The Commissioner of Curiosity

Share Button

“Information architect” Richard Saul Wurman has made a life’s quest — and a very comfortable living — out of forgetting everything he ever knew about lots of things the rest of us take for granted.


IF RICHARD SAUL (“Ricky”) Wurman, Ar’48, GAr’59, were writing this article, there might not be a beginning. Or a middle. Or an end. Instead, the godfather of what he calls “information architecture” might chop up the essential bits of data and rearrange them according to the nuances of how, he says, the mind really works.
   He would seek not the answers but the questions that would guide his understanding: What is the essential purpose of this story? What does the subject of this profile look like? What does he do? How would he present himself in five minutes? What does he want to understand about the world? About himself? With this information gathered, Wurman would design its presentation based upon the most simple means of communicating to the reader — a reader with distractions, fatigue, and, in the words of his bestselling book title, information anxiety.
   It is with this conceptual approach that the 62-year-old alumnus of Penn’s department of architecture has pursued his life’s work: designing better ways to understand the world. For someone with Wurman’s seemingly insatiable curiosity, that means plenty of things to understand. He has written and overseen a popular series of guidebooks called Access that deconstruct everything from the world’s biggest cities to the animal kingdom’s smallest dogs. He has reassembled the essential tomes of everyday life: phonebooks, maps, TV Guide. Along the way, he has taught at Cambridge, USC, Princeton, UCLA, and received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.
   Most famously — and maybe most ambitiously — he has created TED, an annual conference series or, rather, an intellectual and spiritual retreat for the leading CEOs, artists, and innovators in the fields of technology, entertainment, and design. (A classic TED snapshot features a spontaneous cocktail schmooze between Bill Gates and Timothy Leary. “I wasn’t prepared for this conference to be so profound,” the Microsoft chairman enthused. “The combined IQ of the attendees is incredible.”)
   Between these $2,500-per-head TED conferences, his publishing imprint, and his consulting for Fortune 500 companies, Wurman has earned a comfortable lifestyle. He lives and works in his mansion just down the block from the Vanderbilt place in Newport, Rhode Island. His four grown children come and go. With his socks-and-T-shirt staff, he spends his days operating his self-proclaimed “business of understanding.”
   What is the best way, then, to try to understand Wurman himself? A possible clue comes from the introduction to Information Anxiety: “Books are a major source of anxiety, and I’d like to ensure that you won’t feel anxious about reading this one. So, I’ve departed from the conventional book format in ways that I think will reduce your book-induced anxiety.” Like that book, this article is constructed to be read either straight through or by skipping around. It’s the Wurman way.

Wurman’s Largeness

WHEN I ASKED Nicholas Negroponte, Director of the MIT Media Lab and columnist for Wired magazine, to describe his colleague and friend Ricky Wurman, Negroponte e-mailed me back the word: large.
Wurman is large in both the literal and figurative senses. In person, he has the grand, affable demeanor of a hip grandfather; someone who prefers sweaters to suits and soft, tropical-colored shoes to black wingtips. He is an intellectual and gastronomic gourmet, someone who has a passionate appetite for good conversation and fine restaurants. When making a particularly emphatic point — of which there are many — Wurman will roll forward in his chair, place his hands on his knees, and lean heavily towards the person with whom he’s speaking.
   He likes to speak his mind, to elicit what he calls an “of courseness” from other people. In this sense, he is a bit like the Howard Beale character in the first part of the film Network, sticking his head into corporate boardrooms and urging people not to It anymore, whether the It is a long, ineffectual meeting; a poorly-organized phonebook; or a stack of daunting, never-read newspapers piled on a desk.
   Wurman learned a great deal of this, he points out, from his mentor at Penn, the late Louis I. Kahn, Hon’71, who Wurman describes as “the youngest person I ever knew.” (Wurman put together the book What Will Be Has Always Been: The Words of Louis I. Kahn). Under Kahn’s tutelage, Wurman began to appreciate the things everyone else seemed to be overlooking. He appreciated not just the exterior, but the inside of the insides — in his words, “the veins of a building.”
   As a result, he became renowned even within the architecture department. He was known, in those days, to wear too-short painter’s pants and a wild beard. “Ricky was a kind of radical when he was here,” says Gary Hack, dean of Penn’s Graduate School of Fine Arts. “He was, even at that time, somewhat out of the mainstream of architecture.” Wurman acknowledges that “a lot of people thought I was arrogant.” But, ultimately, Hack says, Wurman’s ability to “break out of the box” and apply architectural theory to conceptual thinking has emerged as his greatest contribution. Or maybe his largest.

Wurman’s Secret Garden

WURMAN AND I ARE trying to have a conversation in his backyard when the construction starts. The rude mechanical belches are shattering the mood of an otherwise serene environment. The backyard, which along with the house will be featured in Garden Design, is a testament to Wurman the architect’s architect. It is an immense, inviting green space that practically begs for a few rounds of croquet. Two long, thin reflecting pools form a T (for TED?). Tall, full hedges provide a lush frame around the edges. Most curious, though, are the round metal Volkswagen-sized submarine buoys. It is as if Gulliver had just abandoned a giant game of boule. “My wife likes to say that I have giant steel balls.” Wurman laughs.
   By the sounds of the crane, though, it seems as though Gulliver is stomping his way back. Wurman winces at the racket, annoyed that the flow of our dialogue has been interrupted. He takes conversations very seriously. An entire chapter of Information Anxiety is devoted to what he calls “the lost art of the conversation.” He writes, “There is nothing we do better than when we do conversation well. There is no other communication device that provides such subtle and instantaneous feedback, or permits such a range of evaluation and correctability.” In fact, Wurman has designed an entire room of his house specifically for conversation: Four soft, cushiony couches face each other in a square; next to each is a small side table for drinks; in the middle is a table for everything else. (He designed all the tables in his home.)
   Despite the disruptions, Wurman continues to explain to me why he thinks that most sites on the World Wide Web are so poorly designed. His own site might strike some as surprisingly spare; it is made up mostly of lines of text occasionally set off with bands of different colors. But that, he says, is the point. He’s not interested in dazzling himself or others with digital animation; he simply wants to convey the necessary information — as quickly and succinctly as possible.
   “Ninety percent of [designers on the World Wide Web] are just making bells and whistles,” he says. “It’s just that they — ” Another blast of construction trumpets. Wasting no more time, Wurman hoists himself from his chair. “Let’s go to the Secret Garden of Silence, shall we?” he says.
   We enter a round maze of thick hedges and walk until we come to two chairs in the middle. Small stones splay like rays from the sun in the center. Nearby, Wurman has a few hundred rose bushes planted in a long, winding spiral. He points to his mansion, looming over us a couple hundred feet away. On the top floor is a small porch. He built this sacred garden space right here, he says, “so that my wife and I can gaze out upon it.” It is thoroughly calming. Everything is so still. The crane is nothing but a distant hush. We are ready to begin the conversation again. It starts to rain.

How to Cut an Angel Food Cake

OUR INTERVIEW is interrupted once again when one of Wurman’s assistants knocks on his office door to tell him that the staff’s impromptu birthday party for his wife is about to begin.
   Wurman quickly gets up from his desk, which is of a triangular design he made so that he could place the bulk of his work down in the center and then simply roll down to the corner, where he could speak in closest proximity to someone on the other side. I follow him down the hall, past original artwork (I notice some Francis Bacons hanging nearby) into the kitchen, where everyone has gathered around two cakes: one ice cream, one angel food. Wurman smiles with obvious delight at the joy, the casual happiness, of his family and staff. Then his eyes dart to a woman who is bringing a large knife toward the angel food cake.
   “Stop!” Wurman yelps. “No! What are you doing? That’s not how to do it!”
   Sheepishly, she lowers the knife, as Wurman comes over to show her, presumably, the right way to cut the cake.
   “If you cut it with a knife,” he says, gently, “you’ll destroy it.”
   He finds a pair of forks and demonstrates the proper technique, using them to cut through the cake and delicately spread each slice.
   “How do you know how to cut it like that?” the woman says, laughing.
   “That’s just how you do it,” Wurman insists.
   “Who knows these things?” one of his staff members asks.
   Everyone smiles at the obvious answer. Wurman’s wife says it anyway: “Richard does.”

Know (Nothing) It All

WURMAN’S LOVE AFFAIR with learning started when he was a kid growing up in Philadelphia. His father, an executive at a cigar company, used to engage Richard and Richard’s older brother in heated conversations over dinner. If Richard didn’t know the information involved, he would try, some way, to find it out.
   Soon enough, his curiosity led him to painters like Paul Klee, whose untraditional style appealed to the aspiring nonconformist. Wurman began painting in earnest. He continued through his studies at Penn, even while he was being seduced by architecture and by the organizational constructs of ideas. He was enchanted with “the simplification of things,” he says.
   After graduating from Penn in 1959, Wurman spent 13 years at an architecture firm. Feeling he didn’t have enough control over his life, he moved to California, where he found his future wife, the novelist Gloria Nagy, and, ultimately, his true calling. “He really spread his wings in California,” Nagy says.
   Wurman devoted himself to fighting what he calls “the disease of familiarity.” Trying to find a good guidebook to help him get around Los Angeles, he realized that they were all written by people who clearly knew too much and thus could not effectively create a guide for visitors who knew nothing. From this experience came the inspiration for Access, a series of guidebooks that are organized, not categorically, but geographically, so that a person can easily find all the restaurants, cultural attractions, and landmarks within a given area. Sixteen years later, there are more than 60 publications in the series, including Access guides to New York, Los Angeles, and many places in between. And not only places. There is an Access guide to dogs, to medical information, to baseball, even a guide to reading The Wall Street Journal.
   Under the company name The Understanding Business, Wurman carved out a niche as the great simplifier. He made atlases organized, not alphabetically but based on the territory someone might cover in an hour’s drive. Pacific Bell hired him to create a new Yellow Pages.
   The secret to his designs? “I understand what it is like to not know anything,” he says. Whenever he approaches a new project, “I go blank” in a Zen-like way, he says, so that he can create a guide or an atlas or any other project from the point of view of complete and total ignorance.
   Wurman would like to have a crack at simplifying other commonplace puzzles: car manuals, cookbooks, anything. If there is something out there that is difficult to comprehend, there is a Wurman way of breaking it down to its simplest terms. It is this same approach, ultimately, that informs TED.

TED: My Dinner with Andre and Bill and Forrest and…

IT IS DIFFICULT to imagine what the burgeoning wired world would be like without TED. Wurman’s annual conferences, usually held in Monterey, California, have become the galvanizing brainstorming session for the evolving community of “digerati.” In fact, it was at a TED conference that Wired magazine was born. Jane Metcalfe, Wired’s publisher, credits Wurman with helping to introduce the people who would eventually bring Wired to fruition. “It’s all about people for [Wurman],” Metcalfe says. “He’s a true showman.”
   Wurman began the show, appropriately enough, in 1984. But this was no techno-circus about the tyrannical domain of Big Brother; this was Wurman playing Big Uncle, creating a fun-loving, exploratory, high-minded family that would find ways to use technology to better the world. “I had the feeling that the most interesting people were converging in the fields of technology, entertainment, and design,” Wurman says.
   Soon enough, the Monterey retreats began growing, largely due to Wurman’s bionic networking (One of his favorite axioms is “If you don’t ask, you don’t get”) and his passion for drawing connections between seemingly disparate fields. “His ability to wander across disciplines is quite powerful,” says Forrest Sawyer, who recently covered TED on the ABC News program Nightline.
   Sawyer is one of a dazzling list of TED speakers that reads like a Who’s Who of what Wurman calls “technotainment”: authors, from Douglas Adams to Steven Jay Gould; CEOs, from America On Line’s Steve Case (who, during AOL’s wave of bad PR last fall, came out on stage to the resounding tones of a busy signal) to MTV’s Tom Freston; musicians, from Herbie Hancock to Thomas Dolby; computer pioneers, from Jaron Lanier to Marvin Minsky. And, like the Energizer bunny, the list keeps going — and growing — with each new year. Wurman, says Minsky, is “so good at getting people to do things, it’s almost scary.”
   One of Wurman’s former architecture firm partners and a longtime member of Penn’s architecture faculty, Alan Levy, Ar’55, with whom he helped design Philadelphia’s Penn’s Landing, recalls that even 20 years ago, Wurman was “quite flamboyant with contacts. He knew a great [many] people,” Levy says, “and he seemed to constantly be throwing parties.”
   Like any good party, TED masterfully combines all the necessary ingredients — from the stimulating conversation down to the delectable food. The mood is informal; attendees are asked not to wear business attire. Things can even get downright silly (everyone gets a teddy-bear souvenir; one year’s picture featured the audience clutching their bears while wearing red bulb clown noses). It’s all in good fun, with the hope of lubricating the high-minded fare. As a result, Wurman has accumulated 13 years worth of self-proclaimed “TEDologists” who regularly attend the conferences to shmooze and share ideas. Fortune magazine compared it to “My Dinner With Andre multiplied by 50.” Actually, it’s more like 300.
   In September, over 600 movers and shakers in old and new media convened in New York City for the first East Coast TED. Attendees included a roster of Big Apple moguls, including the heads of companies such as ICM, Viacom, MTV, Disney Imagineering, and Bell Atlantic. Wurman chose a fittingly gargantuan venue to accommodate the bigwigs: the massive Sony IMAX theater in midtown Manhattan, which features a 100-foot screen. “It was the glitziest place I could find,” Wurman said before the conference began. “If I’m going to fail, I’m going to fail big.”
   Wurman was being insecure, or modest. Given the prominence of the participants, it is almost inherently impossible for any TED to fail. For four days, the audience is dazzled as a brigade of “technotainment” mavericks takes the stage for 15 minutes at a time. Even when the speakers are bad, they’re interesting, because their failures merely become context. At TEDNYC, that meant that Intel’s stilted sales pitch on its pursuit of educational technology became fodder for Sundance Festival director’s Ken Brecher’s impassioned plea for more “human” values.
   All of the sparks are part of Wurman’s master plan. With the help of his staff, he spends months developing the menu of speakers much as a great chef assembles the ingredients of a gourmet meal. In this sense, he asks a great deal from his TEDologists when he juxtaposes seemingly disparate presenters — like, say, a gospel choir and a professor from MIT. He wants the crowd to think, to draw connections. At a TED, therefore, there is as much emphasis on the breaks as on the presentations; of every 12-hour TED day, about five hours are dedicated to breaks.
   TED conferences are being planned through 2000. Wurman says he’ll keep doing the shows as long as he finds them interesting. But the thought of a Wurman-less TED is like an orchestra without a conductor. As the fields of technology, entertainment, and design continue to converge, it seems clear that the music will be playing for some time to come.

The Commissioner of Curiosity

OF ALL WURMAN’S WORKS, the most telling is probably his most personal. In private and in public, he often refers to a children’s fable that he wrote long ago. It is called “The Commissioner of Curiosity.” The moral of the story is one of Wurman’s favorite lines: “A question is better than an answer.”
   And Wurman’s favorite question will always be the same. It is the first thing he asks when he begins a project, a conference, a conversation: “What if?”

David Kushner is a contributing editor at Spin magazine. He has also written for The New York Times, the Village Voice, Details, WiredNews, and elsewhere.

Share Button