Good morning! My name is Dan Klyn, and I have five things for you today. 5 Patterns from the work of Richard Saul Wurman
I brought these 5 things with me from Michigan where I live and work
Where I get to teach information architecture at the University of Michigan School of InformationFinding answers to my students’ questions about the “architecture part” of IA is what made it necessary for me to become familiar with the work of Richard Saul Wurman, the man who coined the term “information architecture”.
[[ play Wurman video here ]] “in 80+ books on 60+ topics … a passion for finding a clear pattern. A passion for the journey from not knowing to knowing”
My intent in starting the research was to identify Wurman’s teachings and practices around information architecture and to share whatever those things were with my students.What I found goes beyond IA. Beyond UX, even.What I found is that Wurman has a way of thinking – a whole way of life for making things be good.
In order to understand this way of thinking and making, my tactic has been to examine all the stuff Wurman’s made and to look for patterns.There are at least five that recur in the 83 books, 6 buildings, and countless maps, plans and conferences I’ve looked at
Another thing to note about my research tactics = opportunistic, not chronological. Started by examining the books and objects that were the easiest to find and acquire, and not-surprisingly the newer ones were easier for me to get at than the older ones. I worked in mostly reverse-chronological order.By the time I hit 1989 on the timeline I had a working model of the 5 patterns Just last year acquired Wurman’s 1st book, from 1963Pleased and relieved to find all 5 are here. He had these at the age of 26. He’s 78 now.
The 5 patterns = equally vivid in Wurman’s most recent projectsIncluding UO, which launched in July
And the iPad app he launched on Tuesday
5 patterns across 50 years of work
Would you like to know what they are?I’m going to tell you anyways.
Short-hand for the first pattern is: Hats
In this pattern, hats = an analogy for pieces of informationHat racks = analogous to different ways and structures for organizing it.
Wurman contends: the choices we make in arranging the hats and selecting the hat racks affects much more than usability or findability.These choices around organizing affect meaning.
Changes in the organization of information changes the meaning of what we’re working on and with. The information doesn’t change, but the meaning does as we iterate through different approaches to organizing the information.
Another way to put words on this pattern would be to say that order encodes meaning.When you organize the information for Starbucks.com this way it has a different meaning and therefore is a different place than the place you’d be making if for example you collapsed Coffee and Menu into one section.Order encodes meaning.
Next pattern = the short-hand for this pattern is Sandcastles.
In 1970, Wurman’s architecture firm was engaged by 4 families from Philadelphia who’d acquired a parcel of oceanfront property on Long Beach Island in New Jersey.This the architecture Wurman developed for them. They were called “sandcastles,” and 3 out of 4 of them have gone the way of all sandcastles…
Here = what was built on the site where three of them used to standThis is what most of the vacation homes on the island look likeHow do we account for the significant differences between sandcastles and .. Whatever these are? For an answer, we can look at Wurman’s work from 1976
In 1976, at the AIA national convention in Philadelphia where he introduced the idea of information architecture, instead of a keynote speech there was the performance of a fable Wurman wrote for the occasion.He called What If, Could be: an Historical Fable of the Future.A thinly-veiled Wurman-figure in the fable called the commissioner of curiosity and imagination – a little fat guy with a beard who goes around saying things that make people uncomfortable - notes that problems in the architectures of the built environment are due to problems in the architectures of information and language
He asks a teacher about problems with education and the answers the teacher proposes: more schools, more books, more pencils.He asks a policeman about problems with crime, and the answers the policeman proposes: more cops on the beat, more jails, more bulletsThe reason the inhabitants of the city of What If in the land of Could Be can’t have nice things: according to the commissioner, they don’t have the right language to describe their needs. All they have is More and NO.
That’s how this building came about: by way of MORE and NO. You can drive up and down LBI, note a roof-deck here, a door-style there, an eyebrow window from across the way….
But to make a building like this… to make a sandcastle…. you need a different approach.
In the book Information Anxiety, Wurman says “The classic, pervasive seduction to designers has been to find a solution instead of the truth”
What was true for these 4 families – what “good” would mean for them was essentially a couch facing the sea.With Wurman’s assistance as their architect, they found a way to describe the essence of WHAT they wanted before talking about HOW they’d go about it.
The pattern of Sandcastles is What before How.The pattern of the newer non-Sandcastle is amalgamation-of-how’s Google Wave: amalgamation of How’s. The teaching here is that you can make things be good by learning to develop your What in advance of and without regard to the eventual How.Another way Wurman puts words on this pattern: understanding precedes action.
Short-hand for the next pattern is “Gathering”This is the stage set and furniture Wurman designed for last year’s WWW.WWW conference in Redlands, CAConferences for Wurman aren’t primarily about the talks: they’re about the action of the verb “to gather” and a specific methodology for the act of gathering and staging a gathering.
The principle underneath this pattern: YOUSRTSYAGather-up unknowns in a manner that affords comparison with knowns, and use adjacency and the power of comparison to unlock understanding.
The 10-cent word for this pattern is APPERCEPTIONAPPERCEPTION is a learning process that’s structured on the basis of adjacencies and comparison.
The genius of TED is not the 18 minute presentation. The genius of TED when Wurman curated and ran it = gathering a motley crew of technologists, entertainers and designers and then learning from and delighting in the adjacencies and contrasts. It’s not the talks, it’s the contrasts between the talks being as important and meaningful as the talks themselves.
OK, almost done. Shorthand for the penultimate pattern is Tango.You may not be surprised to hear that Mr. Wurman is both of the dance partners. It’s a tango of his Terror and his Confidence
Wurman uses the energy that’s generated in the interplay of terror and confidence as an engine to get where and what he wantsIn 1959 for example he had the confidence to bluff his way into the first archaeological expedition to Tikal in Guatamala, and upon arriving in country, paired it with the terror of being exposed as having fibbed about knowing how to do cartography and surveying
The way this pattern works is: You announce an ambitious project without any of the “how” worked outThen you have to pull the thing off to avoid the humiliation of not making good on the boastThis combination of Terror + Confidence is the propulsion system underneath Mr. Wurman’s work.Kinda dumb, right?
It is dumb. And that’s part of why it works, and why the things Wurman makes are good things. Because they’re dumb.
This pattern isn’t stupid-dumb. It’s innocence-dumb.Expertise is the anti-pattern. When we develop expertise, we lose innocence. We lose the ability to understand what it’s like to not understand. We’re caught up in being smart and that makes it difficult or impossible to access the vantage-point of innocence. Of no pre-conceptions.
Wurman learned this pattern from his teacher, the architect Louis KahnWurman says of Kahn "He was the youngest person I ever knew. That's what I aspire to be ... the youngest person I possibly can so I can look at things like I have never seen them before, and see the things I've always seen, and never seen. That's the only doorway I know about. It's that innocent doorway of clarity."
Elsewhere he says THE ONLY THING I HAVE A GRASP OF IS MY INABILITY TO UNDERSTAND AND THAT IS WHY IM MORE POWERFUL THAN PEOPLE WHO ARE SMARTER THAN ME
Dumb is the ultimate pattern in 50 years of Wurman’s work: expertise expiresExpertise gets in the wayExpertise has a shelf life, and limits your repertoireWhat if the JC Penney guy had come in and said “I don’t understand JCP’s business, and will use the journey from not knowing to knowing to better understand what would be good for us to do?”
One of the dumbest good things Wurman came up with was a road atlas in 1990 where the maps are arranged spatially, in 250 mile blocks that’re drive-able in about a day.Why is this the only road atlas that’s not arranged in alphabetical order? Does anybody travel on roads in alphabetical order?Wurman got to this solution by being innocent-dumb. Via that innocent door of clarity, of stripping away pre-conceived How’s to identify an essential WHAT.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to share these patterns with you this morning - and I’d love to hear from you if you’re terrified or confident enough to try them out in your work. But if learning and applying the 5 things is too many things…
Start with dumb. Try to understand what it’s like to not understand. Don’t lead with your expertise. Try leading with your ignorance.Now, one might think that after 5 years of pouring over Wurman’s work, that I’d be able to demonstrate some proficiency in applying these patterns.
Nope! The most important pattern turns out to be my Achilles heelSee, I’ve become an expert on the work of Richard Saul Wurman and this expertise has gotten in the way of me making something good out of all this research.
Last month I went to Newport to pitch Mr. Wurman on two things: What and How. The What was my identification and analysis of these five patterns, and How was an approach I’d cooked up for making something out of all this research.We talked for six hoursAnd he had to kindof blow up my How.
The How I pitched him on was a quarter-million-dollar kickstarter project to produce 3000 boxed-sets containing exact facsimile recreations, replicas and poster-sized blow-ups of the baddest of the bad-ass stuff he’s made across a half-century of his work, along with a monograph to map the facsimile recreations back to the five patterns.Each box would cost $100 or more to produce, and they’d sell for $250 or so dollars.
It was a precious, perseverative approach fetishizing Wurman’s implementations: recreating the die-cut pop-out diagrams, sourcing the same inks and papers from rare early works…
I got all hopped up on the How. Mr. Wurman, with a graciousness I will never, ever forget, showed me the error in my approach. He told me what I’d proposed wasn’t good because it wasn't dumb. It was too precious. It was all about my expertise. He validated my What and blew-up my How. So now I’m back to square one, and have been asked to complete something that’s a lot dumber in time for his 80th birthday.
So in March of 2015 I hope to be publishing something reallllllly dumb.Thank-you
Make Things Be Good - 5 Patterns from the work of Richard Saul Wurman - UX Week 2013
MAKE THINGS BE GOOD
FROM THE WORK OF
DAN KLYN – UX WEEK 2013
A way of thinking.
A whole way of life in which
the aim is not to make something
but to make it be good.