Design your life

A conversation with Richard Saul Wurman — founder of TED, a conference that since 1984 has evolved into one of the world's most eagerly anticipated and influentials summits — allows Brendan McGetrick to distill the seven secrets of a "Highly Effective Person".

This article was originally published in Domus 963 / October 2012

At a certain point in our conversation, the architect, author and TED conference-founder Richard Saul Wurman decides to inform me of how little he stands to gain from the experience. "I've never met you before," he says, truthfully. "I don't know your family. You're not gonna do any good for me. You're not gonna get me jobs or a grant. There is nothing that I can see that has a direct result of pleasing you." He explains all this about an hour into our interview and shortly thereafter my ears tune out and I find myself scanning the bookshelves just above his head. There are maps and journals, drawings and photos of Wurman and others.

On a low shelf is a magazine apparently called Successful. Beneath the word — rendered in red, all caps — is a portrait of the man himself, slightly younger but more or less the same: silver crewcut hair, round face with beard and bulbous nose, mischievous smirk and light, appraising eyes. Just above his left eyebrow, in much smaller letters, so small that they span only the space beneath "Ful", it reads "Meetings". Apparently that is a magazine. Successful Meetings magazine. Wurman is their cover boy and deservedly so — he is an absolutely first-rate meeting-maker, a visionary in fact.

When I return to the discussion my partner appears to be arriving at a conclusion. "What I'm trying to get at is a series of points that show, whatever you write about, that I'm not a model. I don't have a so-called philosophy that is worthwhile for anybody. The fact that I've survived is the magic. The magic is that somebody as abrasive and dissonant as I am, with basically no skill sets, can survive opulently in this world without trying to."

By this point in our talk, I understand that Richard Wurman is prone to overstatement. Throughout the interview he has delivered pithy, quote-friendly pronouncements like, "The worst person to hire is an expert," and, "Young people are the oldest people around." This magic/model stuff sounds catchy and empty to me, and I'm pretty sure that there is nothing supernatural or even particularly special about the rise of Ricky Wurman. To prove it, I decide to define a model of the man's success. What follows is a draft: The RSW Model (or 7 Habits of a Highly Effective Person).

1. Follow your fascinations
In his 1989 book Information Anxiety, Richard Wurman writes: "Your work should be an extended hobby." There is little doubt that the author lives by these words. Since the 1960s, Wurman's professional output has been driven by his personal obsessions, and a cursory review of the more than 80 books he's made over the years reveals a man of distinct passions. There is a dog manual (Dog Access, 1984); there is something on hats (Design Quarterly 145, 1989); there are two volumes dedicated to the work of Louis Kahn (The Notebooks and Drawings of Louis I. Kahn, 1973; What Will Be Has Always Been, 1986). There are multiple atlases and brochures on medicine and on money, and there are guidebooks covering an enormous range of subjects, including guidebooks (A Guidebook to Guidebooks, 1973).
Richard Saul Wurman
lives in a 19th-century house
that is a copy of a French
18th-century building, in
Newport, Rhode Island.
Besides being an architect
and graphic designer, he has
curiously also been concerned
with archaeology. After
founding the TED Conferences
in 1984, Wurman sold the
format in 2001 to Chris
Anderson for 14 million dollars
Richard Saul Wurman lives in a 19th-century house that is a copy of a French 18th-century building, in Newport, Rhode Island. Besides being an architect and graphic designer, he has curiously also been concerned with archaeology. After founding the TED Conferences in 1984, Wurman sold the format in 2001 to Chris Anderson for 14 million dollars
Taken out of sequence, these subjects appear random, but read in chronological order a kind of narrative emerges. In the 1960s, Wurman, a Kahn protégé with built projects already under his belt, makes his first efforts at defining a common language for representing and contrasting cities. With student assistants, he produces earnest works with titles of touching blandness, such as Various Dwellings Described in a Comparative Manner (1964).

In the 1970s Wurman's focus shifts from form to performance. He examines cities and develops tools for communicating their qualities. The effort yields publications that underline user experience — handbooks, guides and educational supplements. Besides working as an architect, Wurman organises events — the 1972 International Design Conference in Aspen, the Federal Design Assembly in 1973, and the American Institute of Architects Conference in 1976. He approaches these in the same spirit as his books, emphasising engagement and exploration, using the gatherings as platforms for urban adventure. At the AIA Conference Wurman coins the term "Information Architect". His architectural practice closes shortly after.

By the 1980s Richard Wurman is living in California and producing guides of all kinds. The first is Los Angeles Access, a book produced in what the author describes as "a full state of disorientation" and comprised of the info that he needed after moving from his native Philadelphia. Subsequent guides, all titled Access and published by Wurman's Access Press, make more comprehensible Paris, baseball, Polaroid, the 1984 Olympics, the aforementioned dogs, and more. In 1984, Wurman organises the first TED Conference — more on that later. In 1989 he releases Information Anxiety, a book-length manifesto on information design that applies techniques developed in the guides to new and more abstract subjects. In 1990 he sells his publishing company to HarperCollins.

TED takes off in the 1990s and book output decreases. The publications Wurman does produce reflect his increasing involvement in the areas of technology (Danny Goodman's Macintosh Handbook, 1992), entertainment (Twin Peaks Access, 1991) and design (Information Architects, 1997). In 2000, Richard Wurman turns 65. He produces a sequel to Information Anxiety, but the majority of his books address issues of physical and financial health. Can I Afford to Retire? (2000) is followed by Wills, Trusts & Estate Planning (2001). Understanding Healthcare (2004) follows Diagnostic Tests for Men (2001). In 2009 Wurman creates 33: Understanding Change & the Change in Understanding. The book commemorates the anniversary of the 1976 AIA Conference and updates a fable that Wurman wrote for that event. 33 is a kind of victory lap, an Important Person's attempt to communicate a career's worth of lessons to an uninformed public.

In a section entitled "The Design Your Life Episode", Wurman writes: "I really measure my life by what I want to do every day. That's a design problem, if you want to call it that, that we have an effect upon… We can decide what to do, what our trade-offs are." Seated in his study, surrounded by his books and hundreds of others, the author restates this point and adds, "From early childhood, every one of your teachers and your parents want to know what you want to do. They expect that if you then lock in and continue on that path with energy, if you're upwardly mobile and intelligent and all those other things, you're going to move ahead and become more and more successful. Success is usually a term that means partly money and partly achievement, position and power, and so for most of my life I was highly unsuccessful in society's terms."

It is probably worth noting at this point that our conversation is taking place inside Wurman's gated 8-acre estate, in a 19th-century American copy of an 18th-century French country house that includes 3 swimming pools, 13 bedrooms and, according to the Home & Garden section of The New York Times, "11 perfectly maintained period fireplaces and 11 perfectly maintained period bathrooms". Wurman has worked on the place and considers it part of his architectural portfolio; he designed the landscaping and the largest pool and even the desk separating us — triangular, with stout legs and a glass top — over which he now leans and says in soft tones, "I think it's more interesting to have the terror of doing things you don't know how to do. But it is more difficult than if you just keep on doing one thing better. It's uncomfortable. The very nature of my life is a life of terror."

Re: Terror. You will find this word in every Richard Wurman interview. Wurman loves this word. He does not respect this word. A more appropriate term to describe the condition that apparently defines his industrious, appetitive existence would be "anxiety" or perhaps "discomfort". The discomfort that all ambitious workers feel when attempting something they have never done before, for higher stakes than they are accustomed to. It is a sensation commensurate with risk and should be acknowledged by anyone attempting to apply the RSW model, but should in no circumstances be confused with terror, an important word that has been honed by millions of mouths over hundreds of years of distinctly non-work-related horror. Wurman misuses it for effect, and advises others to do the same. "Embellish with flourish," he counsels readers in Information Anxiety, "To clarify or highlight something, you exaggerate it."
Defined by <em>Fortune</em>
magazine as “an intellectual
hedonist”, Wurman is
clearly working on a new
conference format, titled
WWW Conference. The letters
www in the name derive from
significant words like water,
war, wonder and witness
Defined by Fortune magazine as “an intellectual hedonist”, Wurman is clearly working on a new conference format, titled WWW Conference. The letters www in the name derive from significant words like water, war, wonder and witness
2. Document your journey from ignorance to understanding
Another favourite Richard Wurman term is ignorance. He uses this as often but more appropriately than terror, and when inclined spices it up with synonymous phrases like "know nothing" and "know dick shit", the latter of which he applied to comic effect in his keynote address at "Why Design Now?", a conference arranged by GE and the Cooper-Hewitt Museum. "I can attack anything that interests me and try to find the pattern that would take me on this journey from not knowing to knowing," he announced to his Lincoln Center audience. "That journey is the excitement I have everyday because I don't know dick shit! I start and there's something that interests me and I pursue this journey trying to ask questions and find out how to get so I can feel, viscerally, that I understand something."

Wurman's gift is the ability to communicate this private experience in a manner fit for public use. His work is the visual record of his own learning process, a process triggered by the sense of anxious disorientation that all information-age inhabitants experience, expressed in a language that we can understand. "Embracing your ignorance is the way to understand better," Wurman writes in 33, "and that understanding is power."

3. Counter convention
Wurman is most animated when discussing dysfunction. If fear is his primary motivator, frustration is a close second, and in explaining the inspiration behind his best-known work, he mentions few aspirations and a large number of complaints. "Everyone talks about how innovative TED was," he says, "and it was innovative, but the innovation came from subtraction. I subtracted all the things that I couldn't bare about going to meetings. I hated panels and I hated white guys in suits and I hated lecterns and I hated long speeches and I hated people reading speeches and I hated that it was all about one subject. People selling things from the stage — selling guilt and selling charities and selling books — I hated all those things! And basically my innovation was taking all of that shit away. It was subtraction, in the way that the Bauhaus, as I look back at it, was a whole movement of subtraction."

For a while there, TED truly was the antithesis of all that — the informal, social, multidisciplinary answer to uptight industry-standard gatherings. Now though, it is simply another standard and Wurman speaks of the franchise, which he sold in 2001, as a "20th-century model". In response, he is organising a new kind of meeting, the WWW Conference, for which the plan is to cut further from TED's seemingly stripped-down frame. "In the newest meeting, I'm subtracting presentations, subtracting time," he says. "I'm taking things away to see what's left. What's the essence?" The result will be a conference composed entirely of improvised conversations, possibly set to improvised music (performed by Herbie Hancock and Yo-Yo Ma). It is an experiment, like all of Wurman's projects, uncertain of success — "I don't have a business model. I'm terrified about that. At this moment I'm up to lose about 750,000 dollars." — but consistent with the conference designer's time-tested model of invention through the rejection of what's currently considered to work.
It’s only if you keep building on what you’ve done that it bothers you. I’m not building on what I’ve done. It’s not of interest to me. It’s boring
In the organisation of these
WWW Conferences, Wurman
has involved a group of
personalities from widely
assorted backgrounds:
from Yo-Yo Ma and Herbie
Hancock to William R. Hearst
In the organisation of these WWW Conferences, Wurman has involved a group of personalities from widely assorted backgrounds: from Yo-Yo Ma and Herbie Hancock to William R. Hearst III
4. Claim no field. Invade all fields
Although he left his Philadelphia practice years ago, Richard Wurman still talks of architecture with the intimacy of an active participant. Explaining the multidisciplinary impulses behind TED, he says, "The interesting thing about architecture is that it isn't siloed." Siloed is a Silicon Valley adjective that essentially means professionally or intellectually exclusive. "What you are being trained to do is house any of man's activities… so you're open to come into every problem being ignorant — because you can't possibly know about all those things. In that sense, architectural training, in its lack of specificity and openness to learn about each problem you solve, is not a bad way to do it."

Since the 1970s Wurman has described himself as an information architect. In 33, he defines it: "I don't mean a bricks-and-mortar architect. I mean architect as in the creating of systemic, structural and orderly principles to make something work — the thoughtful making of either artefact, or idea, or policy that informs because it is clear." The idea of information architecture is one of Wurman's most valuable, not only for its enduring idiomatic charm, but also because it allowed its inventor to establish for himself an entirely new profession from which he — as the de facto #1 expert — could enter almost any other field, advocate any strategy and condemn any trend, all the while enjoying non-committal outsider status.

5. Do good work
At some point I suggest that it would be interesting for Wurman to apply his skills to developing tools for the "life design" he writes about in 33. Given the enormous amounts of behavioural data currently being collected in the streets, in our pockets and online, are we not better equipped than ever to examine our fascinations and develop careers based on the Wurmanian model of an extended hobby? Wouldn't the author of this model be the ideal person to lead the effort? This is his answer: "Unless I misunderstand you, implicit in what you just said would be the desire for me to make a change in the world or to clarify something for other people. I'm not interested in that." Here he takes a reflective pause during which I assume he is formulating a way to soften the preceding point. This assumption is wrong. He continues, "I'd have to be motivated to want to do that, and I know that in the PC milieu in which we are living, you're supposed to want to change things for the better. I believe as fundamentally as I believe anything that if I do good work — in my judgement good work — I will affect people. But never will I try to have an affect on people."

Do good work. This is another Richard Wurman maxim, attributed to Mies. He invokes it often, in conversation and on stage and, to his credit, he does not hide behind the phrase's ambiguity. Wurman is very clear about what good work is and who defines it: good work is work deemed good by Richard Wurman. He is judge and jury. Though he clearly relishes his personal connections and professional accolades, these are, apparently, collateral benefits from a life of highly industrious narcissism. When I suggest that the app he is developing for the WWW Conference could be useful in extending the life of the event and opening it to the outside world, he says, "I don't care about that. I just care that this would be interesting for me to do, an interesting problem to solve. This is something that I would like to happen. This is not for the good of humanity."

6. Cultivate childishness
It occurs to me at this point that Richard Wurman behaves like a 77-year-old child. I do not mean this to be condescending or dismissive. It is one of the things I like most about him. He seems to have somehow maintained a portion of preoperational egocentrism and the world is richer as a result.

Wurman does not pine for past projects. "I don't think that anything I come up with will be there for any length of time," he says. When the work is done and it's achieved the level of idiosyncratic goodness that Wurman demands, he sets it aside and moves on in that inexplicable, admirable manner of a toddler who, having spent the better part of a morning meticulously constructing some sort of block-based sculpture, demolishes her work without comment and leaves the room in search of juice. When I ask how it feels to watch TED evolve without him he says, "Things run their course. It's only if you keep building on what you've done that it bothers you. I'm not building on what I've done. It's not of interest to me. It's boring."
With the WWW Conference, Wurman's idea is to cause a sort
of “intellectual jam session”,
using an app to make the
contents of their meetings
available to all
With the WWW Conference, Wurman's idea is to cause a sort of “intellectual jam session”, using an app to make the contents of their meetings available to all
7. Use others frequently and shamelessly
Wurman exhibits another enormously useful, unmistakably childish behaviour — the wanton manipulation of people for personal gain. He is a user of legendary proportions, a man who, back in the TED days, was known to introduce himself by saying, "You don't know me, but you owe me." Harry Marks, the man with whom Wurman started TED, was so disturbed by his partner's exploits that he sold Wurman his half of the enterprise for one dollar. Wurman later offered to return Marks' 50 per cent ownership stake, but he refused. "He uses people in a way I can't deal with," Marks told Wired's Gary Wolf. "I couldn't face them."

Wurman, by all accounts, feels none of his friend's misgivings. "I live by two credos," he says, "If you don't ask, you don't get. And most things don't work."

Throughout the interview, Wurman asks questions about me — how old are you… where are you from… what did you study… Towards the end, I mention an exhibition that I'd curated the previous year together with Ai Weiwei. The intention of that show was to stretch to the definition of design and I point out that Wurman's notion of designing your life jibes with it. This elicits no response, but my reference to China's most recognisable artist/ activist clearly intrigues him. A new set of questions follows, about Ai's work, personality and current condition. "Is it possible to get to him to have a conversation?" he asks. "He's allowed to do that?" I answer yes and then it hits me: I now have something Richard Wurman can use! I feel redeemed and then ashamed and in that micro moment of doubt, the master makes his move: "And you can… get me to Weiwei in some way?" Brendan McGetrick, architecture critic and journalist

Born in Philadelphia, Richard Saul Wurman studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, where he graduated in 1959. He worked for Louis Kahn, and his official biography states that "the only two bosses he ever had who didn't fire him were Lou Kahn and Charlie Eames". After abandoning architecture, Wurman turned to the most diverse scenes. In 1976 he coined the term "Information Architecture", and subsequently published 83 books of essays and guides to all manner of subjects. With Anne Tyng (see Domus no. 947), in 1986 he edited What Will Be Has Always Been, a collection of Kahn's writings and lectures.

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