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A Chat With The Information Architect Of “TED” ~Richard Saul Wurman (reprise)


This is a story I did on Richard Saul Wurman on October 19th of 2010. I drove up to his Newport mansion called “The Orchard” which is now for sale to talk to him. What a home! That was some day, oh and the scarf he is wearing, I knitted that for him…I knew he loved scarves.

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Richard Saul Wurman was like? If you asked Wurman where to start he might tell you from the end and work your way up to the beginning. Confusing, you betcha, and enlightening at the same time.

Wurman, the founder of the wildly popular Ted Conference (TED.com) enjoys constantly swimming upstream. As soon as you think you have his number, you find you don’t have it at all, as you listen to him talk.  When Wurman developed the TED Conference his aim was to produce the best conference on the planet. He of course did that and many have copied it. He has since sold that and “TED” is something much different, it is now about changing the world.

Wurman is bombastic and direct and deliciously outspoken and does it his way whether it’s right or wrong.

I chatted with him, rather he talked to me at his Newport, Rhode Island mansion. We were outside the big house in a place he calls his cottage, an auxiliary office where he entertains all kinds of people who come to talk to him to hear his ideas. Name anybody, they’ve probably been there.  Articles about Ted (technology, entertainment , design) are all over the dark green walls. In an adjoining room there is a greenhouse where all of his tropical plants kept outside during warmer months are now “wintering over” inside.

On this day he is a week away from starting his TEDMED conference in San Diego, California, he still owns a piece of that. Wurman is proud to tell you that he has a staff of one, and that is Rebecca Rex. So thaty means Wurman is in a constant juggling act. He is involved in the minutiae of everything even down to the food that will be served at TEDMED. He let me sit in on his call to the chef about the event.

Wurman will tell you he doesn’t care about being any kind of a leader, doesn’t care whether you like him or not, he’s just trying to get to the bottom of all and any kind of information, to break it down and make it understandable. If you find that interesting he would tell you, good for you. He is so popular because he writes for the novice and because he is an architect and designer you get illustrations too, so yes, you can understand something.

He wrote his first book when he was 26, he is now 75 and is still writing. His latest book is called “33 Understanding Change and the Change in Understanding.” It’s a book with in a book, it’s a fable loosely based on Wurman. It ‘s dedicated to his wife, author Gloria Nagy who is famous in her own right. Her latest book is called “Sea Sick.”

My mission in meeting with Wurman was to see how he thinks and to hear where he believes the planet is heading. I got all that and more in three hours, but feel like the conversation has only just begun. Wurman started our conversation and ended it with telling me to “listen.” He has spent a lifetime doing that and it has allowed him to understand that we really aren’t getting to the core of much. We’re really not disecting and getting to the bottom of most information at all. While this leaves you scratching your head you also understand he is exactly right. As a journalist you write a story and it’s who, what, when where, why and how. Turns out if you think like Wurman does, that just begins to scratch the surface.

Look for Wurman to keep reinventing the wheel, he’s cooking up something big for August of 2012. He told me nobody in their right mind holds a conference in August, and so that of course is why he will have it in August.  Contrary, yes big time. Look for the world to again follow and copy what he does. While we’re all doing that, he’ll be onto the next thing.

Wurman told me when he gives a speech he never writes down one word, he just talks and it can go on for hours. He invites you to leave too if you’re not interested in what he has to say, most of the time people are riveted, if they’re not he says he doesn’t care. There is a lesson there, do something for yourself, feed your passion and people will either get it or they won’t.

Oh and by the way, I knitted him a scarf which he so kindly wore during our time together. When you see Wurman speaking he always has on a scarf. You’ll note in the photos, Wurman doesn’t look at the camera he says it’s a soul stealer. So okay we both just looked at each other in one of the shots. All of this just happens to be the “Wurman Way” which is upside down and inside out and wrong, but right.

Food for thought: Wurman loves Gingerbread Men cookies.

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