In IA Thought, Information Architecture

The first time I got to see Richard Saul Wurman give a talk was in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in March of 2009, during the Penny Stamps lecture series. Two weeks ago, I got to see him give three talks in Grand Rapids, Michigan, over the course of just 25 hours. Were it not for equipment failures at O’Hare, Mr. Wurman would have given a fourth.

The Understanding Group founders Bob Royce and Dan Klyn

Bob and Dan in 2009

In what turns out to be the first in a propitious series of events leading to the founding of TUG, the only other person living in Ann Arbor in 2009 whom I knew was a co-enthusiast about the works of Mr. Wurman was Bob Royce. The two of us sat together in the fourth row at the Michigan Theater and witnessed Mr. Wurman doing what Mr. Wurman does: indulge his interests.

More often than not during the 12 years he ran the (now-legendary) TED conference, Mr. Wurman sat in a chair on the stage. That’s one of the reasons so many of the great talks from that era are not available on TED.com—it’s nearly impossible to crop him out of the shot. He was as interested in the audience as he was in the “content,” and therefore required the ability to see and engage with both. This meant sitting on the stage during the talks and lighting the hall to make it possible to see audience members’ faces. Consequent to Mr. Wurman’s requirement for house lights to be up during talks, video under those conditions looks bad. That’s another reason those original TED videos remain largely unseen.

And when the talks went too long or got boring, he’d simply get up out of his chair and escort the speaker offstage.

Because it was no longer interesting.

Being interested—and thereby connecting and inter-connecting the things he finds interesting in a process toward understanding—is the only activity RSW cares about.

In collecting my thoughts about the experience I had while accompanying Mr. Wurman for 25 hours in my hometown as part of West Michigan Design Week and TEDx Grand Rapids, I see patterns. Patterns connecting back to the original TED gatherings and to that Penny Stamps lecture in 2009.

The first thing he did while walking out to take his place in an overstuffed chair at the very edge of the stage in Ann Arbor in 2009 was ask the audience to move up and fill in the front rows. Then, as ever, his desire was to have a conversation, which requires making eye contact and holding the gaze of the attendees so that he could see for himself that he was being understood. You can see him pleading with the audience at the 4 minute, 50 second mark in the video.

He had the same demands about house lights being up during his talk at TEDx Grand Rapids. And he insisted the chairs provided for the two of us be as close to the edge of the stage as possible.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/tedxgrandrapids/14173874111/in/photostream/

Richard Saul Wurman and Dan Klyn at TEDxGR 2014

In his Penny Stamps lecture, Mr. Wurman went longer than the pre-appointed time slot of 45 minutes, and he voiced regret about having had quite more to say before somewhat abruptly bidding the audience goodbye and leaving the stage. At TEDx, the appointed time slot was 30 minutes, which is long for a TED talk. Even so, he went longer. And, true to form, he voiced regret about having had quite more to say before somewhat abruptly leaving the stage.

His assessment upon leaving the stage at TEDx was that it was not a good speech. I am more in need of comfortable inter-personal relations and self-assessment than Mr. Wurman, by a wide margin, and when I look at the Twitter comments about his appearance, my assessment is more generous.

However disappointed RSW was with his TEDx appearance, his assessment of the keynote talk he gave for Design Week the night before at Fountain Street Church was quite the opposite. There’s the saying (attributed to Churchill) about how we shape our buildings and how thereafter they shape us. I think Fountain Street Church itself, and the marvel of the space within its sanctuary, played a significant role in that talk being among the best he’s ever given.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/aigawestmi/14166891352/

Reprising the pattern I’ve seen him enact in other cities and at other venues (the 2010 IA Summit in Phoenix being one example), Mr. Wurman closed his keynote at Fountain Street Church by asking the audience for two questions, with a caveat that taking questions after a speech is rarely a good idea because what you typically get is “speeches and bad questions.”

The first question from the audience was something along the lines of “where do you get your inspiration from?” Mr. Wurman’s answer came quickly, and it served as a sort of mind-bomb for several attendees I spoke with afterward who weren’t expecting to have the foundations of their systems of belief and motivation up-ended.

Simple answer: FEAR.

Fear of not being interested in things. Fear of being humiliated when the things you said you were going to do don’t happen. Fear of stagnation. Fear of complacency. Fear of not understanding.

He elaborated by saying “comfort is not your friend.”

If you let that one work on you for a few minutes, it begs all kinds of questions about how one might go about the design of one’s life. In a conversation with students from KCAD before his keynote, Mr. Wurman insisted that’s the only kind of design that matters: the design of your life.

The second question from the audience was one that RSW wanted to clarify before responding: “what do you want to be when you grow up?” Mr. Wurman’s initial delay in responding appeared to me to be about confirming that it was a sincere question—as opposed to somebody trying to be cute.

Because, I think, the answer he wanted to give and eventually did give is part of a pattern that Mr. Wurman holds sacred. Indeed, he cried in the course of replying to the question by saying that his beloved mentor Louis Kahn was “the youngest man I’ve ever known.”

In countless interviews, books, conferences, maps, and conversations, Mr. Wurman celebrates and reveres that child-like innocence of Kahn’s and the doorway of clarity it provides into complex problems.

I think what Mr. Wurman wants to be when he grows up is to be like Louis Kahn. And further: this achievement has been unlocked.

In the preface to What Will Be Has Always Been—The Words of Louis I. Kahn, the first instance I know of in print where RSW shares his assessment of Kahn being the youngest person he’s ever known, Richard Saul Wurman recounts both the intellectual as well as the physical and spiritual power and vigor of Kahn in his 70s, racing up the several flights of stairs to his office on Walnut Street in Philadelphia.

Having spent 25 hours with Kahn’s now-79 year old protege, I can tell you it’s not easy to keep pace. And I think by now you’ve gathered what I want to be when I grow up.

Showing 2 comments
  • Jocelyn Edin

    The only kind of design that matters, the design of your life. Resonating strongly with me right now. Thanks for this post Dan.

  • Greg Nudelman

    Wow, Dan — that was INTENSE! Thank you for posting that! I am a huge fan of RSW and hear him echo my own feeling so precisely and remind me of what I’d forgotten is resonating strongly right now. I have been complacent, indeed! — but no more!

    Greg

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