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Trying to understand the daddy of data angst: Richard Saul Wurman.

Feeling anxious and not sure why? Maybe it's all the stuff that's floating in your mailbox every day. If you can believe what you read, the amount of available information is now doubling every five years; soon it will be doubling every four. More new information has been produced in the last 30 years than in the previous 5,000. That's a lot of books, newspapers, bulletins, brochures, memos, reports, manuals, computer printouts, digests and ... bullcrap ... says Richard Saul Wurman.

Wurman-a large, relaxed, successful eccentric who loves to eat and sometimes cuss-has his finger stuck in the Great Dam of Information Overload, and he's screaming: Run To Higher Ground. And quite a few people are at least listening.

His popular and critically acclaimed 1989 book "Information Anxiety," established him as the spiritual leader for communications enlightenment. The book is a breezy, wide-angle view of how the information explosion has backfired, leaving us swamped with facts but starved for understanding. We're left anxious, according to the big type on the cover, by the ever-widening gap between what we understand and what we think we should understand. We're left stranded in the "black hole that happens when information doesn't tell us what we want or need to know. Such as how to set the damn VCR," says Wurman.

His simple advice is to accept that the transmission of information has outgrown our ability to handle it. ("Admitting you can't keep up with everything is the first step out of information anxiety.")

Next, get comfortable with saying "I don't know" when people mention things that you don't know anything about. ("It's the only way to know. It gives the signal that you want to know and that you have the confidence to say you don't know. That's a powerful signal.")

Third, Wurman advises, stop scouring every scrap of paper that winds up in your mailbox. ("Figure out what's germane to your life and ignore everything that isn't essential.")

So far in his 54 years Wurman has been an architect, graphic designer, cartographer, author, artist, college professor and dean, government bureaucrat, communication consultant and conference organizer. Prior to "Information Anxiety," his 45th book, Wurman has been best known for his two-dozen colorful and playful Access Guides to major cities, plus other subjects including the Olympics, the Wall Street Journal and medical procedures.

He is now president of The Understanding Business (Wurman delights in telling people the acronym spells TUB) with offices in New York, his home, and San Francisco. A major recent project was the redesign of Pacific Bell's Yellow Pages.

The new SMART Yellow Pages are a combination guide book and Whole Earth Catalogue, with maps, calendars and seating charts as well as phone numbers.

His ACCESSpress Ltd., has also just published a new road atlas of the US. New books are planned on the structure of instructions, the 1992 US presidential campaign, and the 1990 census. In February 1990, Wurman hosted TED2, his second Technology Entertainment Design Conference in Monterey, Calif. It was billed as "The Ultimate Communications Conference."

Trying to capture Richard Saul Wurman in words is like trying to eat Jello [R] with your fingers ... great fun, but who can be neat? Other members of the press have affectionately dubbed Wurman "The Data Doctor," "The Daddy of Data Angst" and "The P. T. Barnum of Information Design." They report that he flatly refuses to fill out forms, write personal checks, deal with lawyers or wear a suit. He also cuts his own hair and orders his clothes by mail.

He is married to the novelist Gloria Nagy, who said this about her husband in the San Francisco Examiner: "People are always on Richard because he's overweight, but that's always who he is-he's got this bear-like, cheerful, cuddly thing about him. To Richard, his body is just something he lugs around. If he could be a brain in a jar, he'd be happy as a clam."

Wurman graduated with honors from the University of Pennsylvania School of Architecture in 1959, and has been awarded a number of distinguished fellowships. He worked two years for his professor and mentor, Louis I. Kahn, known as the architect's architect. Wurman edited "Notebooks and Drawings of Louis I. Kahn" in 1963, and a collection of Kahn's speeches and writings in another tome published in 1986.

Wurman says Kahn taught him the value of simplicity and organizing spaces for performance ... and of staying childlike. "He was the youngest person I ever knew. That's what I aspire to be ... the youngest person I possibly can so I can look at things like I have never seen them before, and see the things I've always seen, and never seen. That's the only doorway I know about. It's that innocent doorway of clarity."

Wurman today keeps a travel and meeting schedule that would drive most mortals silly. In the last three months of 1989, besides numerous trips between his coastal offices and other US cities, he traveled to Hong Kong, Bali, Budapest, Prague, Salzburg, Vienna, Rome and Sicily. By june of 1990, he will travel to Great Britain, Switzerland, Sweden and France as well as a monthly trip to San Francisco from New York City.

His two office managers, Kathleen and Christine, schedule every minute of every day, and produce a computer-charted calendar that Wurman carries in his pocket. "It's a real indulgence," he says. "It makes me relaxed because every minute is scheduled. I don't have to worry about what I'm going to do next week."

Despite the hectic schedule, in public appearances such as at a September, 1989 luncheon address at a conference of the Des Moines chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), Wurman seemed incredibly relaxed. Dressed in typical Wurman fashion-a black pullover sweater, white slacks and white sneakers-and with no notes or visual aids, the self-styled guru of information understanding preached for reason and enlightenment in the battle against communication clutter.

Throughout, he sprinkled Wurmanisms such as: "The creative organization of information creates new information." "There isn't an information explosion; there's a non-information explosion." "The quality of the meeting affects the quality of the time between meetings."

I interviewed Wurman right after his Des Moines speech, and he answered some follow-up questions from his New York office.

Q. What do the words, information age" mean to you?

That's such a basic question, but I don't know if I can give you a good answer. We're in an age where a significant amount of our time is spent receiving and sending information. The exponential rise in the speed and possibilities of getting information and storing it is what the information age is about. When Lincoln was shot, people didn't know about it for a week or longer. When Kennedy was shot, people knew about it at that moment. if I'd have written "Information Anxiety" 25 years ago, it would have died, made no sense.

Q. How serious is this bombardment of information?

It's not bombardment of information, it's bombardment of data. We're bombarded with stuff. We can take in ... and there's significant scientific evidence on this ... an enormous amount of information on subjects we're interested in, and understand. We think everything that is words and numbers is information. It isn't if we don't understand it. If it doesn't inform, I don't call it information. If it isn't interesting, I don't believe it should be part of your diet.

Q. Is there a risk in having all this stuff come at you?

Sure, it's making us crazy. It's making us all feel guilty for not understanding it. Risk, yeah. It's a pain in the ass. It's annoying people because it looks like what they were taught information should look like. But people are taught wrong in every way about everything. Somehow, I think I should have been taught how to organize information, how to ask a good question, how to trace my interests and make connections, because learning is remembering what you're interested in. But schools are about regulation and not about interests. It's another of the lies. But we're not going to change that lie.

Q. You have a first hand view of the media now. Does it bring understanding?

I have a lot of thoughts about that. When I was on a book tour, I did a number of TV interviews. They were four-or five-minute interviews and they were absolutely meaningless. That was stupid, and I said so. I stopped doing them. I asked myself, why am I doing this, when at the end, no one will understand who I am, or what I'm doing, or what my ideas are any better. I did more than 80 one-hour radio interviews. And I could get something through in a one-hour interview. And newspaper interviews. The thing that's really meaningless is the TV things. Meaningless, but you get caught up in the seduction of TV.

Q. Television, by its nature, gives us information in small bites. Can you get meaning and understanding when things are so condensed?

I think for some things you can, like baseball scores. But some of the ideas I'm trying to communicate take a little bit longer,. They don't need hours. But they need a little bit longer than four minutes.

I was just in front of a group there, and in a sense they are a TV group. It took at least an hour to get people thinking in a slightly different way than when they came in. There's great skepticism. They don't know what I'm about. They're looking at different things. He's not wearing a jacket. He has a beard. He has too-long hair. Why is he here? Why are we listening to him? We're going to be bored. What does he do? How can he tell us what to do? What does he know? There are so many skepticisms.

Or they're trying to find reasons why what I'm saying is wrong. Or they don't want to believe. Or they go off in another direction. Or they're sleepy because they just had lunch. It takes an hour and probably 20 percent of the audience was on my side when they left, and 80 percent probably thought that he wasn't as bad as he could have been. And that's as good as it gets. I'm not fooling myself.

Q. Most of the people in the audience deal with communications within an organization in some way. If you were the manager of internal communication, is there anything you would or wouldn't do?

I'd become extremely friendly with the chief operating officer so there would be a mandate to do something sensible. You need that buy-in from the top. Otherwise, you're just pissing in the wind.

Q. Could it be that a lot of organizations don't want things to be understandable?

Information is power, so there's some of that. But some of it is unintended. People often skip the front door and bring you into the information from some strange attic window where you never understand the ground floor.

I think there are computer departments in some companies that either consciously or subconsciously don't want to let the secret out, and keep spewing out the stuff because that's what they owe their income to. So there may be some of that, but I don't subscribe to the conspiratorial theory that some people do. The creative organization of information creates new information. That is one of the major jobs of communicators.

Q. Is there a danger in trying to simplify information?

One of the things I said about my Wall Street journal book is that I didn't want people to think that we were simplifying information; we were clarifying information. My goal is to keep information extremely dense, and allow the reader to find his or her own path through it. I don't know if it's going to get down to a very few words or not. But I think there's a danger in trying to simplify where there's no danger in trying to clarify. In the Wall Street journal book, we didn't just clean it out and make it the fewest words possible. We tried to keep a great deal of information there and develop a visual and verbal architecture so that readers could find their path through it at whatever depth they desired.

Q. So you think there will always be a lot of words?

An appropriate number of words. I hope, within my lifetime, that there will still be 900-page novels for the pleasure Of reading. I just bought a 990-page novel. I'm looking forward to reading it this weekend.

Q. Is entertainment the wave of the future in communication?

It's not the wave of the future. It's already here. What is Jacques Cousteau but technology, entertainment and design? Those shows are designed to make information understandable. And people are entertained with a lot of information in the half hour. I just picked him out of the hat. There are lots of examples. I think my atlas is entertaining. I think my guidebooks are entertaining. They're about the design of information rather than the design of good looks. I'm not entering beauty contests.

Q. Your main interest is in information...

My interest is in understanding. More than half of the word, information, is the word, inform. Most things don't inform. People aren't trained to make things informative or understandable. When you were in school, they said do a book report and make it 10 pages. Length said you were smart, and that's with us today. But more is not better. Unfortunately, there isn't a discipline that rewards understandability.

Q. Do you see areas where things are really muddled?

I'm tackling the major information icons, and road atlases are a good example. I see them organized two ways. One, that you drive across the US alphabetically; and two, that you have one state on every page. This means that every map has a different scale, as every state is a different size. Therefore, the Performance of the book for establishing time, scale and distance is poor. This shows me that there is a total misunderstanding of how to communicate information. And if it's true of the atlas, TV listings, airline guides, weather maps, yellow-page phone directories and classified ads, then it's pervasively true and causes a lot of problems.

Q. You say familiarity is one of the biggest barriers to good communication. Why?

Some of us know so much that when we're explaining something to someone else, we skip the fundamentals. We come in on the idea so late, and we lose the audience. This happens to everybody. They start talking about the PXV factor, and you don't know what the PXV factor is. They don't understand their audience, and they don't understand that their audience doesn't understand. With almost every sentence, you can convolute things.

Q. You also say there's a mania for accuracy in information, to the detriment of understanding.

There's a strange belief in accuracy. Flying here, we're told we're at 21,000 feet. It really doesn't matter to me if we're at 21,000 feet. I only know that I'm not on the ground. The pilot could come on and simply say, 'We're now flying and it's a long way down.' That's as much accuracy as I need.

It would have been terrific if the first line of the news stories about the Bhopal disaster would have stated the population of Bhopal is about the same as Boston or San Francisco. The story takes on new meaning when we make that comparison. It's a stepping stone. And you only understand something relative to something you already understand.

Q. What's the future of print?

Print is not dead. I believe we're in the age of "also. " Movies were not dead with television. Telephones were not dead with the FAX machine. Paper didn't disappear with the personal computer. Magazines didn't go away with the TV magazines. There are more and better magazines than ever before, Newspapers aren't dead. But what we have is also. We have the phone and we also have FAX. We also have Federal Express. We also have conversation. We also still write letters. The mail didn't disappear with the FAX machine.

I find the following takes place. I call up somebody and tell them I'm going to send them a FAX. Then I call them to see if they got the FAX. Then they call me back to talk about the FAX. And then I make a copy of the hard copy and mail it to them.

Q. And does every form communication takes alter the message?

Sure. The FAX machine has altered my life significantly. For the better. I've just had my first FAX vacation. I spent five weeks on the beach on the island of Tortola, in Cane Garden Bay ... a small bay with about 100 people and no mail service. I had a FAX machine. I unplugged the phone and plugged it in to my FAX machine. For five weeks I didn't get any phone calls, but I got hundreds of FAXes.

I was never called away from the beach to answer the phone. I never had to return a phone message. I was relaxed. I never had to tell people it was not nice today, or it was raining, or sunny, or we had storms. Or I'm having a good time or bad time. I had no chitchat with anybody. I got material from all over ... from Sweden, from San Francisco, from New York, from all over the world. It was my first FAX vacation and it was decompressing. It kept me calm because I knew I was getting this stuff, but I knew I didn't have to call and talk to anybody, or respond, or set up a meeting, or not get called back, or any of those things. So it changed my life. It changes my life everyday.

I have eight FAX machines. I get something, I write something on it and send it back. I do that all day long ... hundreds of times a day. I love it. More work is getting done efficiently, quicker. It's changed my life.

Q. What do you see happening in the next 25 years?

I think a tremendous amount of the difficulty of understanding will be worked on, and there will be a whole new branch of human endeavor which will be the understanding business. I'm very optimistic about that taking place. I'm very pessimistic about the fundamental bad habits of our educational system being solved. I think there w ill be a body of people solving it in another context, which eventually will go back and help the educational system ... but by example rather than changing it directly.

Q. How do you stay so relaxed?

First of all, as I said, I'm Johnny One Note. Everything I'm doing is really the same thing. I have one passion ... making things understandable. All my books come from my ignorance, which is substantially different than other authors who write about their area of expertise, or what they know about. My books are based on what I don't understand.

I travel a lot, so I think a lot. I have very good people who work with me. I have the FAX. I have the phone, which relaxes me.

Q. Your home is now in New York. Do you like it?

Hate it. It's hostility overload. It's everything you see in the movies. I just moved there four years ago and I'm ready to move out.

Q. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about people understanding the world they live in?

Oh, I'm very optimistic. Things are so bad that there won't just be me in this business, but hundreds of people. It's such an obvious thing for people to start getting trained in. I don't have the keys to the kingdom. I think I have the attitude to the kingdom. That attitude can be conveyed. I think if 20 percent of an audience goes away thinking about what I've said, and some others hick it up from the books, I think it's possible to modify people's attitude about it. I know people can't understand things. I know you have to make them understandable. And I know it's possible to do it. Those three things are absolute. It's not an opinion. I'm not saying I can do it the best, but I know it can be done. I'm an old fart so there's a lot of opportunity.


"A cloud of myths and half-truths dim America's vision" read a half-page sidebar in the February 26, 1990 issue of Fortune. The first myth read: "Japanese can buy Rockefeller Center, but Westerners can't own property in japan." Fortune editors countered with: Coca-Cola, IBM, Eastman Kodak, SmithKline, and insurance giant AIG, among others an own major office buildings, laboratories in japan. AIG's 15-floor headquarters, overlooking the Imperial Palace grounds, is worth $1.5 billion. Many American citizens own homes."

Just when we had it in perspective, along comes this article on the front page of the Wall Street Journal where Peter Truell wrote: "In recent years, direct investment by foreign-owned firms has accounted for about 17 percent of West German assets. Comparable figures for japan show foreign companies accounting for only one percent of national assets. In the US, foreign concerns hold about nine percent of total assets."


The world's first talking magazine ad croaked out a 15-second message to Business Week readers last October. Whether it signals a new era in communication or fizzles as a too. esoteric gimmick, will be up to readers to decide.

Nonetheless, the technology is available. Produced by an integrated circuit no larger than a baby's fingernail, the 42-word text ad played when a label covering a switch was removed.

In an age where more information exists than the capacity for humans to absorb it, a talking ad is likely to cut through the clutter. It also represents a significant inroad in semiconductor speech technology, or synthesized speech.
COPYRIGHT 1990 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:International Association of Business Communicators: 1970 - 1990: Section 3: An Era Ended; includes related articles on talking magazine advertisements, information myths, and information retention; author of a book on information overload
Author:Gerstner, John
Publication:Communication World
Article Type:interview
Date:May 1, 1990
Previous Article:Goodbye to the golden era of mass communication.
Next Article:Everything you ever need to know about anything.

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