Richard Saul Wurman: A possible map of RSW (or, one iteration thereof…)

Richard Saul WurmanRichard Saul Wurman gladly provides the lead for his own story: Out of everything he has accomplished in his intriguing career, he is most proud of receiving the 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum.

If innovation is partially about subtraction, as Wurman asserts, then we must subtract all of his professional accomplishments from this piece. What’s left behind is a map. 

Follow the inspirationThe map is constructed through the exercise of Wurman’s passion: comparative information, the notion that we understand something only relative to what we already understand. Everything he does is “just another step along the same Johnny-one-note idea.” Every book, every conference, every design is a comparative experiment on how he can get people closer to telling the truth.

The map is not complete, but it is gaining texture. Wurman does not complicate its creation by worrying over how people will receive it. “I don’t have a mission to make it understandable to other people,” he says of his overall body of work. “If you try to have that effect, it affects your own work. I don’t want to change my work. I already have a client. That client’s me.”

When he wants to learn something, he seeks out a group of potentially useful individuals who can help him get there. “I do most everything like a pickup baseball team. My fuel is the enthusiasm of others." 

He says he gets away with a lot because he has a track record of doing things that pass muster. He does his homework, and he pays attention: “I have worked very hard to be a superb listener. I listen as hard as I can.” Two ears, one mouth.

Wurman identifies himself as a student of Louis Kahn, a major architect of the 20th century. From Kahn, he learned not to be tethered to an idea. Starting with an end product in mind distorts the design. It is a presumption against nature, an unwillingness to let materials, spaces or people have their own presence.

One cannot set out to design a beautiful building, Wurman says: “A building has to become what it wants to become. When something is incredibly well-designed, it becomes beautiful.”

Wurman prefers to observe as the design takes hold. “I love patterns,” he says. “Everything in my head connects and can be mapped, and the mapping of that is fascinating to me.”

He watches and waits to be fascinated. He will put a group of spectacularly extraordinary people on a stage just to see what they will talk about. Hopefully, they won’t be boring, and we will witness something true.

He insists that the conferences he has created over the years are just for him. He doesn’t care about the audience. But as he makes something understandable to himself, he brings patterns to the surface where others can see them as well. He is known for making the complex clear. “I’m just trying to understand things,” he says, “I’m not trying to change the world.”

He considers “expertise” an empty notion, and what generally passes as “information” to be just the opposite. They add nothing to the map he is working on. “We worry about stuff that we think is information that is actually data,” he says. And we don’t get true information because we “blither out” meaningless questions. “We ask bad questions because we don’t have a quest.” 

Wurman is on a perpetual quest. He says he doesn’t have rules—he has a life. “I would like tomorrow to be interesting. I would like the day after tomorrow to be interesting, for every day to be different, to be surprised, not have it planned. Interesting days, that’s what life is.”

A single, good conversation could make that happen.

Years ago, Wurman used to paint 12 hours a week, but he got away from it. Now he is gravitating back toward that solitary, aesthetic practice. What appears on his canvas today may be a map of where he’s been or part of the quest he is still on. Who knows? It will become what it wants to become.

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