25 October 2014

A STROLL WITH RICHARD SAUL WURMAN (For World Development Information Day)

Richard Saul Wurman embodies creativity, curiosity, understanding, and innovation—all in one. An architect, designer, and author of 83 books; Wurman is best known for founding TED in 1984 which, 3 decades later, has grown into the biggest conference for discussing ideas and innovation around the world.

The following are some comments that Richard sent to me after a conversation where I asked him about his TED journey.


Richard: TED constitutes one big idea and many, many small ones. 

The big idea was, is, and will continue to be, the convergence of truthful ideas. The convergence of three disciplines; the technology business; the entertainment industry, and the design professions. In 1984 when I began, nobody had thought of convergence. Each discipline was a silo unto themselves. The next idea was that I set up a format that lasted for eighteen years, which encouraged improvisation and giving a speech for the first time. Not having CEO's or politicians, not being allowed to sell a book, a charity or anything from the stage. The idea was to be in front of the audience and have a conversation with them.

It is now 30 years later and "the dinner party I always wanted to have but couldn't" has turned into a global brand that has been influenced a great deal by the availability of social media, wifi and emails. During the first eighteen years that I ran it I video'd everything. These were not edited but rather put on DVD's and given to the audience.

Today there are TED Talks run by June Cohen and they've become a global way of spreading 'idea bites' around the world.

All in all TED was an amazing experience for me to indulge my interests and curiosity and thereby the interests of others.

On Selling TED, and the TEDx Program...

Richard: I sold the TED conference, that I chaired and curated, in 2003. I sold it to Imagine Media who then resold it at a deep discount to the Sapling Foundation. I've never dealt with the Sapling Foundation so I can't really answer any questions regarding what they do or how they manage things.

The TEDx idea; which I hadn't thought of at all and perhaps wouldn't have been in favor of at the time had it been suggested, I think is the best idea that has come from TED. Lara Stein, who created it and developed an international network of the TEDx meetings, which have some of the spontaneity and non-edited informality of the original TED, started an incredible movement. Alas, Lara Stein is no longer with TED and I am hopeful that it continues with the same embedded enthusiasm and truthfulness that it did during her time in charge.

(L-R) Richard and Chris Anderson on the TED stage in 2014 

TEDMED, eg, and the WWW Conference

Richard: I started the TEDMED conference in 1995, which is eight years before I sold TED, and I specifically didn't sell TEDMED to Imagine Media. That was out of the contract. I believe I did seven TEDMED's and then it was taken over by another party. I started the eg conference, which is now run by another party and I created the WWW conference in September, 2012. It turned out that that conference, in my opinion, was the best conference I ever did. I somehow learnt to do a good conference. The subtext was "Intellectual Jazz" and it was totally improvised.

People didn't face the audience, they didn't sell anything, there was no screen behind them, there was no AV in that sense. There is an app that shows the entire, unedited conference for everyone to see. I had better speakers than I ever had in the eighteen years I ran TED. I don't know the speakers since as I haven't gone to TED regularly since I sold it.

Information Architecture and the concept of ‘understanding’...

Richard: I created the term information architecture, when in 1975 I was chosen to do the AIA (American Institute of Architects) national conference as its chairman. The conference was in 1976, the 200th anniversary of the United States, and I called the conference The Architecture of Information and at that time started calling myself an information architect. You could certainly use the term information design; you could use many other terms to basically describe a desire of mine, which is to make the complex clear and to understand things.

Information architecture is allowing the word information to give a big hug to the word inform, which makes up more than half of the word. 

Most information is just stuff. It's just data. I worship understanding and all of information architecture is the discipline of making things understandable.

You can call it what you like. I don't think there should be more or less of anybody or anything. I thought up the term and I call myself an information architect and I really don't care what other people call themselves. I do care that when I read things, see things, talk to people, I am informed. I care that when they ask me questions, that they have an honest quest and the combination of those two fundamental basic words is the "informed quest", which is what I believe to be a good question. 

I am only interested in understanding things. I am interested in trying to assuage my ignorance and curiosity and fill up the big black hole which is my walking stupidity. Fill up the hole with the things that interest me. I use various tools to do that; talking to people, having people talk to me, doing some research, doing graphics, having people do graphics for me.

We have only three tools. We have visual tools, numerical tools and we have words. The combination of those three is what we have at this moment to allow us to understand.

Understanding was the goal of TED and of all the subsequent conferences, and the subject of my 83 books.

(Images Credit: Melissa Mahoney, James Duncan Davidson)