In October 2010, Richard Saul Wurman gave an enthralling keynote presentation at the Why Design Now? conference on the design of everything, the value of ignorance, our relationship to understanding, the relationship between design, change, and new modalities, and unexpected connections. It’s truly a great and entertaining talk which I’ve frequently found myself returning to.
Unfortunately, it’s available now only as a video on Youtube which means the content, his keynote, has not been indexed by Google; thus cannot be searched for rendering it effectively non-existent online. I think his keynote is something that shouldn’t be allowed to fall between the cracks, so I took the opportunity to transcribe it.
While preparing the transcription, it came to my attention that there seems1 to be no established standard for transcribing keynotes so I took to lightly editing Wurman’s phrasing to make it more readable but in doing so have attempted to mostly only reorder words so as to not affect2 searches for quotes. Some parts inessential, like a side congratulation to Bill Moggridge and digressions he doesn’t build on were removed whereas interpreted body gestures have been noted in the footnotes.
Richard Saul Wurman:
I would be remiss if I didn’t start criticizing how the room was laid out because this is a design conference! So those chairs in the front row, they should be really close. I don’t give a shit about how they have to take photographs.
So I’ll probably walk down and talk among you, and make them crazy because they’re filming it, because the importance of a live meeting is a live meeting! The importance for me is not putting it up on the web. It shouldn’t be designed that I give a talk of eighteen or nineteen minutes that’s the right length to put up on your boob tube. It’s the quality of theatre, the quality of communication, and it’s the design of that and it’s the design of everything.
Now I don’t understand where the title of my talk came from. It came from a management team that probably is not still here. “Why design now?” is like “why weather now?” Why? It must be global warming. It must be something we did to ourselves. No, weather changes!
If we go back a couple hundred years, there’s much more severe changes in weather than we’ve had in the last while but that’s not to say we shouldn’t do better housekeeping on the planet. They’re parallel things and I do understand that change only occurs with the perception or actuality of catastrophe. So unless we perceive that it’s going to be catastrophe, or we actually have catastrophe, it doesn’t get people off their butts to change. We need that.
Also, I disapprove of VIP seating. It’s like them and us and then a lot of people don’t come to the front anyway — because maybe they think the speaker spits! But we don’t spit usually. You should just be here. You should be standing in line to rush for the front seats because you actually take it in better. You really do. You should design your life, you should design how you hear, you should design how you listen.
I created a conference called TED and sold it in 2002 and the last conference I did I subtitled: simply the greatest design conference that ever was. That arrogance, no one called me on. I was shocked. I was trying to put something in everybody’s face, but they didn’t.
It was a good idea what I did then. What I did was break it into twelve sessions. It was a very long one, it was my last one, I was gonna screw with everybody and have them stay long. The sessions were, “the design of humor,” “the design of the near future,” “the design of music,” “the design of your life,” “the design of the car,” “the design of the chair.” I was trying to take design and make it as broad as possible. I also feel that I design gatherings — that’s a design too.
I had some conversations with some people out there. Speaking with some young man, I asked if he was ambitious and his speech wasn’t designed! How he responded wasn’t clear enough. The words were in the wrong tense. It wasn’t that it was bad grammar, it’s what people got use to. Then somebody comes up and says, “keeping busy?” Now what the hell does that mean? Why would they ask me “keeping busy”? You have to design your questions!
Ultimately all the work you did, Bill [Moggridge, whom he is now speaking to — ed.], were the design of questions. Because it’s the question that matters. It really is the question; it’s not the answer. Well, we’ll stick on you. How old are you?
[Bill Moggridge answers sixty-seven — ed.]
Sixty-seven! He learned nothing by answering that; we all learned he’s sixty-seven. It’s in the question you learn something. That’s what gets you at some information.
She [referring to an attendee from Frog Design — ed.] worked for me once and we did a terrific project and it still is in a carton some place and it’s just as valid now. It was about the question. It was about the bifurcation of aging: the two points of view you have when you age.
I’m seventy-five. You have trouble putting on your socks. Why are you having trouble? What are the things you can use to help you put on your socks? Where should you sit? How should you do it? What is your problem? That’s part of your day. But then the story is also your care-giver. How can they help you put on your socks? What can they do to help you? So aging is a duality between the care-giver and the care-receiver.
By knowing each other’s point of view, you understand the phenomena. You see something when you bifurcate it from two different points of view simultaneously and it’s a way of understanding. That’s part of design! So it’s not “why design now?” it’s rather the opposite. Why isn’t everything designed? Why isn’t everything thought about as something you think in a logical fashion to solve?
Now, apparently I created this thing of this eighteen minute, which now has become a stamp so you can have eighteen minute talks. It’s not about the gathering, it’s about a different experience.
I read in Wired magazine a whole story on swag, giving away things, and it turns out I invented swag. In my new conference I have no swag. I think at a certain point in your life you have to destroy everything you thought up that might have been a good idea and start again. That’s the advantage I have over everybody in this room. I am more aware of my ignorance than you are of your ignorance.
Each of you is trying to sell your expertise. You go around to your clients, to each other, within fiefdoms, offices, and foundations, and you try to move ahead by selling some expertise you have. Well you have a limited repertoire when you sell your expertise, I don’t care who you are. I sell my ignorance. I have an unlimited repertoire.
I can attack anything that interests me and try to find the pattern that would take me on this journey from not knowing to knowing. That journey is the excitement I have in everyday because I don’t know dick shit! I start and there’s something that interests me and I pursue this journey trying to ask questions and find out how to get so I can feel, viscerally, that I understand something.
I’ll tell you really quick about some projects and you’ll see the patterns in the projects. These will not be, “now I did this, then I did this, and I did that,” that’s not this kind of talk.
In 1962 I did my first book and it was the plans of fifty cities in the world all to the same scale because I didn’t understand what they looked like next to each other. I did a book about that and thought: there must be hundreds of books like that and there turned out to be none. I did it when I was teaching, it was my first teaching job, and they mounted it on an exhibit in the Yale School of Architecture and it was up for twenty-five to thirty years. It was just the plans of fifty cities to the same scale made out of plasticine. I had no money so I had to do twenty-five, and then with some students, had to scrape off the plasticine to do the second set of twenty-five. I mean that’s the way it was.
So now it’s quite a bit later and the UN two years ago said more people live in cities than don’t. So I wanted to go out and see what’s been done since so I can understand one city next to another; I was curious. Well, nothing. There’s no two cities in the world that do their maps to the same scale or with the same legend. So commercial land use must have about 125 different designations on different city plans around the world.
You can say: well you could always change the scale electronically. Well you can but there’s no methodology to showing a border to a city. Every city goes over it’s border — it’s political border. Now if you don’t have a border, you don’t have an area. If you don’t have an area, where do you collect information? If you collect information with a border then you can have a density and you can compare one city to another. But we don’t have that, it went between the floor boards. That’s a design problem!
We don’t have some of the most fundamental things on how to talk to each other about where everybody lives. But we don’t have things on health either. We don’t have a way of understanding things. We know more about our cars than we know about our bodies. If I went around this room and asked you what your blood pressure and different blood type things are, you wouldn’t know. I’ve done it before, you just don’t know. How many people over forty-five or fifty have had a colonoscopy? How many people have had a baseline MRI when they’re twenty so they can understand the rest of their lives?
I’ll bet if GE [now speaking to a GE representative in attendance — ed.] made a program where 300-million people got a baseline MRI, the cost of a baseline MRI would go down dramatically3 and everybody would have a baseline to compare and be able to understand what their health is like for the rest of their life. And GE [now speaking to the crowd — ed.] along with two other companies do MRIs pretty well. And it gives you no radiation, just a fucking bang in the head when you go through it for the magnets.
And if you’re gonna hammer nails in your head, they have got to be titanium or gold. Why I have that problem, I have to tell you about later. David Blain wants an MRI of him hammering a nail in his head. But I said, “David you can’t,” because it has to be titanium nail or gold nail. “I’ll get a titanium nail,” he said. So I’m supposed to ask you how to get a nail put in his head. That’s the way it goes some days.
Much of our grasping is about wealth and change, and design is about change. It’s this real embrace with change. You embrace it because it’s going to happen anyway.
The richest person in the world in 1848 was John Jacob Astor and he made his money selling beaver pelts. In 1877 the richest person in the world was Commodore Vanderbilt, he made his money in shipping. In 1937, the richest person in the world was Rockefeller, he made his money in oil. Today the richest person on earth is, they say, is Carlos Slim Helú who in Mexico who made it in cellphones and sports teams or maybe it’s Bill Gates still. We don’t know but they made it from cellphones or selling smoke or something like that. The point is you make it in different ways and it’ll continue.
I don’t know what will drive wealth in the near future. I know it will be something different, it will be a surprise, it’ll be an excitement to see that. Nothing is a straight line where you keep on doing a better version of what doesn’t work.
Many designers design that way. I was just at a conference last week where I gave a keynote. Most people were showing some beautiful work, it was a society of newspaper designers, and they showed some really exquisite work and everything they were showing was a better version of what a newspaper would be online, what a magazine would be online. It was a better version of what wasn’t working so well. Now just think of that sentence. A better version of something that doesn’t work. So then you work very hard to do a better version of what doesn’t work. What do you get as a result? A better version of that doesn’t work. A better version of what doesn’t work isn’t so terrific. It’s just a better version of what doesn’t work. Better versions don’t hold it for me. It’s starting again.
I’ll tell a little story which probably didn’t happen this way but if you think of a moment when they invented the celluloid and invented doing film. They didn’t know how many frames to put to a second so it was a little jumpy. But what they did was photograph stage shows and then they put a few more frames and they weren’t as jumpy. Then they could add a little colour and that was better; and then sound. What did they have? They had a portable version of a stage show. It wasn’t a movie. A movie is something else. You can move around something, go for closeups, and do things, it’s an art form, it’s extraordinary. It’s something a designer can think about — not just a replication of the earlier modality.
So with a couple wonderful people, one of the projects I’m working on is a new modality. It’s not a book. Do you realize in your iPad? I’m furious at Steve Jobs that in the iPad iBooks App you see a page turn. That is just so ridiculous to have an electronic thing and you see a page come up. It’s not a page! That’s phoney! And then they’re so proud that you see the back of the other page with the type backwards. What are they doing? I mean that’s silly! It’s absolute silliness. It’s insecurity, it’s not letting go. It’s not moving forwards with a new modality of what this can be. That’s exciting to think of what’s next.
How many Jews in the audience? People who aren’t Jews won’t get this. You just won’t get this joke. I’m sorry for the non-Jews. It’s a very short joke: two Jewish women were sitting around minding their own business. That’s a fucking funny joke. Now why is a joke so interesting? Because it’s the opposite of expectation. That is what a joke is.
Steve Wright, two Steve Wright jokes. Everything’s in walking distance if you have enough time. Is there anybody here — talking about questions — that hasn’t been asked or asked is it in walking distance? What a dumb question. Is it raining? How cold it is. How are your knees? How dangerous is it? How interesting is it? It’s not a good question!
Then one I just heard from Steve Wright. It’s not a new one, I just haven’t heard it before. He said: I’m addicted to placebos. That’s sort of a throw away joke. I’m not going to build on that one. But I will build on an Emo Phillips joke which is one of my favourites. I hope some of you know Emo, I think some are too young and he’s passed you by, this odd thing. And I’ll do a bad imitation of him: for years and year and years, I thought the brain was the most important organ of my body until one day I thought huh look who’s telling me that.
That’s not a trivial joke! Look who is telling you about anything you’re asking. Look how loaded up your questions and answers are to each other. Even in your life, you ask the electrician if anythings wrong and he says, “ohhh.” Look who’s telling you, who you’re trusting, how you don’t check what you’re doing about things.
There’s also some interesting metaphors.
The person who conquered the most land ever was Genghis Khan. He was born in — I think — 1227 and in 1227 he conquered more of the world than anybody else. He never built any monuments but what did he do — and this is a great metaphor — apparently he built more bridges than anyone else ever in the history of mankind because in conquering land he had to build bridges.
Think about that, that often somebody does what you don’t think. He conquered all this land and his contribution was bridges. The metaphor of bridges to things, connective tissue, is interesting, that the result of one thing gets you another. That wealth comes — well I was talking about wealth!
The turn of the century 1850 to about 1900, more millionaires lived in Yucatán and Campeche than any other place on earth. Why? That doesn’t make any sense. Millionaires in that rather arid area of the world?
Now I think most of you who don’t know geography, which is most of you think that whole area up there, you call Yucatán. It isn’t, it’s three states: Yucatán, Campeche, and Quintana Roo. And as a subset, Quintana Roo which has the invented city of Cancun at the top and the bottom, the capital, which is Chetumal, didn’t become a state until 1915 and was lawless till 1931. So basically it wasn’t even part of Mexico until 1931, but that’s not the story.
The story is that more millionaires lived in Yucatán and Campeche — capital of Yucatán: Mérida; capital of Campeche: Campeche — because this was the industrial revolution, everything had to be shipped. Raw goods, manufactured goods, and there was no way to pack them. They didn’t have corrugated cardboard, they didn’t have access to a lot of wire. They needed sisal; they needed rope. That’s where you grew rope; that’s where you grew sisal. There and in South Africa. So sisal became ubiquitous and then they invented other things and everything went into ruin. Change and design for change and the changes in design and accepting it and not trying to force things through a hole or thinking that patterns just go on in a straight line.4 But instead this embrace with understanding and that understanding precedes action.
Most cities and most companies want to take action before they understand because it’s more comfortable to take action than really doing the homework of understanding. I mean really understanding.
The great blue whale is about 117 feet long and you can’t quite visualize that so I’m going to give you a little image that you will never forget about the great blue whale. That is, its heart is as big as a VW Beetle and its tongue as big as a bus. Its tongue as big as a bus and its heart as big as a Volkswagen Beetle. And I say you won’t forget that. It’s not exact but it gives you a sense of something.
Each of you were reading in the newspaper this morning, well the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, the number trillion. i’ll do a quick version of this story but it’s really interesting. If you lost a million dollars a year from the year one. There was no year zero because it was done by Denis The Short in the 6th century creating the calendar backwards; that’s another whole story that you should read. Stephen Jay Gould writes about it quite beautifully. But if you go from the year one and lose a million dollars every year and an extra million dollars in leap year, when they finally invented leap year, and you take it to today. From the year one to today, every day, every year, a million dollars. You would still have to lose a million dollars a day until the year 2738. You don’t know what a trillion is, that’s a trillion. You can’t put your arms around that and yet you read it and you don’t question the fact that you don’t understand it.
I have to wrap it up, there’s a stage whisper over there. I will wrap it up everybody. I’ll wrap it up! I can talk for two hours and I’m not. Good bye.
Wurman, Richard Saul. “Ignorance Is Bliss: The More We Know, The Less We Understand.” Keynote address, Why Design Now?, New York, NY, Oct 1, 2010.
Quoted search queries in Google and browsers will likely fail thanks to this but unquoted queries in Google should be fine. ↩
Wurman says, “like that,” while gesturing with his arm in a plunging motion which I’ve interpreted as expressing dramatics. ↩
Wurman again says, “like that,” this time gesturing a straight trajectory with his arm, which I interpreted as expressing a straight line. ↩