Summer 1998

Form follows performance

Richard Saul Wurman, FAIA, is an architect, cartographer and the author and designer of more than 60 books. He founded the TED conferences, which “focus on the merging & converging of the fields of Technology, Entertainment and Design”. Wurman coined the term “Information Architecture” in 1976 when he was chairman of the national convention of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and devised the theme “The Architecture of Information”.

SH: Information Architecture is a term you coined over two decades ago to define the schism in visual communication. What does this mean to you today?

RSW: Information Architecture is about the ability to make the complex clear, with an emphasis on understanding as opposed to styling. For example, a good phone call is information architecture.

Now, after 22 years, there are people who actually have “information architect” on their cards as opposed to “graphic designer”. But there remains a fundamental schism: the gold medal heroes of our profession, the ones held near and dear by most members of the AIGA, are still the stylists.

SH: So is that the key difference?

RSW: You can make something good that will also be handsome. But you cannot make something look good, different and stylish, and then hope to find your way back to making it understandable. I celebrate understanding. Our duty as communicators is to make things understandable. If, in an artful way, you make them understandable, they are also handsome: not so much “form follows function” as “form follows performance”. For example Beck’s London Underground diagram is an ubiquitous piece of graphic design that communicates and makes things understandable to masses of people. And it certainly is handsome.

SH: What about the Swiss School? Was that stylisation or was that information?

RSW: The Swiss School has formality and arrangement, but it is not a deep way of understanding. There are people in that movement who have made wonderful pictograms, which are nice things for an information architect to use, but they are not Information Architecture in the broadest sense: it is like serving tea – not a whole dinner! It’s not a way of life, it’s manners.

SH: You have a problem with pictograms?

RSW: I don’t think pictograms are bad. I’m not trying to be picky. There are wonderful pictograms done for the Olympics and all. They can clarify things. They help you make choices. They are a kind of vocabulary of understanding. I find it strange that they redo them every time there’s an Olympics, though.

SH: The last decade has seen an increase in information on more media than, I suspect, even you anticipated.

RSW: There has not been an “information explosion” – there has been an explosion of non-information, meaningless stuff. Non-information and misinformation are different things. Most things we call “information” are not information. You might have a whole bunch of numbers, huge amounts of data, that could be absolutely accurate, but you cannot understand them. The disease is when this stuff does not tell you what you want or need to know. The cure is good information architecture.

SH: Did you ever predict the extent to which the Web and other electronic media would be taking over? What is the role of the information architect in this new media world?

RSW: I anticipated the explosion and the increasing power of communication, but not to the extent of what is happening now. I did not predict the Web, for example. But I said in speeches fifteen years ago that “this is where all the work is going to be in the future – don’t you guys get it?” I went round school by school to say: “You should get a degree in information architecture: this should be a real focus of attention. It’s not a matter of doing a beautiful map; it’s about doing a map that works.” I said that at Art Center, and I did it in Philadelphia College of Art (as it was called then) and at RISD, and nobody cared.

SH: Are we going to bypass graphic design?

RSW: I don’t think there will be graphic designers in the future, but there will be information architects! There will be people who understand words, pictures, numbers and the technology to communicate them. Nobody is being trained to do that now.

SH: Who or what in your opinion is leading the way now?

RSW: Failure always leads the way. The fact that most graphics do not work dances with the need for understandable communication, information about things and instructions. Websites don’t work and television news programmes don’t work, and there are more and more of them, so therefore it is clearer: failure – actual catastrophe, or the perception of catastrophe – promotes creative change.

SH: Are we talking about stripping things down to the barest essentials?

RSW: No, just deciding how you find something. For example, if I wanted to drive to California right now I could go a lot of different ways. But I could decide how I would want to do the journey because I know how to drive my car and read a map and find out these things. Information architecture empowers you to make those decisions. And if we were talking about a really a good website you could find your own journey through the stuff that is behind the Web pages.

SH: TED stands for Technology-Entertainment-Design. How do these forces interact?

RSW: The choice of the word “entertainment” rather than “education” in TED is important because we have Boards of Education that have given us really terrible learning experiences. We use the word entertainment because it is about information in an entertaining form that allows us to learn. I’m not talking about stand-up comedians (although some of my clearest notions of politics have come from comedians), but in order to do technology that has to do with communications today, you need entertainment and design, and you can go through the three of them each way. Is design becoming a science? No. Just more systematic. Just more thoughtful. But then, I would not call psychology a science either. Put simply, TED is about the design of information in an entertaining form using appropriate technology.