Siri, Chess, and Prostheses

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Intelligent machines.

There was a time when the mere mention of artificial intelligence was wrapped in constant debate and triggered images of Hollywood-crafted products, like Hal 9000. The concept itself is quite controversial; it challenges human thought as Darwin once challenged human origins. But we moved on, and now we carry these intelligent machines in our pockets.

There’s a 38.9% chance you have one, too. Siri, the out-of-sight personal assistant from Apple, delivers an amazing experience. It listens to you, understands you, does what you say, and even talks back to you.

Sounds simple enough for us humans, but these are remarkable achievements for a machine. It has to process language, interpret context, understand intent, and orchestrate multiple services and information sources. And it brings together technologies that rely on dialog and natural language understandings, machine learning, evidential and probabilistic reasoning, ontology and knowledge representation, planning, and service delegation to do it.

Spin back the clock 50 years and all of this wasn’t even remotely possible. But just two years after Turing published the first documented idea of intelligent machines, three people were already working on the first system capable of speech recognition, named Audrey.

It could only process digits. Spoken by a single voice. With pauses in between. And it occupied a six-foot high relay rack.

Not exactly a marvel of technology, by today’ standards. But back then, when computers had only 1kb of RAM, it was an impressive achievement. More impressive still, when you think about how such a system came to be.

It all started with an illusion act

Many elements from very different spheres come together in the story of Siri, and it all starts with a man doing some magic.

Tracing Siri’s ancestry takes us back roughly 250 years, to Austria, when Vienna still had an empress. The story begins with a man known mostly for what was perhaps the most famous illusion in history: the Mechanical Turk, a machine that could play chess on its own and claimed to win over any opponent.

In reality, it was just a wooden cabinet with a life-size, mustache-wearing doll on top and a man inside, playing chess. It tricked people into thinking the machine was intelligent, but the idea itself was enough to intrigue the likes of Napoleon. (He played the Turk. He lost.)

And while the Turk made its creator—Wolfgang von Kempelen—popular, it is another of von Kempelen’s inventions that marks the beginning for Siri’s story.

The first speaking machine was a pretty straight-forward concept that tried to simulate the human vocal tracts—it had lungs and everything. Nevertheless, it was the first machine that could replicate whole words and sentences. It was this machine that would set the stage for Audrey.

Chess, the game that made it all possible

von Kempleton’s Turk was the first machine that could replicate human speech. Audrey was the first that could recognize human speech. But Siri is the first machine that can understand human speech.

Understanding is the unique ability that swings the story back to the Turk. The machine’s connection with chess isn’t random. Chess is more than a game; it’s an entirely mental activity. And it’s a perfect metaphor that would allow for the birth of a new scientific discipline, artificial intelligence.

A machine capable of defeating a human opponent at a mind game is an intelligent machine, by any logical standards—or, at least, that was the premise.

While the Turk was, for the first time in history, the first real image of a machine that could be better than us at anything, it was just an illusion with a man operating it. But ever since, the idea of an intelligent machine started slowly morphing into physical technologies.

The next obvious stage would certainly seem to be a machine that could play chess and be self-operated. In 1912, the real thing quickly followed. It was called Ajedrecista and it was the first computer game. Only, without an actual, you know, computer.

Making this happen required a deep understanding of how we think when we play chess.

Every move weaves together an amazing chain of mental processes: Perception transforms the pieces on the board into a series of symbols, and long-term memory overlaps perceptions with previous knowledge. Logical thought then searches for variations, and decision-making is needed for the actual move. (Intrigued like Napoleon? I found Chess Metaphors: Artificial Intelligence and the Human Mind quite useful.)

Move after move, the chess game becomes a sequence of decision-making events governed by strict logical rules. And it is this logic module in our brain that chess heavily stimulates, so much so that it can be simulated. It doesn’t take a big imaginary leap to imagine that thought can be simulated.

This realization gave way to wonderful theoretical breakthroughs. Concepts like an algorithms, recursiveness and programming were born. Having to analyze how we think about chess quickly lead to computer thinking.

AI: A new, old way of designing experiences

A special group of people made a great imaginative leap. They realized that a game holds the secret into human thought. For people like Edward Feigenbaum, Marvin Minsky, Allen Newell, Herbert Simon, Alan Turing, John von Neumann, and Norbert Wiener—the founders of AI as a scientific discipline—pinpointing all the mental processes that are necessary to generate high-level cognitive activities played a very important role in the development of simulated thought processes through computer programming.

Logic and process alone wasn’t enough though. We expanded our concepts to expert systems, knowledge engineering, neural networks, and so on. The subsequent knowledge-based models of thought are nothing short of amazing. But the real breakthrough came from an anti-type of approach: The father of expert systems, Edward Feigenbaum, called it representation. This approach supported the idea that knowledge-modeling the real world was much too difficult; instead, systems should adapt and respond effectively to real interactions with the world.

This is important because it has finally allowed for the development of a truly human-centered approach to designing systems, an approach initially articulated by Bill Moggridge and one which inspired a major shift in design thinking that we see maturing today.

AI and HCI have been described as having opposite views on how humans and computers should interact. Human-centered computing is somewhat bringing all that together by combining intelligent systems, human-computer interaction, and contextual design. Instead of trying to imitate (or substitute) the human, the goal is to amplify and extend his capabilities, much like a prostheses does, although not in the sense that they compensate for the specific disabilities of any given individual, but rather because they enable us to overcome the biological limitations shared by all of us.

Above all else, a prostheses needs to fit, otherwise it will be rejected. In the same manner, systems designed to assist, rather than replace, need to be personal and contextual. They need to be intelligent in order to fit.

In terms of actual capabilities, Siri wouldn’t pass a Turing Test. But it doesn’t set out to do so. It doesn’t try to augment our abilities, but rather extend them.

For example, say you want to go to the best restaurant around. You know you can do that. With the help of technology, you can combine information from different sources (local business directories, geospatial databases, restaurant guides, restaurant review sources, online reservation services, and your own favorites).

But why would you want to? You want to use technology as a tool, not get immersed in the experience of interacting with it.

Siri delegates everything you don’t want to do. It lets you use technology as it’s supposed to be used, as a tool. By doing so, it becomes a digital prostheses. As a result, the experience is truly human-centered, built for humans based on real human needs.

Final lessons

The story of Siri is full of great achievements of the human mind. It shows us how the power of thought can fuel great technological breakthroughs. It ends with the same man that started it all: von Kempelen, the man with the kind of thinking that gave birth to the first speaking machine, a truly amazing technological achievement. But more importantly, the kind of thinking that creates genuine human experiences.

The Turk’s biggest achievement was to challenge how we think about machines. This is the type of thinking that I like to call design thinking.

Yes, Siri still has its shortcomings, starting with the fact that it’s voice-controlled. But the mechanisms behind it are nothing short of amazing. Properly pairing machine intelligence with true contextual awareness is what created the first conversational interface that actually works.

And simply because it works, it marks an important milestone: It becomes a template for all future voice-controlled interactions. Even Google has updated its interfaces to include conversational and contextual interfaces. What Siri did was show the world a bright idea and made it stick.

More importantly, for professionals, the story behind Siri offers valuable lessons in true experience design, vital lessons in times clearly dominated by form instead of content, where an excessive preoccupation with formalism can impede further developments.

Experience design is more than numbers, boxes, and diagrams. It’s emotional, invisible at the time of inception, innovative, developed intelligently, and deeply contextual. A complex multiplex, feeding on a variety of different disciplines, such as neuroscience, psychology, linguistics, logic, biology, social sciences, computer science, software engineering, mathematics, and philosophy.

Much in the same way that Siri forges new tools from old technologies, good design feeds on AI for the raw materials to conquer human experience. To add function to experience. To add personality.

“Avoid fields. Jump fences.

Disciplinary boundaries and regulatory regimes are attempts to control the wilding of creative life. They are often understandable efforts to order what are manifold, complex, evolutionary processes. Our job is to jump the fences and cross the fields.”

—Bruce Mau

The Past and Future of Experience Design

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Ten years ago, when I wrote The Making of a Discipline: The Making of a Title, 2002, there was a big debate on: Is experience design about online and mobile interfaces or is it something more? Forward-thinking initiatives, like the AIGA’s Advance for Design, began the conversation at the center of the convergence of the media, technology, and business worlds. Started by Clement Mok and Terry Swack, and supported by Ric Grefe, this group of people met periodically for several years to talk about the changes in the above industries and how to both manage and communicate them. (See: AIGA Experience Design – Past, Present and Future ) Even then, the term “experience design” was controversial and, while it became the name of the professional group that evolved out of this effort–AIGA Experience Design, the term was dangerously close to being limited to designing digital products such as websites and mobile applications.

There has been a reluctance for designers to embrace the idea of experience and I’m not sure why. Every single person involved with the Advance for Design and AIGA ED was someone who sought-out and appreciated experiences in his or her life, whether in theater and entertainment, quality customer service, or any type of real life event. Yet, many didn’t feel comfortable taking on the idea that we were creating total experiences in a professional context (as opposed to digital interfaces and media only). I remember near knock-down, drag-out fights online and in person over whether experiences like great meals, spectacular events like Cirque du Soleil, or retail experiments like Target’s pop-up shops could teach interaction and visual designers lessons in making better experiences (and whether these physical-world experiences, too, belonged under the umbrella of experience design).

To tell the truth, this desire to limit experience design to the digital world always puzzled me, especially given the rapid rise of experience dominating the branding profession (resulting in the, now ubiquitous, term brand experience) and the retail and hospitality industries (today, we call this service design). Brand professionals woke up to the fact that branding was more than the application of a corporate or brand identity. Before interactive media reminded them that brands had been interactive all along, most of the work in brand strategy, design, and management was focused on identity standards and packaging design. Interactive media forced the conversation that reinvigorated this entire profession (in addition to all media and business) and recast many of these professionals as visionaries and strategists, when before they were mostly regarded as “design Nazis.”

It just seemed ludicrous that experience could only live in the narrow world of digital media when it was already so vibrant in all other media.

There was another debate at the time, as well (and maybe this describes the reluctance to embrace experience design I referred to earlier), one that seemed even more ridiculous: Can you design experiences for people? Many in the community argued that there was no way that we could design (read: control) experiences for such a wide variety of people. By this, I understood that they meant that we couldn’t design experiences that others would move through in the exact way that we imagined, and that we could not evoke personal memories in order to trigger emotional and deeper reactions in order to feel something we intended. And, if this was to be the definition of delivering experiences, perhaps they were right. Or considering the movie Ratatouille, if a rat can, maybe we can too.

At the same time this conversation was going on, Martha Stewart was building an empire by helping people create better, more meaningful weddings and dinner parties. Weren’t her customers learning something about creating experiences for others? When we went to theaters or great restaurants, were we ready to proclaim that 1) these weren’t experiences or 2) we couldn’t teach people to make moving theater or meaningful dining? Plenty of people were saying the same thing about websites. The film and culinary worlds would have laughed at our reluctance (had we bothered to consult them and bring them into our community). Perhaps they would have branded us cowards.

I believe the term (and industry) of experience design narrowly dodged a bullet that almost killed it in 2001 or 2002, collapsing under the weight of its own self-importance. It was a big fish in a small pond. For the most part, the only people calling themselves experience designers back then were in the digital fields. Even though we worked with clients and colleagues who were engineers, branders, business strategists, marketers, and chief officers of everything, we were afraid to color outside our own little box of the Web.

Two important things happened at the turn of the century; the dot-crash and the rise of mobile. Perhaps if the Web had continued to rule, the term “experience design” would have probably faded into interface design. This is useful and important work, certainly, but how can button placing compare to shaping an experience that might inspire joy, giddiness, and empowerment? But instead we’ve grown in our power and insight into User Experience Professionals… to the point when a major professional organization renamed itself.

Humans have always created experiences for others: i.e. birthday parties, weddings, films, theater, art, speeches, hospitality, and more. Whether they were deliberately designed as experiences or not, they all delivered experiences. When the experience isn’t considered but works nonetheless, we chalk it up to intuition or good luck. Or we could end up with a bad experience. That’s not a desirable, or professional, way to work in the world.

Considering experience as we design is not that new. Louis Cheskin, probably the first experiential marketer, was researching experiences (including emotions and core meanings) back in the 60s. Walter Dorwin Teague, probably the first experience designer, was designing experiences across media despite never being trained to do so (if you can get a copy of his book, Design This Day, you can read how and why).

From Shedroff's excellent SXSW presentation on scifi's influence on designIt’s also arrogant to believe that we can’t learn from theater or retail or any other human domain how to improve the things we design and deliver. In my own professional experience, I’ve learned lessons from my colleagues and friends in medicine, sports, music, and especially theater. I’ve learned valuable lessons about interaction design from improv, biology, and even science fiction. I’ve learned about color, lighting, and music from, yes, Cirque du Soleil. I’ve learned about designing emotionally, and developing meaningful experiences from psychology. I’ve learned about systems design and stakeholders from sustainability. In fact, in the world of sustainable systems, we learn from nature itself.

Lately, I’ve been learning about how to develop and deliver better experiences more effectively over a larger timeline from the music composition and gaming worlds. I don’t understand why it was once deemed illegitimate to look to these sources for ideas, inspiration, and useful lessons. But, perhaps it’s moot now, as it no longer seems to be an issue and new generations of designers simply aren’t interested in this controversy.

So let’s move on. Let’s have more discussions about where we’re going. Experience design seems pretty stable, both in its scope and practice. We’re constantly adding to the knowledge and developing new tools to express the development and delivery of experiences to all involved with their creation. We’ve come a long way in ten years, sure, but every day environmental and biological sciences push forward our understanding of human behavior and the world we live in. This means we have new discoveries of how to design amazing experience still ahead of us . Designers need to learn more about designing sustainably, humanistically, and systemically. We need to further refine our techniques for design and customer research, enlarging our understanding of people past emotions and into values and meaning. We shouldn’t be afraid to go in these directions. Designing new experiences in new ways has a higher risk of failure, but also a higher risk of reward in greater impact and behavioral change.

Lastly, we need to better understand business language, issues, and concerns. To have the influence we think we should, we need to enlarge the solutions we create so that they can operate effectively in the economic and political systems of business. Experience isn’t just something that gets imagined and designed. It gets funded, delivered, and managed. This is one of the reasons I earned my own MBA and then started a wholly new business program for those interested in leading innovation from the inside. Experience design is just one more system we need to understand to work professionally and to successfully develop and deliver better products, services, events, and environments.

The future of experience design has never held more promise. But, to fulfill this promise, we have to explore, learn, and work passionately and confidently—even courageously, at times—in new domains. The things we create aren’t usually any less ephemeral than the experiences they deliver (how many websites or campaigns or apps or events have you created in your career that are no longer available?). What lasts, at least in the minds and reactions of our customers, are the experiences around these things. Ultimately, this is also where we derive our own greatest satisfaction in our work. It will be what makes us smile when we think of a project we worked on, years from now, and instead of focusing on how we created it or how much we earned; we will fondly look back on the experiences they created for people.

IA Summit 10 – Richard Saul Wurman Keynote

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IA Summit 2010

This year marks the 11th annual Information Architecture Summit. Our theme is meant to inspire everyone in the community—even those who aren’t presenting or volunteering—to bring their best ideas to the table.

As busy practitioners, we rarely have the chance to step back and think about the future of our field—we’re too busy resolving day-to-day issues. By gathering and sharing practical solutions for everyday challenges, we can create more breathing room to plan for what’s to come.

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iTunes     2010 IA Summit theme music generously provided by Bumper Tunes


| “Day 1 Keynote – Dan Roam”: | Day 2 Keynote – Richard Saul Wurman | “Day 3 – Whitney Hess”: |

Full Program

| “Day 1“: | “Day 2“: | “Day 3“: |

Day Two Keynote – Richard Saul Wurman

Richard Saul Wurman encourages the design community to take initiative and solve big problems rather than make small changes incrementally.

With the majority of the earth’s population now living in cities, Richard Saul Wurman realized there was a yawning information gap about the urban super centers that are increasingly driving modern culture.

In this keynote presentation from the 2010 IA Summit, Mr. Wurman discusses his 19.20.21 initiative: an attempt to standardize a methodology to understand comparative data on 19 cities that will have 20 million or more inhabitants in the 21st century. He encourages the design community to take initiative and solve big problems rather than make small changes incrementally.

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Transcript of Richard Saul Wurman Keynote from Day 2 of the 2010 IA Summit in Phoenix, Arizona.

Announcer: In this keynote presentation from the 2010 IA summit Mr. Wurman discusses his 19.20.21 initiative an attempt to standardize a methodology to understand comparative data on 19 cities that have 20,000,000 or more inhabitants in the 21st century. I hope everyone enjoys the podcast. Cheers. Richard.
Richard Saul Wurman: May I introduce the person who’s going to introduce me?

Dan Klyn: Thank you.
Richard Saul Wurman: Go, Dan.
Dan Klyn: Thanks. In a book he published 14 years ago Richard Saul Wurman described information architects as the people who understand and organize the patterns inherent in data. Information architects, he wrote, are the people who create systematic, structural, and orderly principles to make something work. Making the complex clear. His life and work provide a blueprint for how to do this work. It’s not the only way to do this work, but it’s a really good way. Ladies and gentleman, please join me in welcoming Richard Saul Wurman.
Richard Saul Wurman: Not a standing ovation, but genuine.
Richard Saul Wurman: I’m going to start with one quite brief story and then a slightly longer story. Then, I’m going to do something that I am not comfortable doing. I am actually going to be caring and a little pedagogical about what I felt in the last day. I normally really don’t give a shit about transferring the information I have or giving advice, but I think some of you need it. Because, it’s a little confusion, here. And then, I will tell my little stories and at a certain point the time will be over. A designated hitter, Dan, will put up his hand I will stop mid-sentence even though you’re going to want more. And, that’s the end and it’s very nice meeting all of you, even in this sort of distant way. So, that said, for most of my life that I can remember, I’ve loved the banana. There’s nothing phallic about that love for the banana, I just love the banana. As I grew older, I found that the banana was the perfect fruit, wherever I went. India or anyplace. I could eat a banana, it was always clean, I didn’t have to wash, in fact, it would be rather strange to wash. And slimy, to wash a banana. So, we have the banana as the perfect fruit.
I lived in the jungle for six months and we had banana trees. I pulled the little finger bananas off the tree and ate them fresh. Of course, we get them green shipped and then they turn yellow in the stores. And, they’re slightly sweeter, slightly better. But, bananas. You get good bananas and bad bananas. I have about 10 miniature banana trees in my green house, over the winter, and I put them outside in the summer. Because, I live in a northern climate and I actually grow some little finger bananas in Newport, Rhode Island, every once in a while. They don’t flower that often, but the banana’s been part of all our lives for a long time, including the fact that the banana, we think, is so good for us. Because, we are told it has potassium in it. We wouldn’t know what to do with potassium if we found it on the street. But, it’s told it has potassium, and somehow, that’s good for you.
For my whole life I’ve been opening a banana, they way you take it off of a tree. And, I’ve sometimes bruised the top in getting it open. I sometimes go like that to do it. Have we all done that? Well, the theme of this talk is opening the banana from the other end. And, if you open the banana from the other end. It just opens right up.

Do you see how fucked up we are?


This is new; I’ve never had a prop before. I disdain props and slides. But, isn’t that interesting? I couldn’t resist it. I could have done it by just talking about bananas and say, “Turn it over.” But, I though that was rather dramatic.

Well, this is really metaphor for the opposite paradigm. For creativity and innovation. By the way, the opposite paradigm spells TOP and that should be your top priority. To do the opposite pattern. Look at everything you’re doing and do the opposite pattern. Many of the conversations I’ve had with people as they were trying to do a better version of what already didn’t work. As a resultant, they get a better version of something that doesn’t work and it still doesn’t work. They are polishing the lily. They are just making something a little better. They are afraid of beginning again. Several conversations were about minutia change in their life so they could make things just better.
You don’t want to make things better. You want to start again. Is that terrifying? Yes. What is more interesting than terror? What is the feeling, the sweat on your brow, but terror? Are you going to fail sometimes. You bet. The two precepts that I have here, standing here this morning, is I am terrified and I am confident. They don’t cancel each other out. They help each other.
Because I’m terrified, I’m really thinking about what I’m doing. I’m not just phoning it in. Because, I’m confident I can get up here and talk to you. Obviously, I’m a little more relaxed than some of you might be up here on the stage, but that comes from being an old fart.
That’s the first story, the banana’s for sale, because I had to pay for it, at breakfast.
The second story is about innovation, too. And, that is, in 1398, two brothers. Well, one was born. I don’t know whether it was his older brother, so he might have been born earlier or later. But, Gutenberg was born in Mainz, Germany. Gutenberg Museum is still in Mainz, Germany. There’s a nice copy of the 42 line bible, there.

And, that’s worth a visit, the Gutenberg Museum. And, about 40 years later, he and his brother adapted a wine press into a printing press. And, then the Gutenberg we know, not the brother, started carving type and he carved an alphabet of 126 letters. 126 letters were so that every letter was perfectly space with other letters. So, the letters, as you know, is the spacing between letters. It’s not just like this. They have to hug each other in the right way so it looks even. And, the lines work out even.
Well, they had vellum. But, he had to invent a paper that would work on that. And then, he had to figure out that you had to dampen the paper. And, he had to invent the ink because, the “Book of Hours,” all the “Books of Hours” that you know, I assume many of you take courses in illuminated manuscripts. That you know about the “Book of Hours” and how they’re done. They use a water-based ink and he had to have an oil based ink to work and to tamp down this dampened paper on the press.
And, he did a 42 line bible. Some of them, he did on the press twice, with red and black. He printed about, they don’t know exactly, between 180 and 200 of them. They were extremely expensive. Very valuable books. It was not mass communication. Still only very wealthy people bought these books. And, in the western world, this was the first incident that we can point to as far as a multiple pressing.
It’s not really reasonable to come in late, because you don’t even know what I’m going to be talking about know.

So, we really can close the doors.


I mean, I’ve set up the whole psychology of this talk already.

I mean, being late, is really being stupid.
But that is not really the story. The story is that the church saw this and they said, “Holy shit! We can print little pieces of paper, and sell them for a lot.” They were called “Indulgences.” So, all of the brothers died penniless, never made a penny on their amazing work, and I will tell you how amazing it is in a minute. The church sold indulgences, which were confessionals to rich people, and got wealthy off of the printing press, but that is still not really the story.
It took 99 years for somebody to invent pagination. There was no page numbers. There is no page numbers on the early books, because after all it was the Bible. You knew the Bible. You knew where you were. You didn’t have to find something. You weren’t looking up anything. You weren’t doing any of the things to find it, to find something, the way of finding through a book, Google. You weren’t doing any of the things that we have a passion about in this room. So, in 99 years, somebody invented pagination.

Pagination led to finding things, and to find it in the world we are in now. There’s White Pages, and Yellow Pages, and Google, and Yahoo, and Bing. There’s dictionaries, and thesauruses, and encyclopedias. If I took 140,000 words, the average number of words in an collegiate dictionary, and threw them on the floor, it wouldn’t be a dictionary. If I organize them alphabetically, so I can find stuff… Although, there is that idiot conversation we all have in school, “How can I look up how to spell a word, if I can’t spell a word?” I mean, have we all been told that’s insanity?
I am a terrible speller, and when I go to “Spell check” on my thing, I still have difficulty, because I don’t even know how to start the fucking word, but we have a dictionary.
Richard Saul Wurman: If you group those things at all the words in a particular subject, all of the biological words are together, you have the beginning of an encyclopedia. If you group all of the words that have the same meaning together, you have a thesaurus. It is the same words. The organization of information actually creates new information, new access to information, the same information. So, organization of information is not trivial, it is really a fundamental part of how we think.
Some of you have read “Information Anxiety” and “Information Anxiety 2,” where I talk about “LATCH.” I have talked about LATCH for quite a number of years. LATCH; Location, Alphabet, Time, Category, and Hierarchy, as the five ways of organizing information.
I’ve always said to every audience who has bought the book or where I have spoken, I said, “I thought there was a huge number of ways of organizing things.” I was surprised that I could only come up with five. Let’s say there is no more than 10. I don’t care if there’s 5, or 6, or 7, but if after 20 some years nobody has come up with a sixth, I feel safe to say there is no more than 10, and there’s probably not more than 5, and it works, because you can decide when you start a project of how you get into it.
But that is not only a project on paper or on a computer, it is also a conversation. How do you have a conversation? Does the conversation start as it did with this gentleman here this morning at breakfast? We started talking, and I asked him where he was from, and he said, “Lancaster.” I said, “Oh, my father used to have a cigar factory in Lancaster and in Newark, Pennsylvania, and Newark, Pennsylvania was the capital of the United States for about 10 minutes. My father every other week went to Lancaster, and he used to bring back celery.”
He said, “Yes! They have the best celery in Lancaster.” I said, “Yes. It’s fantastic celery, and then everybody now cuts off the heart. It is the best part of the celery. Why do they do that?” And he said, “Yes. That is quite true.” I said, “He used to also occasionally in the summer bring home peaches.” He said, “Well, Cumberland or North Cumberland, or something Cumberland, is where they have incredible peaches.” I said, “They’re probably from there. I didn’t know where they were from. I didn’t know they weren’t from Lancaster.” Obviously, some farmer brought them in, and he brought them home. I had a very conversation about celery and peaches, and I have never had peaches better than that.
In almost anything there’s just amazing things you can learn, and that started with location, and then we did categories, categories of peaches and celery, and then we went from that to the quality of them, that they were the best, so that is hierarchy… and that was that.
He told me yesterday when we were sitting upstairs that he had moved from anthropology to something else, and then I quizzed him on what kind of anthropology, and he didn’t have a kind of anthropology. So, then I thought less of him.

Richard Saul Wurman: As my mother used to tell me as I grew up, “Well, you lose some, and you lose some.” She was very supportive of my career.
Richard Saul Wurman: Yesterday, I was in a lecture that this gentleman on the left was, and I was inappropriate. I got up and ranted at one point, but I just couldn’t help myself, because there were people in this little lecture, It wasn’t him that I was ranting at by the way, although his grammar was not well. You say “Like” something, and somebody “Goes” this way. It is somebody “Says” something. You don’t “Go” this. You “Say” something. You don’t say, “You know.” You can’t be sloppy, and be on the stage. The grammar should be at least at a certain level in pubic, in any case.
So, what I was ranting about is somebody was talking about “Wireframes,” and I didn’t know what they were talking about. I know what a “Wireframe” is. I mean a “Wireframe” to me is something you do, it is what Jeffrey Katzenberg showed me of “Shrek” before he filled in the colors. It’s something in animated films, and I didn’t know what a wireframe is. I even talked to other people, and they are so interested in certain technologies, and certain modalities, and certain…
What my rant was about is what information architecture, not to me, this is a generalized statement. It is about understanding. It starts with understanding, and ends with understanding. What are we doing this for? It is for understanding. We want to make something understandable to another human being, to ourselves. That is my ploy. I don’t care about you. I want to make it understandable to myself. I want to have an interest. Something I don’t understand, I want to make it understandable.
I had a company called the “Understanding Business.” I have three books called: “Understanding USA,” “Understanding Children,” “Understanding Healthcare.” I am doing a book on “Understanding Dogs,” and “Understanding Cats,” only because they’re interesting to me, and I don’t understand them. So, one starts from this park place of zero, the land called “Zero,” and you really try to describe the journey from not knowing to knowing.
I had a conversation with somebody the other day, who surprisingly used that phrase of “Not knowing,” going from “Not knowing” to “Knowing.” That is the magic of our business; how do you go from not knowing to knowing, and how do you systemically do that? The modality is just an add-on, and it’s going to change in 10 minutes.
Anybody, who thinks what they are doing and have expertise in it, is going to lose that expertise in 10 minutes, because everything is changing, and will continue to change at a more rapid rate. Having expertise is the least interesting thing. It’s just so boring for somebody to have expertise, but somebody that has passion, somebody that has desire, somebody that wants to make something understandable, that’s interesting. That you could sit and have a cup of coffee with them. That is reasonable. That is exciting.
I had flew out to Charlotte, and then I flew from Charlotte, here, and on the way to Charlotte from PVD, Providence, I sat next to somebody who makes valves and tubes, and things, for the transmission of blood through hospitals. It was fascinating! We got into a long discussion about cow’s blood, and the antigens that cows’ blood have. He felt within three years they are going to work it out, and the cows blood is going to be used for transfusions, human transfusions, and they are going to be very healthy, and they are going to be able to adapt them.
Well, that was really an interesting plane ride. Really fascinating. I always ask somebody the next question, and then the next question, and the next question of what they do. I am fascinated with all of it, and I remember all of it, and I connect all of it. I’m going to look at the cow’s blood, and see if I can have something about cows blood in my next TED MED Conference.
The next person I talked to on the way here was a Brit and a young man, and apparently he’s one of the top three or four golf instructors. Alex Rose, who was number six in golf, he’s his instructor.
And we started talking about golf. I’ve never held a golf club in my life. I’ve never belonged to a country club. I have no skill sets, and no interest in that.
I don’t like the people who play golf. I love George Carlin’s idea that we should turn all the golf courses into places for the homeless.
Richard Saul Wurman: However, it was fascinating. He told me that the three top balls are all made by the same manufacturer and are exactly the same with a different emblem on it. I didn’t know that. He told me there’s only 10 ways you can hit a golf ball, and you can train for which way you want. 10 different angles and ways of holding your hands.
He has apparently the best selling book on golf swings, and of just the way you hold the hand there. In some of the illustrations, very nice illustrations, by the way, in one of them, to show the line up of things, he had a nail going through the hand through this. A major book distributor wouldn’t handle it because of the religious implications.
I mean, can you believe that? But that was what he told me.
I’m sending him some books, he’s sending me some books. He’ll probably come to my TED MED conference, and I think it’s fascinating.
I learned something, and I really got to think about how would you teach golf in China? They’re building 400 golf courses in China right now. Because they want it to become a major international sport, because business is done on the golf course, and they’re so business minded. So they’re building 400 golf courses at once and in November there’s going to be one of the five majors outside of Shanghai.
Nobody understands the game of golf there, and I was trying to think, “How could I make golf understandable?” Because I don’t understand a damn thing about golf, and wouldn’t it be a fun little project to make golf understandable?
I started thinking about how I would do that, and I was working on it last night, and thinking of what would be the fun of… because I did a book on baseball, football, and the Olympics, so I’ve done three sports.
So I thought, is it the same, or would I do them really completely different now. Because I don’t want to do it the same way I did it before. And it makes me think about that.
There’s no conversation you can have that doesn’t really test your mind of thinking about how, what is the journey from not knowing to knowing?
It has nothing to do with wire frames, or little pads where you peel off things and write notes or all the stuff that I see around here. It’s just the trivia. It’s the ephemera of this business. The only part of business that makes sense is our head. I’ve told this joke before. I told it at dinner last night, so only three, four people have heard it.
I had a very good dinner, by the way. Shockingly… the only thing shocking about this rather seedy hotel is that they have this thing that turns on the top as a restaurant, where I’ve never been to a turning restaurant, because why would you go to a turning restaurant? Seems…I mean, I would not be here…sure, you wouldn’t say, “Oh, I’m going to a turning restaurant tonight.”
But I went to a turning restaurant, and everything I asked for… I always try to order off the menu a bit. My father taught me you should never really order on a menu, you should order off the menu.
You know the kind of restaurant it is. You know there’s a chef in the kitchen with food. You tell him how you want it, what you want. Assume that any dish comes with anything they say it comes with, or well, anything. You should never assume that.
You should order off… there is always a table in a restaurant, a seat on a plane, and a room in a hotel, and it should be mine. I think you have to go into life thinking that, that you deserve this. If you don’t get it, well, some things don’t work. But if you don’t ask, you don’t get. It’s that simple. If you realize that some things don’t work, you go back to asking. It’s an empowering thing.
So, please get off of this path of expertise and jargon and…
In 1976 I did a conference called the “Architecture of Information,” and then I started calling myself an information architect. I was national chairman of the AIA Conference then. I’m an architect, I’m not trained in anything.
But in 1962, that’s long before ’76. Not long, 14 years, some of you might be a long time. If you’re 20, 14 years ago is a long time ago.
I did a book which had the plans of 50 cities in the world all to the same scale. Wasn’t that information architecture? I think so. It was a systemic way of understanding information.
There were no computers then, by the way. There was no wire frames. There was no web pages. There was none of those things. That doesn’t make information architecture.
What makes an information architect is an attitude. A desire, a passion to communicate systemically with rules and systems, and transfer information to another human being.
It’s not all this other stuff. Those are… all the stuff is. It’ll be here today, gone tomorrow. Somebody else will give a speech and sell a book about how they do that.
But that’s not the principles. It’s not where your heart is. It’s not what we do. It is not that desire.
Web pages. We’re all involved in web pages. I have web pages. They’re all awful. We are primitive.
There’s some pretty web pages. I think my web page for TED MED is pretty, it’s nice, but it’s not a good web page.
When movies first came out, they were photographing stage shows. What we have is lousy books on the web. We have pages. We’re still talking about pages.
I’ll tell you a little story about the Macintosh and what it allowed us to do.
Macintosh came out, and the first Macintosh was shown at my TED conference, have to get a little plug in for my past, in 1984. And very easily on a Macintosh you could do a pie diagram. So you could take some numbers, make a pie diagram, and construct it really quickly.
Then color came in. So you could first do it in 16 colors, 32 colors, 64 colors, and then, they actually had this expression, “Millions of colors.” You could do it in “Millions of colors.” I mean, you can’t discern “Millions of colors.” Just like, you don’t know the difference between the top six violinists.
Do you really think you could pick which is the best of the top six? Nobody’s ears in this room are good enough to do that. Maybe the ears in another room are, but not this room. I couldn’t probably tell you the top 18, 20, 50. Maybe I would know.
So, we put colors on these pie charts. And then we found easily we could make them in three dimensions. We could make them look like a coin or something. And they had sides. And then we could put shadows. Round-sided, soft shadows. At first they were sort of like that, but then they got smooth.
And then we could have a light source throw a shadow from this three dimensional thing on whatever surface wasn’t there on our screen.
And then we really learned how to make this pie chart good. We could explode it and pull out some of the wedges. And put it up in the air and cast shadows down on the ground from that.
People did this. And why did they do this? Why is this so attractive?
It’s because you can. Just because you can do it, you do this. My question to you, and my statement to you is, that a pie chart is a really stupid way to show comparative numerical information.

Making something that doesn’t work better, prettier…is dumb! It’s just simply dumb.
Little teeny numbers in a thin little pie give you no comparative information, and you really can’t compare those strange areas of almost triangles with slightly curved ends to one another.
Bars are easy. Wedges aren’t. It’s very dumb. I tell you that because it’s fundamentally dumb. It comes from not asking the question of “What works? What’s the way in? How do you communicate to another human being?”
You just don’t do things because you can do them. Because you can push a button and flip something or show a little movie, you don’t just do it. Because you can put 1200 things on one page, you don’t just do it.
Look at WebMD’s page. I mean, you’d be dead before you found your way through the first page.

They jam as much of it because it is the same mentality that they teach in a school of photography. The more on a map is a better map. It isn’t. I don’t want to be wearing a belt, suspenders, and then glue your pants on to your stomach. It just isn’t better.
It’s scary. A lot of people have conversations with me about their fears. Fears about changing jobs. Fears about being an information architect, for being transferred into the strategic planning department or something. Or doing something… I don’t know what any of the words mean. I don’t know any department or anything… I had been very fortunate in my life to be so abrasive that nobody would hire me.
Richard Saul Wurman: That certainly has helped me a great deal. It’s also filtered out the fact that I have quite a number of acquaintships, but no friendships. There’s a lot to be said for being abrasive. There’s a lot to be said for saying really what’s on your mind. Like, “Oh, there is a booger in your nose.”

There really isn’t.
Richard Saul Wurman: But would you want to walk around with a booger in your nose and not have somebody tell you? And then if somebody tells you, [sarcastically]
“Oh, that guy told me I had a booger in my nose.”
That means, just see, you can’t win in a conversation.
Richard Saul Wurman: I was lying. He didn’t have a booger in his nose. He rubbed his nose. And then he is embarrassed and doesn’t like me for doing that whole thing to him. I’m just making a point. I’m fortunate that these series of things, personality flaws, have been really helpful to me. Some of you know I started a conference called the “TED conference.” The “TED conference,” which is out of control in it’s “TED-ing” of the world at the moment.
I sold in 2002, the same way I’ll sell this banana later on.
But not for eight figures.
Well, if we use a decimal point, I can sell it for eight figures.
See, that wasn’t even the truth, “eight figures.” Which gets me to numbers for a while. We had a nice conversation about numbers last night at dinner, we were talking about… Recently I got some passion about the year and numbers and…
[audience member sneezing]
Bless you! Welcome-we keep on going. That was David Gray sneezing there.
If you would like something for the camera, and when you’ll have little, if you translate it into Japanese at the bottom when you think, “David Gray sneezing.”
Well, we are information architects, we should explain what we’re doing and what’s happening. I mean it’s an odd sound from the back or the front of the room. We should understand what that is. And it gives him some fame that will last for a short period of time. So the laughing will make him sneeze again.
I’ve gotten interested in the “year.” Stephen Jay Gould was an acquaintance of mine. I hope some of you know who he is. If not, Google him. One of, may be the 10 best, most remarkable, [inaudible 33:11] speakers that I have ever heard in my life. Stephen Jay Gould, he’s dead. Well, it’s an interesting thing about his death. He had cancer at a very young age. A cancer, which had only one percent chance of surviving. It was one of those aggressive, aggressive cancers. They told him that he was going to die. What he did was sort out the one percent of the people who didn’t die from that cancer. He lived another 30 years and died from a different cancer.
In the meanwhile did amazing work. He was an amazing Darwinian biologist. Wrote the front pages of “Natural History” magazine month after month after month. He came to my house in Newport. I live rather pretentiously. So the front whole is marble. He walked down and he looked at the marble and he was identifying all the little animals that were embedded in the marble. Just by looking down, he knew all those little things which was rather astonishing. To tell you something else about Newport, then we walked out in the backyard, I had just moved in, and he walked out the backyard like this, and he said, “Jew stepped, Jew stepped. First time a Jew has ever stepped here.”
Richard Saul Wurman: I’ve never told that story ever before, but it’s funny.
I have eight acres in Newport. There’s a big fence all around the property, high fence around the property. The urban legend in this town is that I didn’t build this fence, the town built it to keep me in.
Richard Saul Wurman: It’s not true. It’s not true. [laughs] I was talking about Stephen Jay Gould for a while. Over here, thank you. I’m old. He wrote a little book in 1997 about the bicentennial, it was going to happen, and we all went crazy, -for the turning of the century from 1999 to the year 2000. Now many of you know now, particularly the Europeans in the room, because they were the ones who brought it up. Not brought it up, but understood at the dinner table well. The other people were masticating their food. It’s that the new century began in 2001 not in 2000.
Well, we just like the little zeros. We like little zeros, it’s easier to celebrate.
However, if you go back to 1899, the front page on the newspaper on December 31st was saying, “The next year,” front page story in 1899, “That the next day would be the beginning of the last year of the 19th century.” Then in 100 years, the year time switched by a year,how they described the centennial, the 1000… Isn’t that odd? Because it’s marketing. It’s easier to market all those zeros. The 2000, it’s a logo that looks better.
The lack of fact bothered nobody and they shot off fire works quite beautifully at the Tour Eiffel in Paris. On the year 2000 even that was the last… And maybe they were celebrating the last year of the 29th century. But I don’t think so. Nothing is very accurate about numbers, not very sensible about numbers. We have an arrogance about human beings and numbers and birth dates, birth dates of Christ, the death of Herod, and starting centuries, our calendar that we use generally today was started in the sixth century.
It wasn’t a calendar before the sixth century that had anything to do with anything. So it was 400, 500 years when it wasn’t really a calendar. So we made up a calendar. The Pope asked a little guy by the name of “Dennis The Little.” He was a monk. Actually it’s his name and I mentioned that to you this morning, Dennis. I told you about Dennis the little. He came up eventually with Christ’s birthday being on the 25th of December. Then as all of Jewish holidays are eight days, he counted forward eight days to January first and that’s the celebration of the festival of circumcision. And that’s when January first was first born.
But he started with the year one. Because there was not year zero, because there wasn’t the concept in Europe of zero. There was a little bit of zero in the Mayan world. Of course, there is the Baptoon and Cartoon and stuff like that. I love, if anybody is really interested in Mayan things, I can go on for quite a while. I’ve lived, as I told you, in the jungle of Guatemala and mapped one third of Tikal and I go frequently back to the Yucatan.
While we’re talking about the Yucatan, that bump that you see in Mexico is not the Yucatan. That’s made up of three states. It’s our neighboring country. It’s the state of the Yucatan, which has Merida as its capital, the state of Campeche, with Campeche as its capital, and the long skinny one with that funny town called Cancun, the invented town called Cancun, with Chetumal as its capital is Quintana Roo.
So when you go to what you call the Yucatan, you’re going to Quintana Roo, if you’re going to Cancun.
And Quintana Roo was lawless, brought into the Mexican state system in 1915, but until 1931 you couldn’t enter there, it was so much of a Wild West show.
That’s our bordering country. We know nothing about it.
Do you see where any word can take you any place? Any place? You just have to remember this shit.
I have a nice story about, however, the Yucatan, and Sisal, and why it was developed the way it is. And if somebody’s really interested, I’ll tell you later about this strange story of change. Change is somewhat what this whole talk is about. The acceptance of change.
I’ll do a real rapid run of it. There was an industrial revolution in the 1800’s. So they started sending stuff places.
Things were manufactured and goods, and food and cloth and silk and bananas, and everything was sent everywhere in the world on big ships with big sails called clipper ships, or something like that. Then they came up with these steam engines. And they had hybrid ships. The hybrid was invented with those ships.
No, maybe it was invented with Romans with oars and sails. That’s a hybrid too. Hybrids are not something new, is what I’m saying.
And then they dropped the sails and bigger engines, and the engines were run first by coal, and then I guess by oil and then eventually aircraft carriers have atomic energy on them.
About four years ago… no, what year was 9/11?
Huh? 2001? So it was nine years ago, right immediately a week before 9/11, I flew out to the Teddy Roosevelt aircraft carrier. It was in war games in the Atlantic. Landed on it. It was scary.
You land on it, you’re sitting backwards in a plane that has no windows and you’re trying to catch these rubber bands. And I spent a couple of days in war games on that boat. It was incredibly uncomfortable. I can’t imagine being on one of those boats for any length of time.
And then you take off, and the Admiral said, “I’ve done this a lot of times, and this is still the scariest eight seconds of my life.” And it is, it’s really scary. You take off and you go down.
And then came home and just a few days later was 9/11 and they brought the ship back and then they sent it over there. And they have atomic energy. It was the only part of the ship I was not allowed to see, I don’t know why.
But everybody who showed me around the ship who was attached to me to show me around the ship got lost.
Richard Saul Wurman: 5,000 people live on this fucking boat. And the people that were assigned to me don’t know their way around. And there are no maps and there are no diagrams, and you have no idea where you are. There’s no windows.
The only time you have any sense where your absolute complete anxiety and terror leaves you is in a place where you can’t hear yourself think, and that’s because of the noise on the deck with these exploding planes every two minutes.
But down there, there’s no two stairways that line up that you can go to. There’s no diagram. You don’t know what deck you’re on. And every stairway, the riser tread is slightly different. If there was no light… and some are metal, some are wood, some have chain handles… there’s nothing common. It’s like 1,200 chimpanzees built the boat.
Richard Saul Wurman: And they glued together the parts with super glue. Well, that’s something else. I wouldn’t do it again, but I did that then. In 1962 I did a book with plans of 50 cities of the world. In 1967 I did a massive book to which I’m absolutely and utterly convinced no one has seen called “Urban Atlas: 20 American Cities.”
It was a major huge book with every page that would fold out that big, and it had 14 colors, and it was the first time there was ever a comparative statistical comparison of 20 cities in America, the 20 largest cities in America.
It was a Herculean project I did for MIT. I had 55 people working on it. It took quite a while, and it is still an amazing book, and it was all done by hand, and it was because in 1967 it was before computers.
Both of those books I have brought back to show to two new partners. They had never seen them. And they’re just astonished that it was done in ’62, and then ’67… for a project that I’m doing called 19.20.21, which is trying to set up a methodology for understanding cities.
Now, this is a project that is so big that there’s something there for everybody. And this is a fact. It’s absolutely a fact. I wouldn’t say it here on this stage unless I’ve said it before, and there’s no two cities in the world that do their maps the same scale, ask the same questions, have the same legends, and there’s no methodology whatsoever how you do the border around the city, and if you don’t know how to put a border around a city, you have no area within it which to collect information, and therefore get comparative densities.
By general opinion, the largest city in the world is Tokyo, and the variations in population of Tokyo is from 25 million to 65 million, because they draw different borders.
I’m not talking about the city border as the incorporated city, but actually how a city is. Encompassing other cities, of going out with transportation lines, of the urban fabric going out. How do you draw the edge? There is no accepted methodology for drawing the edge.
It’s not a trivial thing. It’s a fundamental thing, because 51% going to 70% of the world’s population live in urban areas.
This is not trying to make cities better. That is not what I’m trying to do. This is not a value statement of whether people should live in cities or shouldn’t live cities. Whether there should be slums or there shouldn’t be slums. This is not what I’m talking about.
I’m talking about just understanding what is, so that other people can make value judgments of making use of success and failure from one city to another.
It’s an interesting project. It’s vast. It’s a five year project. I have two partners. One is the biggest map maker in the world who is way below the radar.
ESRI has 4,000 employees and they are owned by one person in Redlands. In fact, if you go to the website, they have this website and in the website it says, “This company is not for sale.”
The other company is Radical Media, and you can go to their website. So I have two partners, and I’m going to be meeting with them all day Monday and Tuesday in Redlands.
Well, that’s a fascinating project. It’s huge. It’ll be probably, I hope, we hope, it’s all dreams, most things don’t work, a TV series, and of course websites or iPad sites, and I’ll talk about iPad in a minute.
And urban observatories around the world simultaneously, live museums where the information constantly changes and you can talk from one city to another and see your city relative to other cities in the world.
IBM has helped us with the first presentation of proof of concept, where we looked at Tokyo a little bit and New York in a deep dive to show that what we’re really talking about starts to make some sense.
In fact, I had a brief conversation-I don’t know if he’s in this room, is Mr. IBM in this room? Yeah, there he is.
I’ve had a brief conversation with him. He’s seen the presentation. He thought, maybe because he was sucking up to me, that it was pretty good. But there’s a real business there, it’s an interesting thing and we’re talking to other people about that.
That’s one project. Another project I’m doing for my TED…when I talk about TED MED, that is absolutely transparently avarice and greed on my part. I’m running the conference. If it does well, I make money, so I know I’m hawking something, and I apologize in advance, but it’s an interesting exercise, and I’m telling you that in advance.
One of the things I want to do with the conference this year is proactively in a conference explain something to the group rather than just have a speaker come up. To begin a conference and make them have some epiphany, some understanding of something that comes from the person running the conference.
Not in a speech, but through an exercise I bother going through, much as if you saw a book I did called, “Understanding USA,” which is only a mediocre book. Some parts are very good. Some parts aren’t so good. The parts that are good are good. The parts that are bad are bad. I can’t rip out the bad parts, so I don’t sell it at all.
But that was a proactive way in the year 2000, I bought into the thing, of doing an annual report of the United States of America. It’s called “Understanding USA” And it has three different color covers because I could. It’s all the same book, but for a while I liked the white one. I never liked the red one. The blue one’s OK. The white one’s nice because it shows fingerprints.
Anyway, the project I want to do for this conference is called “Five By Five By Five By Five.” Don’t take it down. If you can’t remember “Five By Five By Five By Five,” you shouldn’t be in this room at all.
Richard Saul Wurman: What I want to look at, because I don’t understand the health care system anywhere, and I want to understand what the health care system is sort of like here relative to someplace else. I might know a little bit more of what happens here than someplace else. I want to look at five countries: Japan, United States, Great Britain, Norway, and India. I want to look at five things that can happen. You’re born, what birth is like. What the last five months of your life is like. Really, you usually do six months, but the thing is called, “Five By Five By Five By Five,” so I’ll say the last five months of life.
Richard Saul Wurman: Basically death, a chronic disease, diabetes II; a trauma, breaking her hip; and a heart attack. And what happens at five different percentiles based on the percentiles within that country, not percentiles across all the countries. Five different percentiles within those countries, reasonable percentiles, of income or net worth, whatever we can get. What would be a little story of what would happen getting born someplace or having diabetes someplace. Not encyclopedic, just a beginning way of knowing enough to see some patterns in it. It’s not meant to be an encyclopedia. It’s a simple little study. It’s not so easy to do, but it’s not a doctoral dissertation. And just set up probably in a film and in an exhibit and posters and some other things like that.
I think Nigel Holmes is going to help me, and Paul Suel’s going to help me and an amazing person who you should look up who came into my office. Kind of nice-looking, handsome guy who I guess made a little bit of money. I think he’s in his very early 40s or late 30s and has this passion to make some complex governmental information clear and wanted my help.
He did a poster on everything, beyond anything, you wanted to know about the Supreme Court and all its justices and its history. It’s worthwhile getting and looking at it. His name is Nathaniel Pearlman, and it’s worthwhile getting this. It’s a big poster. It’s extraordinary.
He just sent me the preliminary of all the Presidents of the United States, which I had some real criticisms of it he’s getting from other people, and I hope he makes a few changes. But it will be an amazing single poster on all the presidency, better than anything I’ve ever seen.
I want him to do “Five By Five By Five By Five” along with other stuff I pump in there, too, and he’s been doing some of the research for me. You can all help. Anybody can help me. I mean, for nothing. I don’t pay anything.
Richard Saul Wurman: Just if you want to help me, you can help me. I love help. That’s my scam. I get people to help me do things, and your name will be someplace.
Richard Saul Wurman: Well.


I mean everybody helps me. If you look at any of my books, everybody helps me. Their name is there. Everybody helps me, and everything is there. More so than anybody I tell the name of the paper I use always. I do everything like that, but it’s an interesting project. And it’s called “Five By Five By Five By Five.” And then I got this idea, and this idea’s about four days old. As I told you before, I follow tornadoes. This is another one you could help on. I don’t know how to begin this one at all. I have some ideas how to begin “Five By Five By Five By Five.” But what I’m doing is I’m giving you examples that a single human being without a client can do things. Are you seeing a pattern here?
I don’t understand something. I want to make it understandable. I’m a single human being. I don’t even self fund them. They just get done because people want to do it and learn from it. And it often leads to other things that they get to do. And they learn in the process. So is it a scam? Yeah! Is it helpful? Yeah! I don’t get complaints after these are over.
And I’m upfront about what I do. Right? Over the years I have about 18 people who are far better educated than myself changing slightly over the years as they get too old. But usually from their mid 20s to their late 30s who, wherever I do a conference, they get a hold of me or I get a hold of them.
And they, of their own expense, fly to my conference. I put them up there and pay for all their food and everything, and they do sometimes grunt work. They register people. They do that. They attend as much of it as they can, and they’re my volunteers. They keep on coming back, and I’ve done 30 conferences!
And they enjoy it. It’s like a family wherever I am. Whether it’s a medical conference or a technology conference or an entertainment conference, they’re all interesting. One isn’t more interesting than another. It’s just what one does.
Well, so this new idea as I told you I follow hurricanes and tornadoes. My son is the hurricane chaser and tornado chaser on “Storm Chasers.” You know that. You know the guy with the blue truck with the big Doppler radar in the back who follows and tells Sean where he should take his tank. He’s tried to go to the eye of 11 hurricanes, and he’s made it to the eye of 11 hurricanes.
That’s fairly boring because you have to go pretty early, and then the moment you’re in the eye it’s pretty dangerous. Then he also chases tornadoes obviously. They’re hard to find, and you don’t find them all the time. There’s a lot of misses on that. And he’d get too close. They’re a little dangerous, but they’re interesting and they don’t last very long. The hail can screw you up a bit because it hails often before, and that’s what he does.
But in being around him and finding out a little bit about meteorology, I see there’s some patterns here. There’s patterns that occur with hurricanes that are geographic patterns and patterns that have to do with health care. Patterns to do with natural disasters and people dying.
We saw that probably about 220,000 people died in Haiti from an earthquake, which was a pattern of an earthquake of how far it was below the kind of earthquake it was. But also, it was directly related to the building codes. We saw that many less people died in Chile with a slightly bigger earthquake. The aftershocks were actually bigger in the Chilean one, better building codes, and it was slightly different level below the ground.
Most scientists along with the public had a big epiphany about tsunamis during the Day After Christmas Tsunami a number of years ago that killed 250,000 people in Ateh or Aceh or wherever it was in Indonesia. When they saw it came in it was only about six feet high, [laughs] and we were thinking of a wall of water. Well, there are tsunamis that are a wall of water, but they come from landslide tsunamis.
All tsunamis are not the same. All volcanoes are not the same. Volcanoes sometimes are liquid molten stuff, and sometimes they send a plume up. Depending on where they happen in the earth, it depends on the ongoing wind patterns of whether they go across the United States or Europe or go south. Things are different, and we’re not going to stop these things right away.
We’re not going to stop hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis. We can have a little bit more warning with tsunamis. We can maybe increase the tornado warning to five minutes, six minutes. We can increase the warning thing a little bit. We’ll be wrong a lot of the times.
There’ll be a lot of crying wolf because all they can do is warn when they see a weather pattern that is likely to have tornadoes.
By the time they see the tornado, forget about warning anybody about it. So that means it’s a whole psychological reaction of people of how many times can somebody cry wolf. As you know, when hurricanes approach a lot of people won’t leave their homes anyway even though they know they’re going to be flooded out.
Anyway, there’s an interesting series of cross patterns between the types of these natural disasters, the geographic patterns they have, the local code. I was in a 7.1 earthquake on the 17th floor of a building in San Francisco.
Although the news agency showed you fire in one part of town and quoted the deaths in the one part of the entranceway to the Bay Bridge falling down, basically it was amazingly no damage. I mean it just wasn’t much damage. A big crack in the street, and I was on the 17th… I was in a fancy hotel room. I had a wonderful bathroom with beautiful marble tile, close, nicely. There was no cracks anywhere.

I was thrown off the chair, but the building code was pretty good.
The modern buildings that adhere to the code did pretty well in a 7.1 earthquake. It wouldn’t do so well in an 8.1. On a Richter Scale one point is 32 times. I assume everybody knows that. Does anybody here not know that? Oh, a few people didn’t know that, and the others are just lying.
But it’s 32 times. See, they don’t tell you that, either. They just give you a number. What does that mean, they give you a number? The Fujita scale, which was the scale for tornados, was only based on whether a cow gets thrown up in the air or an automobile. It’s based on damage, not on wind speed. Well, now they have the revised Fujita scale. Fujita luckily died, but he was the king in the thing. They have a revised Fujita scale. It’s still only marginally better. It’s not really a way of measurement. How we measure things is also how we understand things.
So we measure. Well, you look at an ad. You want to buy a car, so you look and it tells you miles per gallon. Well, that doesn’t mean very much if you have an electric car. Maybe it doesn’t mean so much anymore with a hybrid car. Maybe you just want to know how far you can go in a car, not miles per gallon.
Going 0 to 60 in three point some seconds in the new $1.7 million Bugatti to a top speed of 250 miles an hour is a meaningless statistic that they use in their ads because you can’t go 250 miles an hour anyway. Nobody in this room probably is able to control a car at 250 miles an hour.
I’ve gone on racetracks because they use to close down to Laguna Seca before my TED conference. I was driven at about 170 or 80. I was scared by a [laughs] driver. I mean I was just terrified. I did one spin around in the car, and I tried to drive about 120 around a track. I just couldn’t do it.
It’s not so easy to do! 250 miles an hour? I mean what highway are you going to go? Well, I think I’ll go down to CVS and get some toothpaste.
Richard Saul Wurman: Ha! I’m there before I left!
Richard Saul Wurman: So how we measure things, how we advertise things, how we describe things are pretty good. You know that dollar bill I gave you is almost exactly six inches. But it’s not six inches. [laughs] It’s 6.14 inches. Isn’t that stupid? Why not make it six inches? Nothing has a measurement that makes any sense. How we measure things and describe things tells us how we can receive them and put them in our head and compare them to something else we know because you only understand something relative to something you understand. Wurman’s first law. You only understand something relative to something you understand.
So you have to begin someplace. You have to get in. You have to open the door to some kind of understanding in people to go the very next step.
Now, the second thing I talked to you about about understanding, I think you should really huddle together. Huddle together and reform yourself into a kind of understanding business. An understanding business with you is accepting of any modality, any means, any ideas as temporal as they all are, and accept the fact they’re all temporal.
Accept the fact that the best idea of anybody in this room has a 10 minute shelf life. Just accept it, and that’s the same in every business. It just has a 10 minute shelf life. There are no eternal ideas in this room except understanding. That’s an eternal idea.
We want ourselves personally and another human being to understand us, understand something, and we want to do what we can to be able to translate our methodology to somebody else. Well, you do. I don’t. But it’s a nice goal for people to have because then you can form in a group and dance around the Maypole and have a conference because you have some commonality.
Talking about commonality, I said I was going to do this. And I’m sorry to do this, but I have to do this. This is a story about, she doesn’t know yet what I’m going to say, a story about conferences. I’ve run good conferences. I know how to run a good conference. It is my only area of semi-expertise. I have no other skill sets, but I seem to know how to do that and you can’t be taught to do that. You somehow have to feel how to do that. How do you feel how to do that? I try to design conferences so I would like to be there. Of course, I hate being at anybody else’s conference because I can’t bear how they run them. But, that’s sort of my fiction in my head is, it’s a meeting I would like to be at.
We talked several times, yesterday, about how I want this room set up. I said, “I want the first row real close to the stage, I want a chair in the middle of the room, I want just a little table, no podium.” You stand behind a podium, your groin is protected, you’re less vulnerable.

No, you are. And, you have something to put something down on in front of you, you tend to read it. And, I can’t stand right here. Even though your neck might hurt at the end of this session, from looking up, I am making eye contact with a lot of people in the front row. And, it makes me feel better and it’s intimate. There a certain intimacy.
So, I came here. The first row was back where the guy is falling asleep with the orange shirt. And, all this was empty space. I mean, what were we going to do there? The orchestra was going to come in?

Dan Klyn: That was a surprise.

Richard Saul Wurman: Yes.


That was Dan Klyn saying, “That was a surprise.”

Then they had an aisle, one aisle, in the middle. So that if I was sitting here, I would be looking at a long, empty alley. That’s often what they do in conferences. They have an aisle in the middle. Then, when I asked for it to be changed, the woman said, “Well, it’s fire regulations.” I said, “I’m a fellow of the American Institute of Architects, I have a Master’s degree in architecture. I’m not going to put you in danger about fire here. I’m just not going to do that. You can have an aisle on either side and still not have too many seats.”

And, then I said, “Would you take the panel table off the front.”
Because, I hate panels and I don’t even like the idea that other people do them. So, they had to take that away. And then, “Would you fill in these seats?”
And, they filled in the seats because there’s a pocket door that’s going to close here. Because, they have to do a quick change on the room. They took four rows from the middle, so that there was a gap in the middle of the room, of four rows. So, the people in the back were like, in a different planet.

I said, “Why don’t you take the chairs from the back of the room? Fill them in here.” So, they did that. And then, they brought probably the world’s ugliest three legged table.




You can say, “Wurman is now looking at the chair.”


You also have, in this democratization of your wanting to have everybody have their 31 seconds of fame, you have all these separate lectures that people go to. You have to make a choice. It’s like going to a supermarket and seeing 81 kinds of water. It’s fucking water. It’s water. It’s water. If you want lemon water, buy a lemon.


And then, you get together and you say, “Which room were you in?”

“Oh, mine was much better.”
“Oh, I should have been at that one.”
I have nothing to talk to you about because we don’t have common experience. What do you want? If your goal is to have commonality and have a group and a sort of camaraderie here, everybody should hear everything.

Well, I know there’s some people, there’s somebody shaking their head but, that’s OK. I’ve run conferences for 30 years. I tell people that everybody attends everything and it’s worked. And, it works because then, every break, people can reflect on the same things they heard.
I have three minute talks, though. And, I have some five minute talks. And, I certainly would never have a talk this long.

And, I have full one hour breaks where everybody gets to talk to everybody, including the speaker. But, I don’t have questions. If I asked this room, as I’ve asked many rooms, “How many people would like to have questions and how many people would not like to have questions?” Everybody, “Oh, we would like to be able to ask questions of the speaker.” And, the questions come in two varieties. Bad questions and speeches.
Every once in a while, there is a good question, but why should your time be wasted for waiting for somebody to ask a good question, so I stood up and I broke up his session yesterday by ranting and I sent my apologies, but the point I have made I think, is a valid point because this is the main point of this talk and that is the point of understanding.
Understanding is so fundamentally basic, that you’re not competing with any other group if you talk about understanding. You’re not going to be bumped off the ledge. You might become the experts in understanding. It is the all encompassing word to things.
You want to call yourself information architect. I do not call myself anything. I just started calling myself an information architect because I do not want to be an, just call it, what do you do if I say, “I’m an architect,” then somebody says “Oh, you do remodeling?” and I wanted to do something that least provoke them to ask me what does that mean and then I had a chance of a conversation, and a chance of opening a conversation is not a bad thing and everything can’t be legislated.
If in the back page of my… I just did this new book, I am not trying to sell from the stage, I am trying to sell from a stage, it wasn’t ordered but it came this morning. I hope nobody told me it came, did it come? Maybe it came, if it came, and you see something that looks like that, I did the cover that way so you could see the title from the back row, the real book just as little thing to it. That’s a lie. That’s the real book. The 33 stands for the fact that it is a sequel to a book I wrote 33 years ago, I could not think of another title.
It’s a case in point of trying to give everybody here permission that they can do things. A number of people ask me to revise the book I did 33 years ago that I had some people knew about, but I never sold, did not print many copies of, but it got out there. It was called “What If Could Be, an Historical Fable of Future,” when I was national chairman of the AIA convention in Philadelphia 1976 and I don’t ever reprint things and I do not revise things, I just, when they’re done they’re done, but I thought, “Maybe I will do a sequel.”
“How can I do a sequel that is real easy because I can’t type and I am not a very good writer.” So I did a sequel by talking into a tape recorder for a two very long sessions having it transcribed, editing it a bit, sending that to somebody who I expect to type and they setup and type then I looked, read it through again and then I got some blank pieces of paper that big and he sent me the sheets of this set type and I just had a pair of kindergarten scissors and I cut apart the things and I rearranged the things and used Scotch tape, pasted them down on that, then and I sent the Scotch taped things to this guy and he had arranged them better again, I mean just squared it up again.
Made a sketch for the cover he did that, I xeroxed this off of “The Wall Street Journal,” I like their ampersand. I don’t know what typeface it is. And then I sent it to a printer, I called Sappi Paper up and I said I would like a lot of paper free and they send me about $15,000 worth the paper free, better sheets than I ever would have bought.
I went to a printer that Michael Bierut the top guy at Pentagram said he has never been to the printer, but he uses them a lot for his year work, and they are pretty good, so it was pretty close, I want to go to some place I could go. So I went to the printer, I spec-ed the color on the press, was at the press run and that’s the story of the book. I don’t have a publicist an editor, so there is probably lousy editing. I don’t have a publicist. I don’t have an editor. I don’t have a publisher. I don’t have a distributor. It’s on Amazon, and somebody stores them in Atlanta for me, the same place where the guy works where he cleaned up the thing. He’s a friend of mine who suggested I do this again, and he takes any money that comes in. And that’s the story of my second book.
Now if I can do that, everybody can do that. It’s just not, “The books are here! The man is holding it. He has one with the big 33 on it, too.” OK. So I sent some here, and it is a very odd book. I mean it’s odder than anything. It’s not information architecture. It’s not anything you do. You will not learn from this book what to do next.
This has no hints about your field. It is merely a collection of 33 episodes of a TV series by the commissioner of curiosity and imagination, who is me. It’s a thinly veiled autobiography. Everything in the book is true except the story.
Uh-huh. It’s filled with factoids, and it is just me talking and babbling about the facts I know and the things I know and connecting them together. I really like this book. I’ve done 82, and there’s only three others I’ve done that I like. So that’s not bad. I’ve done 30 some conferences. There’s only four conferences I like.
I sound like Jung. You know, Jung did things. He had four. Most things we like, male/female, two. Catholic Church likes three. Jung was four. Things five are because of our hands. 10 is because of our hands. Two hands, 20, which is the Mayan’s number system.
Nine is three times three. Nine times nine is 81, and the pegs on the doors in China. So numbers can be anything. And 33, if you look at this part of the book, which we often call the spine, you have 33 bones in your spine.
So you can take any number and make it work for anything you want. There’s nothing magic about 33. Two nice numbers. That’s all. Maybe it gives me a reason to do the next book. If I don’t do “Understanding Dogs,” it will be called “34.” It won’t.
Richard Saul Wurman: How we doing on time? And should I start another…
Dan Klyn: You have 16 minutes.
Richard Saul Wurman: Oh! I will do something else. Was the woman who was walking out, would you like to ask me a question?
Audience Member 1: [inaudible 75:31]
Richard Saul Wurman: Well, that was the only person I wanted a question from.
Richard Saul Wurman: Do you have a question? Yeah!
Audience Member 2: No, I don’t have a question for you.
Richard Saul Wurman: In the first four rows is there…Yes, ma’am! Do you have a question?
Audience Member 3: You were going to talk about the iPad?
Richard Saul Wurman: Oh, good! That’ll take 16 minutes.
Dan Klyn: You only have 15 now.
Richard Saul Wurman: That’ll take 15 minutes. Well, it really fits into the other part of the conversation I was talking about, about the web page. Please have this epiphany with me. Please! Please understand that everything that everybody has done in this room, including myself especially, is primitive. We are in the first moments of doing something, the first moments of looking at computers and doing these websites and connecting things, and we have this arrogance that we’re really doing something. No. We’re looking at numbers, and people are Twittering and Facebooking and we think, “Social networking!” and how wonderful that is.
And then the next year it will be something else and then something else. We’re in this rapid changing things, and we can’t invest in the excellence and the finality of anything we’re doing. Look at the sites you’re looking at. Look at any travel site. Dan tried to print out my boarding pass yesterday in the lobby, and I thought he was going to drool because it was so complicated.
It just was not a sensible way to do things. It was not a helpful program. Everybody is printing out their boarding pass. I don’t do it. I give it to somebody else to do. I wouldn’t do anything like that. And he’s supposed to, “I can do it.” And he went up to it.
Dan Klyn: It took two tries.
Richard Saul Wurman: Well, that’s two and a half tries too many. I mean it was not, the two tries weren’t… And why they want to know when I was born. Nobody ever asks me when I was born. I’ve given it to concierges. Do they know when I’m born without asking me? And they give me a boarding pass back. Nothing is very clear. It’s really bad.
Rent a car at an airport that you’ve never driven before at night. And try to figure out, in a car you don’t own, you’ve never owned one. And try to figure out how to turn on the windshield wipers. Try any simple thing. Anything.
Adriana: How about the shower?…
Richard Saul Wurman: I don’t like interruptions like that. What is your name?
Adriana: Adriana.
Richard Saul Wurman: Adriana asked, how about the shower? Now, are you suggesting something between you and I?
Richard Saul Wurman: She laughed at that, which was rather insulting.
Adriana: I’m married.
Richard Saul Wurman: It was an interesting extension of the conversation. The shower. I don’t know how to use light switches in showers, and many of the hotels I go to. I go to upscale hotels, so they make it more difficult, because they think you’re more intelligent, or maybe you will call someone and they have to come upstairs and show you and you have to give them a tip.
Nothing is very easy. And things are confusing, and there’s too many things happening. And that very soon is going to change.
There is going to be a game changer where, probably through the iPad and others, because everybody’s going to be onto it, or already onto it. But they’ll understand that it isn’t a book, it’s not a collection of pages, it’s not selling real estate on 20 pages.
I have about 150,000 or so or less, something like that, of Google citations. And they have some ads on some of the pages. Could they possibly have an ad that makes any sense on page 1,000 of my citations?
Who would ever go there? I’ve never gone past the first page. I just look at the number to see if it goes up or down.
And if I spell it RS Wurman, as opposed to Richard Saul Wurman or Richard Wurman, whether it changes the number.
It’s going to be a movie. It’s going to be an infinite flight through information, and a personal flight.
It’s not going to be a static page where you organize it, and are able to show it to a client as a page. We’re going to put this here and you can push this button and it goes to this page. You can push this button and it goes to that page, and you diagram the 20 or 50 or 100 or 1,000 pages and go to it. It’s going to go to millions of pages.
You’re going to be able to have a journey. You’re going to have experiences of going to the thing. You’re going to be able to fly through information of your choosing.
How many people have ridden a Segway?
You know you direct it to where it wants to go. That feeling of freedom, of making it move, go fast, go slow, do that. That feeling, that empowering feeling you’re going to have when it comes to understandable information. And that’s going to affect how you do it.
And you’re not going to talk in terms of wireframes and design of a page, or have the metaphor of a book in your head. It’s going to be different. Very soon!
I’m not talking about “Looney Tunes” in 20 years. I’m talking about a couple of years, a year. Somebody will do it. We’re already trying to do it for some projects that I’m working on.
I am not an early adopter, because I don’t know how to do anything.
By the way, why did people buy iPads when it’s not 3G? Why didn’t they wait? Why didn’t the early adopters have enough…and you’d think that they’re the ones with the bigger cranial capacity… Why would they not wait a few weeks and get a better machine? Or as some of us wait a year and get a camera on it?
Well, there’s some logic to that.
So what we’re doing is going to be a different way of finding out things, and a more magical way. It is going to be an incredible flying carpet of going and picking out things and putting them together. Twisting them around, and being able to go backwards and forwards to find where you started and go places.
You’re going to have an incredible journey of traveling through understanding. And that’s what you can do if that is the collective passion of this group, not of an ending, but of a beginning.
Of a beginning that starts with understanding, and with personal bodying yourself, empowering yourself to be personally satiated with understanding. Not what the client wants, not what the great washed wants…
HL Mencken called the Great Unwashed, and in America he called them the Great Washed, which I always thought was funny. I always thought for when he talked it was about Ivory soap.
That was a big thing when I was young, and I really objected when Dove soap came out, or Swan. Swan came out. Ivory soap was what you had, and Heinz Ketchup. And when some other ketchup, Del Monte ketchup came out, I thought that was terrible. And “Newsweek” was awful, because I liked “Time.” When I grew up, there was real great loyalties to things. There’s no loyalties in that way. That’s old-fashioned, loyalty.
But just think about where you begin, and how much personal power you have to do what you want to do. Sometimes people say, “Well, how do you get all this done? How do you do 82 books? How do you do 30 conferences?”
Nobody’s ever asked me to do a book, ever. Nobody’s ever asked me to do a conference. Nobody’s ever asked me to do a project. And I take it personally.
I told you in the beginning, that’s probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I just didn’t understand it, when I felt so rejected by the world.
I still feel rejected by the world, because nobody still asks me to do anything. I’m not on one board, one committee, or one organization. I’m not an advisor to a board or any committee or any organization. And I don’t have any of the people helping me, and that lack of help, the lack of running things past people, or thinking I have to, or thinking I have to get permission allows me to fail and succeed. And I would rather fail and succeed than be told what to do.
I took off, and Chad knows, Chad saw me, what, a year and a half ago?
And he said, “Jesus! You’re a new person.”
“Yeah, I took off 80 pounds.”
So there’s another whole person out there. Looks somewhat like me. Wears a scarf. And I took it off because I had a good physical.
That sounds counterintuitive. No, I had a good physical, so I knew the doctor wasn’t going to tell me to do it, because if he had told me to do it, I wouldn’t have done it.
I don’t want to be told to do anything. I really don’t. I don’t want to take directions from somebody. I want to take directions from me, from what’s in here.
Twice already to different groups here…not groups, a couple of people, I’ve told the same joke, but it’s such a wonderful place to end, and that is the Emo Phillips’ joke.
I know, you probably don’t know who Emo is… how many people do know who Emo is?
OK. Then I’ll tell it in his dialect, sort of. Short joke.
“For years and years and years, I thought my brain was the most important organ of my body, until one day I thought, hmm. Look who’s telling me that!”
Richard Saul Wurman: I leave you with that pleasant thought. Have a good morning.

The Encyclopedic Revolution

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This excerpt adapted from Chapter 9, “The Encyclopedic Revolution.”

Despite the proliferation of books in the years after Gutenberg, three hundred years later books still remained prohibitively expensive for most Europeans. By the mid-eighteenth century, a typical educated household might own at most a single book (often a popular devotional text like the Book of Hours). Only scholars, clergymen and wealthy merchants could afford to own more than a few volumes. There was no such thing as a public library. Still, writers were producing new books in ever-growing numbers, and readers found it increasingly challenging – and often financially implausible – to stay abreast of new scholarship.

At the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment, a handful of philosophers, inspired by Francis Bacon’s quest for a unifying framework of human knowledge[1], started to envision a new kind of book that would synthesize the world’s (or at least Europe’s) intellectual output into a single, accessible work: the encyclopedia. Although encyclopedias had been around in one form or another since antiquity (originating independently in both ancient Greece and China), it was only in the eighteenth century that the general-purpose encyclopedia began to assume its modern form. In 1728, Ephraim Chambers published his Cyclopedia, a compendium of information about the arts and sciences that gained an enthusiastic following among the English literati. The book eventually caught the eye of a Parisian bookseller named André Le Breton, who decided to underwrite a French translation.


Enter Denis Diderot. A prominent but financially struggling writer and philosopher, Diderot occasionally supplemented his income by translating English works into French. When Breton approached him about the Cyclopedia, he readily accepted the commission. Soon after embarking on the translation, however, he found himself entranced by the project. He soon persuaded Breton to support him in creating more than a simple translation. He wanted to turn the work into something bigger. Much bigger. He wanted to create a “universal” encyclopedia.

Adopting Bacon’s classification as his intellectual foundation, Diderot began the monumental undertaking that would eventually become the Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers (“Encyclopedia or Dictionary of the Sciences, the Arts, and the Professions”), published in a succession of volumes from 1751 to 1772. A massive collection of 72,000 articles written by 160 eminent contributors (including notables like Voltaire, Rousseau, and Buffon), Diderot turned the encyclopedia into a compendium of knowledge vaster than anything that had ever been published before.

Diderot did more than just survey the universe of printed books. He took the unprecedented step of expanding the work to include “folk” knowledge gathered from (mostly illiterate) tradespeople. The encyclopedia devoted an enormous portion of its pages to operational knowledge about everyday topics like cloth dying, metalwork, and glassware, with entries accompanied by detailed illustrations explaining the intricacies of the trades. Traditionally, this kind of knowledge had passed through word of mouth from master to apprentice among the well-established trade guilds. Since most of the practitioners remained illiterate, almost none of what they knew had ever been written down – and even if it had, it would have held little interest for the powdered-wig habitués of Parisian literary salons. Diderot’s encyclopedia elevated this kind of craft knowledge, giving it equal billing with the traditional domains of literate scholarship.

Figurative System of Human Knowledge

While publishing this kind of “how-to” information may strike most of us today as an unremarkable act, in eighteenth-century France the decision marked a blunt political statement. By granting craft knowledge a status equivalent to the aristocratic concerns of statecraft, scholarship, and religion – Diderot effectively challenged the legitimacy of the aristocracy. It was an epistemological coup d’ étate.

Diderot’s editorial populism also found expression in passages like this one: “The good of the people must be the great purpose of government. By the laws of nature and of reason, the governors are invested with power to that end. And the greatest good of the people is liberty.” To the royal and papal authorities of eighteenth century France, these were not particularly welcome sentiments. Pope Clement XIII castigated Diderot and his work (in part because Diderot had chosen to classify religion as a branch of philosophy). King George III of England and Louis XV of France also condemned it. His publisher was briefly jailed. In 1759 the French government ordered Diderot to cease publication, seizing 6,000 volumes, which they deposited (appropriately enough) inside the Bastille. But it was too late.

By the time the authorities came after Diderot’s work, the encyclopedia had already found an enthusiastic audience. By 1757 it had attracted 4000 dedicated subscribers (no small feat in pre-industrial France). Despite the official ban, Diderot and his colleagues continued to write and publish the encyclopedia in secret, and the book began to circulate widely among an increasingly restive French populace.


Diderot died 10 years before the revolution of 1789, but his credentials as an Enlightenment encyclopedist would serve his family well in the bloody aftermath. When his son-in-law was imprisoned during the revolution and branded an aristocrat, Diderot’s daughter pleaded with the revolutionary committee, citing her father’s populist literary pedigree. On learning of the prisoner’s connection to the great encyclopedist, the committee immediately set him free.

What can we learn from Diderot’s legacy today? His encyclopedia provides an object lesson in the power of new forms of information technology to disrupt established institutional hierarchies. In synthesizing information that had previously been dispersed in local oral traditions and trade networks, Diderot created a radically new model for gathering and distributing information that challenged old aristocratic assumptions about the boundaries of scholarship – and in so doing, helped pave the way for a revolution.

Today, we are witnessing the reemergence of the encyclopedia as a force for radical epistemology. In recent years, Wikipedia’s swift rise to cultural prominence seems to echo Diderot’s centuries-old encyclopedic revolution. With more than three million entries in more than 100 languages, Wikipedia already ranks as by far the largest (and most popular) encyclopedia ever created. And once again, questions of authority and control are swirling. Critics argue that Wikipedia’s lack of quality controls leaves it vulnerable to bias and manipulation, while its defenders insist that openness and transparency ensure fairness and ultimately will allow the system to regulate itself. Just as in Diderot’s time, a deeper tension seems to be emerging between the forces of top-down authority (manifesting as journalists, publishers and academic scholars) and the bottom-up, quasi-anarchist ethos of the Web. And while no one has yet tried to lock Wikipedia up in the Bastille, literary worthies and assorted op-ed writers have condemned the work in sometimes vicious terms, while the prophets of techno-populism celebrate its arrival with an enthusiasm often bordering on zealotry. Once again, the encyclopedia may prove the most revolutionary “book” of all.

About the Book

“Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages”:
Alex Wright
2007; Joseph Henry Press
ISBN-10: 0309102383


fn1. cf. Bacon’s Novum Organum of 1620

The Elements of Style for Designers

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With some exceptions, what is good for words is good for pictures too.

The creative act of writing is always bounded a bit by the audience: journalism is not writing a novel. The same can be said of design: it is not art. Yet the materials are the same—words and pictures—and it is no big surprise that what is good for fiction is good for nonfiction. The surprise comes when one discovers that, with some exceptions, what is good for words is good for pictures too. And thus we discover The Elements of Style is just as relevant for young designers as for young writers.

E.B. White finishes The Elements of Style with a “List of Reminders.” It could have easily been “Ten Rules for Clear Writing” or “A Writer’s Manifesto” or even “Hanging Commas 99% Bad” but he opted for the gentler term: reminder. He did so because rules were meant to broken—learned first, but broken. And so he reminds us as we innovate and play what those rules were in the first place, and reminds us that breaking a rule can sometimes be hard to pull off. In that spirit, I will try to translate his writing reminders into design reminders. After reading them, you can go off and exuberantly ignore them.

1. Place yourself in the background.
Write in a way that draws the reader’s attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than to the mood and temper of the author.

You’re the best designer in your graduating class; you had three job offers the instant you started looking. Now you are designing a bank site, and someone tells you to use blue. What do they know?

Of course you are good, but no one is so good that her whims should override the conventions and constraints of the design. Just because you have a flamboyant style doesn’t mean it is right for every project. If someone can spot a site and know it’s yours, perhaps you are getting in the way of the work.

2. Write in a way that comes naturally.
Write in a way that comes easily and naturally to you, using words and phrases that come readily to mind. But do not assume that because you have acted naturally your product is without flaw.

The seduction of fashion, the desire to impress or stretch your skills are all pitfalls unless you temper them with your natural skills and temperament. Still, talent is not enough.

3. Work from a suitable design.
Before beginning to compose something, gauge the nature and extent of the enterprise and work from a suitable design. … Design informs even the simplest structure, whether of brick and steel or of prose. You raise a pup tent from one sort of vision, a cathedral from another.

It’s worth saying twice, both in the thin book and in this article, because it is so often forgotten. Context is everything.

4. Write with nouns and verbs.
Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs. The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place.

The nouns and verbs of web design are objects and widgets. If you have chosen the wrong widget, no amount of help text or arrows will fix the issue.

5. Revise and rewrite.
Revising is part of writing. Few writers are so expert that they can produce what they are after on the first try.

It’s painful when a client or a boss rejects your first design. Sometimes that initial effort seems perfect. But revision is a way to reach a better design. Or sometimes—and only sometimes—shed light on the perfection of the first. When this odd event occurs, it’s best not to be upset because no one recognized your initial brilliance. Instead, remember that design is as much process as result, and part of your job is to get everyone participating in the design to the end goal.

6. Do not overwrite.
Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating.

Beware of gratuitous use of flash, AJAX, and gradients.

7. Do not overstate.
When you overstate, readers will be instantly on guard, and everything that has preceded your overstatement as well as everything that follows it will be suspect in their minds because they have lost confidence in your judgment or your poise.

How many Verisign and trustE logos do you need in your sidebar? How many awards plaques?

8. Avoid the use of qualifiers.
Rather, very, little, pretty—these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.

In web design, the “qualifiers” are often styling. Just because you can create your own look and feel for a scroll bar doesn’t mean you should. Many of the browser defaults work quite well; do not overburden your users with your desire to show off your mastery of CSS.

9. Do not affect a breezy manner.
The volume of writing is enormous, these days, and much of it has a sort of windiness about it, almost as though the author were in a state of euphoria. “Spontaneous me,” sang Whitman, and, in his innocence, let loose the hordes of uninspired scribblers who would one day confuse spontaneity with genius.

Here White speaks to fashion. Just because Jeffrey Zeldman did it doesn’t mean you should. Or Jason Freid. Or IDEO. When you see a hyper-simple site, or one with scrolling photos, or one with 64 point type, ask yourself if you can and if you should pull it off.

10. Use orthodox spelling.
In ordinary composition, use orthodox spelling. Do not write nite for night, thru for through, pleez for please, unless you plan to introduce a complete system of simplified spelling and are prepared to take the consequences.

White goes on to quote Strunk:

The practical objection to unaccepted and oversimplified spellings is the disfavor with which they are received by the reader. They distract his attention and exhaust his patience. He reads the form though automatically, without thought of its needless complexity; he reads the abbreviation tho and mentally supplies the missing letters, at the cost of a fraction of his attention. The writer has defeated his own purpose.

Web standards. Don’t Make Me Think. Pattern language. Enough said.

11. Do not explain too much.
It is seldom advisable to tell all. Be sparing, for instance, in the use of adverbs after “he said,” “she replied,” and the like: “he said consolingly;” “she replied grumblingly.”

A lesson I have learned by working with web search is: if you want people to notice something useful, the worst thing you could do is adorn it with lines, colors, or animation. A light touch actually indicates to users that this is worth paying attention to; blue and underlined is often the most effective. The most usable is often also the most used.

12. Do not construct awkward adverbs.
Adverbs are easy to build. Take an adjective or a participle, add -ly, and behold! You have an adverb. But you’d probably be better off without it. Do not write tangledly.

We can now invent widgets from anything. Anything on the page can open, close, launch, select. Sometimes it is the perfect metaphor for the job—such as clicking a thumbnail to see a larger image—sometimes it just bewilders. Do not design tangledly.

13. Make sure the reader knows who is speaking.
Dialogue is a total loss unless you indicate who the speaker is.

When you read a rapid-fire conversation in a book, often the author drops the “he said” “she said.” But have you ever had to stop and count forward from when quotes stopped being labeled? It is the same with design; it’s better to have a hint unobtrusively available than to ask your audience to memorize and track everything on the site. It’s always a thin line between assuming your audience is a pack of morons and expecting them to remember the shortcut key you offered on the homepage. Try to strike a sensible balance.

14. Avoid fancy words.
Avoid the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute. Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.

Yup. Do I need to translate?

15. Do not use dialect unless your ear is good.
Do not attempt to use dialect unless you are a devoted student of the tongue you hope to reproduce. If you use dialect, be consistent.

Are you imitating an established style? Be sure that you understand it, and that you can keep it going throughout. The Onion is the reigning king of this proposition; their adherence to being a respected newspaper goes beyond the content to the design.

16. Be clear.
Clarity is not the prize in writing, nor is it always the principal mark of a good style. There are occasions when obscurity serves a literary yearning, if not a literary purpose, and there are writers whose mien is more overcast than clear. But since writing is communication, clarity can only be a virtue.

Clarity can only be a virtue. Tape that to your monitor.

17. Do not inject opinion.
Unless there is a good reason for its being there, do not inject opinion into a piece of writing. We all have opinions about almost everything, and the temptation to toss them in is great. To air one’s views gratuitously, however, is to imply that the demand for them is brisk, which may not be the case, and which, in any event, may not be relevant to the discussion.

You ought not say anything if you can’t say anything nice. Stick to the minimum to make your point. Just because you don’t want that item on the homepage doesn’t mean you have to make it khaki.

18. Use figures of speech sparingly.
The simile is a common device and a useful one, but similes coming in rapid fire, one right on top of another, are more distracting than illuminating.

Pick your poison: replace the term “similes” with “photos,” “diagrams,” “giant fonts,” “orange,” and so on …

19. Do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity.
Do not use initials for the names of organizations or movements unless you are certain the initials will be readily understood. Write things out. Not everyone knows that MADD means Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and even if everyone did, there are babies being born every minute who will someday encounter the name for the first time.

How many folks label a button “go” because they haven’t much space, or worse, remove the submit button completely because “everyone” knows you can just hit enter. Bite the bullet and redo the design, and make it clear.

20. Avoid foreign languages.
The writer will occasionally find it convenient or necessary to borrow from other languages. Some writers, however, from sheer exuberance or a desire to show off, sprinkle their work liberally with foreign expressions, with no regard for the reader’s comfort. It is a bad habit. Write in English.

The showy “foreign language” of the web is the language of early adapters. Really, not everyone uses, flickr, Google Earth, and not everyone speaks the language of their interfaces. Be cautious in your adoption of new paradigms.

21. Prefer the standard to the offbeat.
Young writers will be drawn at every turn toward eccentricities in language. They will hear the beat of new vocabularies, the exciting rhythms of special segments of their society, each speaking a language of its own. All of us come under the spell of these unsettling drums; the problem for beginners is to listen to them, learn the words, feel the vibrations, and not be carried away.

In art school, I was asked to copy master works. I didn’t understand why, until I began copying them; when you imitate you do actually learn. You don’t just copy, you understand why the brushstrokes went left then right, you know why bright green was used in a face. And when writing, I always wrote with the voice of whomever I was reading. Hemmingway made me economical, Salinger verbose.

When you work you can try on many hats but in the end, you have to find a way to once again hear your own voice and see your own design.

Your turn
These reminders are just the beginning. Try adding your own as you learn hard lessons, try collapsing some of his into a simpler reminder set. I often use “clarity, brevity, concreteness” to remind myself what I want from my work. It’s up to you to take from this source, or any other source, and incorporate it into your style and your approach.

I’d like to invite all of you now to share the interpretations or lessons you’ve learned that would enhance a list of reminders for designers. No one has all the answers, but by being open to learning from others we can all get a little better.