Trying to Understand the Daddy of Data Angst: Richard Saul Wurman

By Gerstner, John | Communication World, May-June 1990 | Go to article overview

Trying to Understand the Daddy of Data Angst: Richard Saul Wurman


Gerstner, John, Communication World


Feeling anxious and not sure why? Maybe it's all the stuff that's floating in your mailbox every day. If you can believe what you read, the amount of available information is now doubling every five years; soon it will be doubling every four. More new information has been produced in the last 30 years than in the previous 5,000. That's a lot of books, newspapers, bulletins, brochures, memos, reports, manuals, computer printouts, digests and ... bullcrap ... says Richard Saul Wurman.

Wurman-a large, relaxed, successful eccentric who loves to eat and sometimes cuss-has his finger stuck in the Great Dam of Information Overload, and he's screaming: Run To Higher Ground. And quite a few people are at least listening.

His popular and critically acclaimed 1989 book "Information Anxiety," established him as the spiritual leader for communications enlightenment. The book is a breezy, wide-angle view of how the information explosion has backfired, leaving us swamped with facts but starved for understanding. We're left anxious, according to the big type on the cover, by the ever-widening gap between what we understand and what we think we should understand. We're left stranded in the "black hole that happens when information doesn't tell us what we want or need to know. Such as how to set the damn VCR," says Wurman.

His simple advice is to accept that the transmission of information has outgrown our ability to handle it. ("Admitting you can't keep up with everything is the first step out of information anxiety.")

Next, get comfortable with saying "I don't know" when people mention things that you don't know anything about. ("It's the only way to know. It gives the signal that you want to know and that you have the confidence to say you don't know. That's a powerful signal.")

Third, Wurman advises, stop scouring every scrap of paper that winds up in your mailbox. ("Figure out what's germane to your life and ignore everything that isn't essential.")

So far in his 54 years Wurman has been an architect, graphic designer, cartographer, author, artist, college professor and dean, government bureaucrat, communication consultant and conference organizer. Prior to "Information Anxiety," his 45th book, Wurman has been best known for his two-dozen colorful and playful Access Guides to major cities, plus other subjects including the Olympics, the Wall Street Journal and medical procedures.

He is now president of The Understanding Business (Wurman delights in telling people the acronym spells TUB) with offices in New York, his home, and San Francisco. A major recent project was the redesign of Pacific Bell's Yellow Pages.

The new SMART Yellow Pages are a combination guide book and Whole Earth Catalogue, with maps, calendars and seating charts as well as phone numbers.

His ACCESSpress Ltd., has also just published a new road atlas of the US. New books are planned on the structure of instructions, the 1992 US presidential campaign, and the 1990 census. In February 1990, Wurman hosted TED2, his second Technology Entertainment Design Conference in Monterey, Calif. It was billed as "The Ultimate Communications Conference."

Trying to capture Richard Saul Wurman in words is like trying to eat Jello [R] with your fingers ... great fun, but who can be neat? Other members of the press have affectionately dubbed Wurman "The Data Doctor," "The Daddy of Data Angst" and "The P. T. Barnum of Information Design." They report that he flatly refuses to fill out forms, write personal checks, deal with lawyers or wear a suit. He also cuts his own hair and orders his clothes by mail.

He is married to the novelist Gloria Nagy, who said this about her husband in the San Francisco Examiner: "People are always on Richard because he's overweight, but that's always who he is-he's got this bear-like, cheerful, cuddly thing about him. To Richard, his body is just something he lugs around. …

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