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.
BY DAVID KUSHNER | PHOTO BY FURNALD/GRAY
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. Continued...
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Copyright 1997 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 12/15/97