I Am Wurman, Hear Me Roar

By Published on .

Richard Saul Wurman doesn't beat around the bush. "There doesn't seem to be a filter between my mouth and my brain," he says, unapologetically, of his legendary bluster. So it comes as no surprise that he's a designer who hates design - most of it, anyway - and that he's pretty vocal about it.

"I'm disgusted and disappointed by much of what passes for design today," Wurman scoffs. "People who break type, the David Carsons - they become the fucking heroes of a generation of young designers. But that stuff is so antithetical to my way of thinking. The people who work in that style may think they're pushing the envelope by making things shockingly different, but they never started from square one. To reject the basics, you first have to master them."

Wurman, now 66, is big on the basics, and master them he has. As evidenced by his seventy-plus books, most of which he self-published, he prefers clarity and simplicity to visual razzle-dazzle. In fact, his penchant for minimalism has become more pronounced of late. His book covers, like those for last year's Understanding USA, and for the brand new Information Anxiety 2, now eschew pictures, letting clear but quiet sans-serif type luxuriate in a sea of space. He sees design as a conversation, "and a moment of silence can be the most revealing part of it."

Richard Wurman defies easy categorization. He's a designer, an architect, a publisher, a cartographer, a writer, a teacher. He's also astonishingly wealthy, thanks to the annual TED (technology, entertainment, design) conference he started in 1984, a prestigious shindig that draws the likes of Bill Gates, Jay Chiat, Michael Bierut, Matt Groening, Steve Case, and Dan Wieden. The sale of Wurman's Access Press (more on that enterprise later) for upwards of five million dollars also didn't hurt the man's bank account. "I'm fucking lucky that I finally learned how to rub two nickels together," he says, recalling stretches of relative poverty that occurred as recently as 1980. But as aristocratic as his chi-chi headquarters in Newport, RI, seems (it's a lush seven-acre property with a mansion worthy of a robber baron), Wurman doesn't aspire to be an esteemed academic or a staple of the local high society. His clothes - sweatpants, a knit scarf, a sweater - are as informal as his speech, which is punctuated with many casual fucks and delivered in gruff tones that betray his Philly upbringing.

Even his vanity plates mock the town's country-club contingent. Wurman's own yellow VW bug reads `Popsie'; the cream-colored Rolls Royce he gave to his wife, the novelist Gloria Nagy, is known to the DMV as `Momsie.' It's a joke inspired by one of the couple's grown sons, who, when he visited the Gatsbyesque residence for the first time, announced his presence with an affected "Popsie, Momsie...Biff is here!"

And so, Richard Wurman has his cake and eats it too: he leads a jetset life but politely, ironically distances himself from others who do. He claims not to give a hoot about what anyone thinks of him, yet seems keen on impressing his interviewer with out-of-the-blue asides like "That's when Martha and I discussed doing a cookbook" (referring, of course, to Martha Stewart), and "You should call Frank, he'll tell you" (that turns out to be master architect Frank Gehry). But the biggest contradiction about Richard Saul Wurman is that despite an ego that is as well-developed as his physique, he is actually a likeable guy. "With Richard, what you see is what you get," says his friend David Rockwell, a New York-based architect and designer. "All is out for display, his raw passions and emotions and his boundless curiosity. That kind of social risktaking, that propensity to wear his heart on his sleeve, is very seductive. I think that's why people find him charming."

Much of the graphic design Wurman sees reminds him of the work of overrated artists and architects. "Whether it's Schnabel putting teacups on a canvas or Hirst soaking a lamb in formaldehyde...it's the glorification of the different," he admonishes. "Don't get me wrong: these are not untalented people. They're smart and creative. But they come from such a different place. Michael Graves is a talented man who makes horrible buildings. He is held up as one of the great architects, and yet he does buildings that are simply not going to be there in twenty years." By contrast, "Some of the books I designed twenty, thirty years ago, they still look good today."

But Wurman's complaint about the state of design goes beyond longevity. It has to do with what he perceives as mental laziness and a lack of conceptual thinking. "Designers only think with the word How," he says. "They don't think of What first. Picture a person in the desert, dying of thirst. Let's say there's a little crack in the desert floor, and down there is some water. Maybe he laps it up with his tongue. If it's too deep, maybe he sees a stick and a dead leaf, and he fashions a spoon and scoops it out. Maybe he takes a handkerchief, presses it in the crack, soaks it, and wrings it out over his mouth. Those actions all have to do with the how - but what he wants is immutable. Designers don't think about what they want; they think instantly about how they're going to do it. All I question is the what. That's the only thing that really interests me, what I'm genuinely curious about."

Curiosity is Wurman's defining characteristic. It's what gets him up in the morning, and what leads him to write and design the books that he does. A case in point is his very first Access Guide, dating back to 1980, the first in a series of guidebooks about major cities.

"I had just moved to L.A. and found it hard to get around and catch my bearings," he says. "So I went to all these publishers and distributors with an idea for a city guide, and nobody wanted anything to do with me because I didn't know the city. I said, `But that's the reason I want to do it!' It seemed only logical that if you don't know the city, you're the person who should do a guidebook. If I already knew it like the back of my hand, why would I want to do the book? I wouldn't learn anything!"

By this time in his life, in his mid-forties, Wurman was used to rejection and failure. His first marriage was on the skids. He'd been fired as dean of architecture and urban planning at California State Polytechnic for not putting in enough hours. Three years earlier, in 1976, he and his two partners had closed their 13-year-old architecture firm. "The fundamental thing you do when you're an architect," muses Wurman, "is you either wait for the phone to ring, or you proactively try to sell yourself to somebody who is going to boss you around. Then you work for them. I'm not so good at that." Still, the architectural schooling he received at Penn State (where the legendary Louis Kahn took Wurman under his wing), paved his way as a designer. "Richard is way ahead of the rest of us who process and share information for a living, because as an architect, he can previsualize space," says R/GA's Bob Greenberg,

Meanwhile, in L.A., Wurman plowed ahead, did the guidebook, had it printed himself, then spent long days selling it out of the trunk of his car at bookstores, gas pumps, and car washes. "That's where you find people who have a couple of minutes," he explains. "Richard's strongest point is his tenacity, his ability to continue to do it and not give up," Frank Gehry says of Wurman.

To open an Access Guide is to be struck by a thought that Wurman frequently inspires: Why didn't anyone think of this before? The books organize cities by neighborhood, then tell you exactly, in color-coded type, which noteworthy shops, museums, restaurants, hotels, parks, and other attractions are close to where you find yourself on one of the neat maps. The breakthrough idea, Wurman recalls, was that "either you are someplace, or you're going someplace. If you are someplace, you want to know what's around you. If you're going someplace, you want to know what you can see along the way. That's all it is. It's not like it's from the head of Zeus. It's taking one sentence - `I want to know where I am and what's around me' - to its logical conclusion."

The L.A. guide, graced by a pleasant, understated design, impressed an old friend of Wurman's enough to invest in the enterprise, and soon the designer oversaw his own little Access Press empire, which published more than 25 of the guides before Harper Collins bought the business in 1991.

Wurman had no trouble letting go. "I have the attention span of a gnat," he claims happily. Considering the topics of his books, that's easy to believe. They run the gamut from a tome on information architecture (a term he coined) to personal finance, diagnostic medical tests, U.S. statistical data, children and grandparents, and sports.

Along the way, Wurman also applied his talents to a redesign of Pacific Bell's Yellow Pages. He didn't just pursue typographic improvements or better paper - he rethought the concept of finding things. In most Yellow Pages, you may find rental cars under R, but nothing car-related under C (because the category you're supposed to look for is `automobiles'). That lawless sprawl of information bothered Wurman, so he proposed to group lots of detailed headings under larger categories: "It made sense to me to have catch-all categories like Entertainment, Healthcare Services, Home Improvement," he says. "Under Home Improvement, for instance, you can group Carpentry, Hardware Stores, Electricians, and a lot more. I also thought we should categorize by time and by location - so you can tell which nearby restaurants are still open if you get hungry at 10:30 p.m." Wurman is now working on a kind of turbo version of the same concept for a Mexican Yellow Pages project.

Years ago, Wurman figured out that there are only five ways to organize information. He capured that doctrine in a spiffy acronym, LATCH, which stands for Location, Alphabet, Time, Category, and Hierarchy. "That gives you a new vantage point," he believes. "Each mode of organization creates a new structure, and each new structure lets you see a different meaning."

Mixing up the five elements, substituting one organizing principle for another, gave him the impetus to design his USAtlas, another book whose concept is so logical, it's hard to believe it didn't already exist. "The alphabet is not a good way to organize a road atlas, because people don't drive alphabetically - you don't drive off the map of Washington State to arrive in Wisconsin," Wurman explains. "Besides, if you have every state taking up one page, regardless of its size, you mess with people's perception of distance. Rhode Island is not as big as California." His remedy: an atlas that shows states to scale - geographically, not alphabetically - and that simultaneously marries time and distance with a 50-mile page grid (50 miles equals about an hour). It is a Big Idea, simple and profound at the same time.

USAtlas was also a breakthrough in another sense: "It was the first book completely done on Illustrator," Wurman recalls proudly. "I even had some re-programming and re-coding done to make it easier to use. Similarly, to my knowledge, the early Access Guides were the first desktop publishing project in the USA."

Technology has always been part of his life - "I've embraced it to the extent that it was useful," Wurman says. That means that like everything else he does, he inspires (and pays) others to do the grunt work. Wurman has help for everything, from the two fulltime gardeners who manicure his lawns to the string of assistants who keep his calendar, answer his e-mail, and carry out his design work. "What it's all about is giving good instructions," he says. "An architect doesn't build things: he tells others how to do it."

He can still get enthused about technology and how it enables better information to reach the user. Wurman gushes about the GPS-based navigation system in his wife's new Lexus ("easy to use and much better than it has to be, which is always impressive"), and about Vindigo, a Palm-based guide to a city's restaurants, shops, and nightlife ("it's so good, you'd like the whole world to be Vindigo'd").

Asked what accounts for his success, Wurman is quick to note it couldn't be his intelligence: "I'm just a dumb fuck." Then again, "I see patterns, and I sometimes see them a little ahead of anyone else. That's all you need to look good. In 1983 it occurred to me that the only interesting people were in the technology business, the entertainment industry, and the design professions. And when I took airplanes and I got into conversations with fellow passengers from those fields, they didn't seem to be aware that the projects they talked about with enthusiasm and love always involved the other two professions. So I did the first TED Conference in 1984 - where we had the first Apple Macintosh, among other things. I didn't think TED was a particularly brilliant idea at the time; in retrospect, though, that was pretty good. I saw a pattern, and my whole life has been about recognizing patterns."

Also, he believes, "I'm a little bit ahead because I can act quickly and I don't have a committee. I get a lot done, because it's amazing how many decisions you can make quickly once you accept that they will not necessarily be worse than the decisions of a small group of smart people. In a committee, everybody's input gets leveled off and watered down to some degree. So not only is the quality of the final decisions not necessarily great, it takes too long to make them. People who think I work so hard should really chalk it up to that: I know what I want, I pick how I want to get there, boom, I'm done."

As for his wealth, "I'm not blase about it. I don't believe I necessarily deserve it, but it is wonderful. I know where I've been. People say that if you just follow your heart, the rest will follow, including the money. But that's called religion. At another time, another place, I could be doing exactly what I'm doing today and I'd be sent to the gas chamber. I'm lucky I live in America at this time, when my acceptance of my own ignorance pays off with things that people find interesting. Most people don't accept how ignorant they are, but for me, it's been a blessing."

Most Popular
In this article: