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The Design of Your Life: TED Founder Richard Saul Wurman Visits KCAD

Posted May 29, 2014 in Classes & Presentations

No disrespect to actor Jonathan Goldsmith (of Dos Equis advertising fame), but Richard Saul Wurman may very well be the most interesting man in the world.

Since graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with innumerable honors in 1959, Wurman has been an architect, teacher, dean, urban designer, cartographer, graphic designer, information theorist, author of 83 books, and founder of the massively popular TED conferences. However, despite the impressive pedigree and enormous influence of his career, the 79-year-old remains largely driven by what he doesn’t yet understand.

Wurman was recently in town as a featured speaker of both West Michigan Design Week and TEDxGrand Rapids, and when he paid an impromptu visit to KCAD, those who were lucky enough to find a seat had the pleasure of hearing him speak passionately about the universal importance of understanding.

Richard Saul Wurman at KCADKCAD Director of Community Engagement Katie Moore shares a laugh with Richard Saul Wurman during his visit to campus

“I like to question the minutia, to get to the essence of things,” Wurman said. “The minutia of life is all about design. It’s about the design of how you talk to another human being; it’s the design of speech; it’s the design of everything we do. We need to be better at listening, and we need to aim more directly at understanding and being understood.”

Wurman is acknowledged as the father of information architecture, defined loosely as the structural design of shared information environments. He believes that in order for information to be widely usable and understandable, it must be presented through creative use of visual communication and comparative analysis.

“Early in my life I had an epiphany. It wasn’t a religious epiphany, but it became my religion,” he said. “I just didn’t understand a thing. I was empty. I was blank. I was the top student at the University of Pennsylvania School of Architecture. I had the highest average of anybody and I took more courses than anyone had ever taken there before, had all the fellowships and etcetera, and I was absolutely vacuous. Everything I knew had been taught to me, so the organization of information in a way that revealed new patterns became so interesting to me.”

books artworkWurman addressing those lucky enough to find a seat at his improptu presentation

From his first book, which presented models of 50 world cities all constructed on a uniform scale, to his latest project, 19.20.21, a multimedia initiative that examines 19 cities with a population of over 20 million people in the 21st century, Wurman has championed comparative analysis as the key to deriving meaning from information.

“You only understand something relative to what you understand,” Wurman said.

To drive this point home, he asked the audience to imagine the blue whale. Research will tell you that the blue whale is the largest animal known on earth, or more specifically that it grows to a length of 70-90 feet and a weight of 100-150 tons. But rather than trying to imagine what those numbers look like, Wurman invited the audience to consider instead that the blue whale’s tongue is the size of a school bus, that its heart is the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, and that its aorta is large enough for a person to swim through.

The lightbulbs went on.

But Wurman continued, telling the crowd the most daunting design challenge we face as human beings isn’t concerned with information, or architecture, or cities, or technology – it’s the design of our lives, the choices we make, the actions we take, the people we connect with, the passions we explore, and the opportunities we choose to either pass up or embrace.

“Starting off as a private and ending up as a general is not the only silo,” Wurman said. “Your silo can fall over and you can be interested in anything and everything.”


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