn't, popular to ask questions, rather than answer questions. Answering questions was rewarded; asking them wasn't. It also wasn't popular to try to understand the nature of failure. It was popular to try to replicate success. So I was very unsuccessful, because I wasn't doing all the things that are thought of as part of being a success in life.

UBIQUITY: But it all worked out?

WURMAN: Well, I kept doing what I was doing, and success caught up to me when I was in my 50s, and now I'm OK. But I had a long run of not doing anything that was thought to be valuable to society. I'm talking about financial success, power success, positioning in companies, positioning in society.

UBIQUITY: You're certainly successful now, and well-known as an author, and as founder of the popular TED conferences on technology, entertainment, and design. Everyone thinks of you as an enormous success. On the other hand, you seem to be saying that you're the only one who can decide whether you're successful. How do you define success for yourself?

WURMAN: I'm a success when I do something that I myself can truly understand. That's step one. And if my understanding of things gets published in a book and people buy the book (even if I don't do anything at all to promote it), and they like it and tell other people to buy it, then I guess I've done OK.

UBIQUITY: What's your latest project?

WURMAN: I just finished a new book, probably my most important one. It's called, "Understanding." Now if you look at the word "understanding," and you print it in light, sans serif type and you pick out three letters in the word, the U, the S and the A, which happen to come in order, in that one word, then you have the title, "Understanding USA." "Understanding USA" is 324 pages of an oversized book, in five colors, done by me and twelve friends of mine, all graphic artists. The book makes the United States understandable with totally new charts, maps, graphs. It covers demographics, the budget, crime, businesses, mergers, the Internet, all kinds of things. It's all factual information of America. And the test of the book is whether people like it and buy it. It will have to stand on its own merits, because I won't do any interviews to promote the book, and there won't be any review copies, or any advertising for it.

UBIQUITY: How will it be made available?

WURMAN: It's only going to be sold in two places. In the Barnes and Noble stores and on B&N.com and Amazon.com. We'll see if people buy it and like it. But I'm not urging them to buy it. In fact, I'm going to try, a month from now, to get some newspapers and magazines to give me free full-page ads that say, "You don't have to buy this book, you can download the whole thing from the Web. It's not copyrighted." So, we'll find out if it's useful. Now, that's a way of testing things. And even in the stores the book will be sold very cheaply. It's clearly a $75 book, but will be sold for $25.

UBIQUITY: Who is the publisher?

WURMAN: I am. And I'm also the distributor. I'm selling it directly to Barnes & Noble and to Amazon.

UBIQUITY: Why are you doing things this way?

WURMAN: Because it's the right thing to do.

UBIQUITY: Right in what sense?

WURMAN: Morally right. Ethically right. Creatively right. Timing-wise, right. Right for America. Right at this moment of history. It's right to help people question their politicians. Not that the book takes a position; it doesn't. It's not political. It's all factual stuff.

UBIQUITY: What is the Web site for it?

WURMAN: It won't be up 'til March, but it's www.understandingusa.com. In the meantime, people could get the book on Barnes & Noble, if they want to buy it. But I ain't asking them to.

UBIQUITY: Are you optimistic that the book will catch on?

WURMAN: Oh, I'm neither optimistic nor pessimistic. The book is just a way of observing things. I'm not trying to change the world. If it happens to work, it works. If it doesn't, then I go and do the next thing.

UBIQUITY: You said one time, "My life is really a life of thinking about what things allow you to do." How would that comment apply to this new project of yours?

WURMAN: Well, this book could only be done because of information technology. I have to laugh at the many people who think printing and publishing are not high-tech. In fact, a book is a very high-tech product, and only by using a lot of technology was I able to do this book with the lavish kind of color and the collaboration of people all over the United States, and do it in just three months time. Five years ago, the book couldn't have been done. So technology plays a large part in what people are able to do‹in what I'm able to do. And I try to work at the edge of what I'm able to do. This is a book of understanding and explanation.

UBIQUITY: Looking out from that edge, what do you see in the future?

WURMAN: Well, certainly, the next 10 to 15 years will be the age of "also." I mean, we're going to have print, we're going to have books. We're going to have better magazines and more magazines; better newspapers and different newspapers. We're going to have TV and we're going to have satellite. We're going to have computers. We are going to have computers that are TV. We're going to have DVD. We're going to have lots of things. Will there be some falling outs? You bet. We don't have eight-track sound anymore, and in the future tapes will eventually die out because everybody will have CDs, and then CDs will die out because there'll just be one thing, which will be DVD for both images and sound. But for the next 10 to 15 years we'll also have a bunch of things going on, all at the same time. And that's fine. There isn't a best answer for things, anymore. There's not a best way to have transportation. There's not a best way of communicating. There's not a best way for anything. There are just good ways.

UBIQUITY: How do you evaluate the products of media today? For example, do you think movies are better than ever? That television is better than ever?

WURMAN: Yeah. And magazines and newspapers. I think they're all better than they have ever been. Absolutely. Try to watch, "Gone with the Wind." I can't get through 15 minutes of it. That's considered the "ultimate" movie, and you can't believe how bad the dialogue is. It's unacceptable, because our standards for movies are so much higher. We keep raising the bar. We keep doing a better job. Of course, moviemakers are standing on the backs of giants. Movies now wouldn't be as good as they are if there hadn't been, "Gone with the Wind." But because there was, "Gone with the Wind," and before that, "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," new greatness is possible. We keep trying to improve things. But we're standing on the backs of giants.

UBIQUITY: In every field? Are the politicians standing on the backs of giants?

WURMAN: No, they're not. Too many politicians look neither to the past nor to the future; they look to the polls. It's disappointing. I think there's some fundamental problems with the country being run by polling.

UBIQUITY: Is that, in any way, addressed by this book?

WURMAN: It's mentioned. But, this is not a political book, in the sense that it's taking a position. This is a book about facts.

UBIQUITY: Give us one example of something covered by the book?

WURMAN: An example is the growth of the disparity between the rich and the poor. In the book the disparity's shown graphically. Everything is shown factually and graphically: issues about health care, issues about war and peace, issues about the amount of debt. You could say that those issues are political because nothing has been done about them for the last 12-16 years.  But they're not really political; they're just what is. There is, also, a real difference between talking about a surplus, which both parties talk about, even though it isn't a surplus at all. You can't have a surplus if you have a debt. I mean, if last year I lost $100,000, and this year I made $60,000, I don't have a $60,000 surplus. I have $40,000 of debt. Yet the Federal government looks at it as a $60,000 surplus. I think that's made clear in this book.

UBIQUITY: You sound fairly optimistic about just about everything except politics.

WURMAN: I have some difficulty with politics.

UBIQUITY: You don't have a difficulty with technology? Is it doing good?

WURMAN: Things do good and bad, but I really love the fact that somebody invented a hammer. I think the invention of the hammer was terrific because the hammer and the chisel allowed Michelangelo to create beautiful things.  Of course, the hammer and chisel can also kill somebody, so I can't just say I love technology. What I can say is that I love the fact that technology can have very positive implications and implementations. Technology itself is nothing; it's a word; words, in themselves, are nothing.

UBIQUITY: As a word, it's one of the words in the title of your popular TED conferences, named for Technology, Entertainment, and Design. Tell us about them.

WURMAN: I created the TED conferences for myself, so that I'd have something for me to attend. Because I created it, I can attend this extraordinary meeting, I can meet these amazing people, and I can get paid for it. Well, that's a miracle. It's the most self-indulgent thing you could do. It's such a miracle, and so much fun. But I just have a little life and I'm just doing my little thing and I find it interesting that some people are interested in what I do. However, you know, in a certain way, I'm doing it and then I'm going to die. I don't feel it's that important. I'm so pleased that I'm learning all of the time. I don't know what will happen with all of this learning, but I'm learning and I'm trying to overcome my laziness by actually producing things instead of just talking about them. I don't like people just talking about things and not doing things. I think doing things is good. So, I do things.

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