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Get Dumb and Grow Rich

Inc.'s executive editor spends some time with an entrepreneur who sells his ignorance, not his expertise.
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Most people sell their expertise. Richard Saul Wurman sells his ignorance

No one knows what to call Richard Wurman. He is, or has been, an architect of buildings, an entrepreneur, an author, a publisher, a mapmaker, a conference producer, a philosopher of communication, and a redesigner of everything (from desks to phone books). Also a pedant, a missionary, a party host, and a willful naf. Always, an innovator. And not least, an "information architect," the label that will make him famous even though it's based on an idea most people don't understand--until they encounter it in practice, at which mind-swelling moment they wonder where it's been all their lives.

The point of information architecture, the launchpad for all Wurman's vocations, is to make things make sense. Whether he's reinventing travel guides, conference content, or ways to consume the daily news, Wurman the information architect tries first to suss out what people want from a thing and second to design the best way for the thing to give it to them. He tries to make information understandable, to present it so it conveys the meaning it's supposed to. And in our present information-glutted, data-spewing, nonsense-rich age, that mission leaves a fellow with no shortage of work.

Which shows. Today, after "30 years of confrontations with unreasonably disorganized information," Wurman the businessman has got spoils. He works in his home on the water in Newport, R.I., in a stone mansion that would not be out of place as the backdrop for a Jazz Age party scene in an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story. (Think "The Diamond As Big As the Ritz.") Having started and sold several companies, Wurman still runs a conference operation, a publishing concern, and numerous smaller endeavors--all from an office overlooking gardens that carry the eye to the sea. Taken together, his various enterprises--though they employ a total of only two and a half people--amount to a business worth several million dollars a year. In short, Richard Wurman is living large. However, as he will tell you, things were not always thus.

"For most of my career," says 62-year-old Wurman now, "I was not successful. I couldn't glue two nickels together. At best, I kind of failed sideways my whole life." Though to call some of what happened "sideways" would be, he says, to give it a pretty face.

In 1959, Wurman graduated first in his class from the school of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, then the best in the country. "I was the fair-haired boy," he says, a protÉgÉ of the great Louis Kahn. Anything was possible.

Then he started an architecture firm with two partners, and for 13 years the firm "never made it." The two partners couldn't get clients, and Wurman himself "couldn't bear the idea of doing what somebody said to do; I was kind of an angry young man." Before the firm could go bankrupt, the three men closed it. "I had no idea what I was going to do. That was not a trivial failure. I mean, 13 years of struggling is not a trivial amount of time. I've had lots of other failures."

Through the 1970s he lived thinly, though he laughs now at the way other people always thought he was rich, "even when I was living in a third-floor garret over a restaurant kitchen in a bad part of Philadelphia and didn't own a car.

"People thought I was independently wealthy because I dressed badly and didn't care what I said at meetings. 'You must always have had money,' they'll say to me now. 'I mean, you always did what you wanted to do.' Yeah, and that's equated with money. It was the only way people could explain it to themselves." By 1981 all Wurman owned was a used five-speed Honda. ("Not so bad today, but it was funny then.") He didn't have a business. But then he founded Access Press--creator of the renowned Access guidebooks series--and that was the end of that.

The various and now hugely successful Access guides set out, as Wurman recounts, "to clarify the understanding of cities, sports events, and other complex subjects like financial investing and medical procedures." In 1987, Wurman founded the Understanding Business to continue "making things understandable" by inventing new formats for telephone books, road atlases, and airline guides. In 1990 he wrote Information Anxiety, the best-selling book about coping with "the ever-widening gap between what we understand and what we think we should understand." In 1991 he sold Access and the Understanding Business. (He continues to run TED Conferences, gatherings of leaders from the merging industries of technology, entertainment, and design, which he'd founded in 1984.) He moved to Newport, kept writing (he's produced more than 60 books), and kept turning ideas into enterprises.

A conversation with Wurman is an unusual adventure. He's a striking presence--a squat, prosperous Buddha with white hair, a clipped beard, a face that has found its true self, and eyes that betray him instantly as his disposition changes from merry to bluntly confrontational. Asked if he usually feels like an outsider, he laughs and says, "My wife claims I warm up only upon rejection." And then, "I'm a welter of insecurities. I'm insecure about not understanding what the next person does, about not being as smart as the people listening to me, about teaching in schools that I could never get into, about running conferences where everybody is sharper and faster than I am."

He's one of those people who somehow appear to be both hyperkinetic and unnaturally calm at the same time. It's as though when talking to him, even as he sits dead still, you can feel his racing pulse from across the table.

You believe Wurman when he says, as he so often does, "I could never bear working for other people"; as exciting as he is to be around, you're not sure how many other people could bear working for him. But as you discover his contradictions you realize that his gift for innovation is located precisely within those contradictions--in the gulf between his anxiety about not understanding and his conviction about following his instincts. Closing that gap is what motivates Wurman. How he closes it is the innovation lesson he has to teach.

"My work has to do with overcoming the thoughts with which I have discomfort," he says, explaining how he chooses what to work on and the approach he takes once he starts. "My own understanding or lack of it is enough to begin with. Committee meetings and market research are not part of this process. I don't believe in using such methods to determine what subjects or cities to tackle. Confidence in your own understanding, acceptance of your ignorance, and determination to pursue your interests are the weapons against anxiety."

We asked Wurman to explain his work: his theory of the five different ways information can be organized (abbreviated by the acronym LATCH), his invention of the Access guides, his faith in self-indulgence, his belief that pretense is the single greatest barrier to creativity and innovation, and his conviction that his own ignorance is the biggest competitive advantage he has. Listening to Wurman as we did--to his stories, his opinions, his advice--you start to see differently. You realize how we all take for granted and accept at face value 99% of what makes up the physical world. And you recognize his trick: Richard Wurman takes nothing for granted.

Not ever.


Wurman Out Loud

"Look, most people don't understand anything--just like me. The difference is, I admit it. Hell, I wallow in it. Every bit of work I do starts from not knowing. Is that how you see most people act? Most people look at their desks or turn on their computers or sit in meetings, and just like me, they're confronted with gobs and gobs of data, of information. But they nod their heads and say, 'Yes, this is important, this is good stuff. The person sitting next to me, sitting in the next office down the aisle, they understand it, so I will smile, making believe I understand it, too.'

"Most people 'uh-huh' each other to death. All day, from in the morning at home, to workday lunches, to dinner at night, out loud or to themselves, they say, 'Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh,' making believe they understand a reference to a name, a reference to a fact, the references to knowledge that supposedly make the world coherent. They 'uh-huh' some friend, some teacher, a boss, a peer, when a book or a movie or a magazine article, or a piece of machinery or software or hardware, is discussed. They 'uh-huh' everybody because they were taught when they were young that it's not good to look stupid, that it's not good to say, 'I don't know,' it's not good to ask questions. Instead, the rewards come from acknowledging or answering everything with 'I know.'

"You're supposed to look smart in our society. You're supposed to gain expertise and sell it as the means of moving ahead in your career. You're supposed to focus on what you know how to do and then do it better and better. That's where the rewards are supposed to come from."

SELLING IGNORANCE "When you sell your expertise--whether to a boss, a client, or even a friend--you have a limited repertoire. On the other hand, when you sell your ignorance, when you sell your desire to learn about something, to create and explore and navigate paths to knowledge--when you sell your curiosity--you sell from a bucket that's infinitely deep, that represents an unlimited repertoire.

"My expertise has always been my ignorance--my admission and my acceptance of not knowing. My work comes from questions, not from answers."

ACCESS GUIDES STORY "For example, in 1980 I moved to Los Angeles. I was in a state close to unemployment and in a full state of disorientation. Unable to find my way around, and seeing that L.A. was about to celebrate its bicentennial, I decided to do my own guidebook to access everything I wanted to know about the city for myself. I was completely unable to find a publisher or a distributor for the book. Because of those failures, I was backed into forming my own publishing company and selling the books out of the back of my car.

"After analyzing many guides, I realized that all I really wanted to know was where I was at any moment and what was around me. When you're visiting a city, either you are someplace or you're going someplace. If you are someplace, you want to see what's around you. If you're going someplace, you want to know what you'll pass by. Those wants led to the organization of the book. To describe it in a sentence, one could say I mix up the pieces as they exist in a traditional guidebook and put them next to one another as they exist in the city. The format involves the use of color to categorize text: red for restaurants; black for narrative, museums, and shops; green for parks, gardens, and piers. Each city is divided into areas, with brief entries on the topics listed, organized according to their location and proximity to each other. The books were successful. Access Guides have now been published for about 30 cities.

"Ultimately, the simple difference between my guidebook and others is that mine is the guidebook I'd like to have. Just as my conferences are the kind I'd like to go to. I absolutely trust indulging myself. I trust the fact that I'm a dumb-ass and that if I like something and understand something, probably other people will, too. Maybe they won't, but I still do it for me. Most people don't let themselves do that, because in our society, it's not appropriate to say you're indulgent. That's one of the personality characteristics that are politically incorrect. So you're not allowed to say, 'I indulge myself.' You're not allowed to say, 'I'm terrified because I don't understand.' And at the other extreme, you're not allowed to say, 'I'm confident'--because then people say you're arrogant. So the operative terms that actually allow for the production of creative work--terror, confidence, and indulgence--are no-no's, and they're no-no's from grade one in school."

THE THREE GREAT LIES "The schools in this country are one of the biggest reasons we're all so screwed up. Our educational experience consists of three great lies. Lie number one is, It's better to say, 'I know' than to say, 'I don't know.' Lie number two: It's better to answer a question than ask a question. Lie three: It's better to worship at the foot of success than understand the nature of failure. Those three lies have screwed our society, and it's by overcoming one at a time--or two at a time or all three --that you can make some breakthroughs in your creative activities.

"For instance, if I ask you to explain something, and you do it, you didn't learn anything. You answered the question. I learned something. I asked a question. The fundamental way of learning is by asking a question, not by answering one. Yet in school everybody's hungry to put up his or her hand, and you get rewards for answering the question. You're not supposed to say, 'I don't know.'

"In the business world in particular, most people think they'd be penalized for being in a meeting and saying, 'I don't know.' For saying, 'I don't understand what you said.' So we all sit there and go, 'Uh-huh.' When the fact is that the breakthrough comes when you say, 'I don't understand that. Would you please explain it?'

"Now, what would you think of someone who actually said that in one of your meetings? You'd think, 'That guy's got enough confidence to actually admit not understanding. He seems really interested.' Two good things. But people keep their hands in their laps and their mouths shut.

"Our educational system is based on the memorization of things we're not interested in, bulimically spewed out on a paper called a test and then forgotten. We learn to use our short-term memory rather than our long-term memory. Many of our interests are shunted aside. The typical teenager's interests, in music and cars and sports, are looked on as second-rate themes for their lives instead of embraced as connections to all knowledge and wisdom. I mean, the car connects to the history of transportation, to our road systems, to our cities and our highways. It connects to the balance of payments and economics around the world. To steel and iron, and steel construction, and plastics and design. It connects to physics and mathematics and chemistry. It connects to foreign languages and culture. To medicine and governmental policy. And all the things the car connects to connect to everything else. So do sports. And so does entertainment, which connects to technologies of all sorts, to design and hardware and software and information."

THE ROAD-ATLAS STORY "Starting with our experience in school, most of us never follow our interests enough. People ask me how I pick the projects I work on: Why did I do a guide to medical procedures? Why a book on the Olympics? And it's simple. I just do what I'm interested in. I can't do everything. I'm a one-man band; if you know where I work, then you know that when I go to the bathroom, the place is closed. So I just do the things that at the moment are interesting. The things I have questions about. Then I try to understand them and think about how they would make the most sense.

"When I moved to New York City, I was told that to be a 'player,' I had to have a house in the Hamptons. I bought a terminally cute house and a car to get there. Then I bought road atlases so I could use the car for other trips. But despite the arrangement of the atlases, which ordered the states from Alaska to Wyoming, I soon found that you do not drive across the United States alphabetically. What's more, every state took up a page--whether it was a big state or a little one. So it made me think that at the border of these states, some kind of great depression or expansion happened. In one state it looked as if you had to drive thousands of miles between gas stations; in another it looked as if they came every four feet.

"So, in a continued act of indulgence, I decided to do my own road atlas. I paid attention to how one actually drives. You go from one state to the next because they're next to each other. And it turns out that time and distance are kind of married when you drive--50 miles is about an hour. It became clear that by incorporating a few very simple, thoughtful changes, one could make a road atlas that had to do with human beings--not with the fact that when they did the first road atlases they collected the information from state agencies that didn't care whether their scale matched anyone else's. In the atlas I produced, USAtlas, I put time and distance together with a 50-mile page grid, each segment taking one hour to drive."

LATCH "The traditional atlases were a good example of how for years people had organized things alphabetically without thinking that maybe there was a better way. Alphabetical organization is often smart, but in this instance it was better to organize the states by location--since location determines how you experience them.

"Information architecture has as one of its fundamentals that there are only five ways to organize information. They can be remembered by the acronym LATCH: L for organizing things by location; A, by alphabet; T, by time; C, by category; and H, by hierarchy.

"Location, it turns out, is a pretty good way to organize atlases and travel guides. If I threw 140,000 words and definitions on the floor, you wouldn't call it a dictionary, but if I organize those words alphabetically, so there's a possibility of finding them, then a dictionary is what it is. Now imagine if I organize those same words and descriptions in groups of categories--all the weather things, all the war things, all the things on Spain. Now those same 140,000 words have become an encyclopedia. So the organization of the same information in a different way--by category this time--creates a different kind of meaning.

"Now, if I tell a joke, and I don't tell it in a particular sequence, it won't be a very good joke. It won't make any sense. If you don't tell a story in sequence, it doesn't make any sense. The best organizing principle for jokes, and for, say, explaining history, is time.

"Hierarchies organize things from best to worst, biggest to smallest, fastest to slowest, least expensive to most, and so on. It's a perfectly logical way to organize certain information. If you're looking for a restaurant, you might want a list that goes from best to worst, or by relative expense. Of course, you might also want restaurants listed by location. If I wanted to know about the 10 biggest companies in the United States, I wouldn't list them alphabetically; I would organize them by hierarchy according to their size."

WHAT DESIGN REALLY MEANS "In general, people don't organize things very well. They tend to do not what would make the most sense but instead what they are able to do. For instance, the computer comes along and allows us to do a pie chart easily, right at our desks, so we do pie charts. Then the computer allows us to do the chart in 256 colors. So we do it in colors. Then it also allows us to change the perspective, so we make the circle into an oval. And then we can change it into a three-dimensional form and then make it throw a shadow. Now, every single thing we did--each one fairly easy to do--makes the information in the chart less understandable than it was in the first place. In fact, you probably shouldn't have chosen a pie chart to begin with. But that's what most of us do.

"We don't choose the right approach to begin with, and we focus on making it look better rather than be better. Design, most people think, is about cosmetics. It's about taking a product or a book and applying mascara. But it shouldn't be. Information architecture isn't just graphics; it's about how to choose the right way to present information and how to help people navigate through it. It's a way of thinking. It's how you go about something. It's a whole way of life in which the aim is not to make something look good but to make it be good, and that is a very important fork in the road for most attempts at communication.

"Communication gets screwed because most people try to look good and sound good, above all else. I've tried to abandon all that. I embrace my normality. I think I go directly to the essence of things because there's nothing else in the way. I've worked at clearing out the crap--the preconceptions, the desire to impress other people. Trying to look smarter than you are. Why have different-colored socks in your drawer if you really just want to wear thick white socks every day? That's all I have, thick white socks. I can go pull out a pair of socks with the lights off."

THE YELLOW PAGES STORY "The primary choice about which way you organize something is made by deciding how you want it to be found. I was asked to redesign the Pacific Bell Yellow Pages. I realized the yellow pages, in their simplest form, are an exercise in finding something. And the find-it process has broken down because of the proliferation of incoherent headings, all arranged alphabetically. Automobile, for example, has hundreds of headings, 90% of which do not start with Auto but relate to automobiles: repair, buying, selling, insuring, accidents, parts, and so on. I ended up designing the first 80 pages of each of the 96 directories I did to show that you can find things by category. I also categorized by time--which places are open all the time, on holidays, or on weekends. And also by location--where places are on maps, so you can tell which gas station or restaurant is closest to where you are--as well as alphabetically."

DESIGNING A LIFE "Each of the more than 60 books I've authored, designed, and published was inspired by something I didn't understand, whether it was diagnostic tests on my own body or finding my way around Tokyo or around the Olympics on TV. In all of them I have tried to embrace my ignorance by finding a phrase that captures a solution to pursue, such as, 'I want to know where I am and what's around me,' or, 'You don't travel alphabetically,' or, 'Most Auto headings don't begin with Auto.' My struggle has been to discover the connection that leads from information to memory. The junctures of road-to-road and path-to-path celebrate that connection. That connection is learning, and learning is remembering what you're interested in.

"The big design problem we all have is designing our own lives. If we do it right, wouldn't the best result--the best measure of success, ultimately--be that every day is interesting?

"Most people don't have enough interesting things in their lives, so in place of interest they try to accumulate funds and power. But I think you're going to be a better businessperson if you look at your life as a collection of hobbies, a collection of interests, not a matter of things you do during the day and things you do in the evening--or what you do during the day and what you do during the weekend. Think of everything you do as driven by and connected to your real interests, and it's going to affect how you look at the products you're making.

"I can't think of a person who wouldn't benefit from being able to have clearer conversations, internally and externally, with their clients and their staff. From being in sync with their public.

"To me, what I'm talking about is really fundamental stuff for a businessperson, not just the luxury of an oddball designer. I think we're all creative because we all have problems we want to solve, and you can talk through the solution to any of them. You don't have to be 'creative' in the strict sense of the word to do that. You just have to want to do it very badly."


Resources

RICHARD SAUL WURMAN, TED Conferences, P.O. Box 186, Newport, RI 02840 60

Last updated: May 1, 1997




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