Guide on the Side – Richard Saul Wurman: Information Architect Pioneer

Marie Wallace has enjoyed a fulfilling career as a librarian, beginning in 1951 in academia with the University of California and transitioning in 1971 into the private law library world until her 1995 retirement from O’Melveny & Myers. She is the 1997 recipient of the American Association of Law Libraries‘ highest honor, the Marian Gould Gallagher Distinguished Service Award. Throughout her professional life, Marie has been a guiding force in the Southern California Association of Law Libraries, Practising Law Institute’s programs for law librarians and Teaching Legal Research in Private Law Libraries (TRIPLL).

Today, Marie has commenced on a new path she terms “Life in Progress,” which enables her to pursue a diversity of interests as a master swimmer, law librarian, trainer, storyboarder and designer of wearable art. She continues to be a dynamic speaker and prolific writer on such topics as private law library management, presentations and training. She is a member of Toastmasters International and is active with the American Society for Training Development (ASTD) and in continuing education for private law librarians. She devotes her “free” time to various non-profit and civic activities.

One of my favorite idea mentors, a Guide on my Side, is Richard Saul Wurman (RSW), who pioneered in using architecture as a metaphor to organize information. He continues to develop this theme in another landmark book, Information Anxiety2 . I’ll get right to the point. The latest book is a “must own” as well as two related, previous ones:Information Anxiety, and Follow the Yellow Brick Road: How to Give, Take and Use Instructions. These three titles provide unique perspectives on the Information Age.

The first thing you notice about RSW’s books is that the structure is different than other publications. You can open them up and start to read anywhere. Ideas and quotes are in the margins, like printed links, on almost all the pages. The books have an open, loggia quality, inviting readers in. RSW says his books “mirror the way the mind works…following the natural, organic, wandering informal model of a conversation, one of the most powerful models for surviving the Digital Age.”

RSW coined the term “information architecture” in 1975, sensing before most that we were soon to be “inundated with data but starved for the tools and patterns that give them meaning.” Now sites like and regularly post positions for information architects. Some library and information schools are working to establish an educational track for aspiring information architects and it is not surprising to learn that “Librarians are natural information architects.

Exactly what is an information architect? In RSW’s words “Someone who enables data to be transformed into understandable information.” Examples are his Tables of Contents which are annotated, and sometimes illustrated, to provide windows to his ideas. I really appreciate this feature as I rarely read non-fiction in the order it is written. Most authors start with background I already know. The new ideas are buried somewhere in the middle of the book. My practice is to go to the Table of Contents to discover the author’s map and proposed route, and then I navigate the book guided by my own interests and questions. Later I may meander back to the beginning.

RSW considers interest to be the key to assimilating information, to learning and to reducing anxiety. So my method of starting non-fiction at my point of interest is valid in his eyes. Plus many readers now explore information terrains any way they chose–forward, backward or sideways as a result of the web. This is an idea that could be applicable for trainers. Is your training design structured to enable trainees to enter the learning experience at their point of interest? At the teachable moment?

What kind of skills and talent do information architects need? Lynne Duddy, Director of Information Architecture at says they should “demonstrate how to humanize technology, focus on people…show extraordinary empathy with others, make connections and see patterns…use words and pictures…” Others might add to this skill list the ability to create visual and interactive designs , including knowing how the human mind and sensory apparatus take in new information and experiences. The physicist/mathematician Richard Feynman illustrated this when he dramatically transformed data into understandable information by choosing to demonstrate to a Congressional committee how an O-ring becomes brittle at cold temperatures by dunking one in ice water rather than submitting a written report.

Information architecture ideas can apply to new technologies, like web screens, and older ones, like printed books. Both RSW and Edward Tufte (Guide on the Side: Now I Get the Picture: A Visual Strunk & White) apply architectural design concepts in their books using basic design elements: layout, fonts, white space, contrast, headers, color and graphics. How well these familiar elements are designed determines how readily the information is or is not communicated to readers/viewers. Unfortunately, a great deal of material in books and screens has no information value at all and too many people have grown accustomed to “awful information design.” Little wonder we suffer “info anxiety.”

We can take comfort in the knowledge that while information is infinite, the ways of organizing it are finite. According to RSW “It can only be organized by location, alphabet, time, category or hierarchy …This is the framework upon which annual reports, books conversations, exhibitions, directories, conventions and even warehouses are arranged.”

Another key RSW idea is the conversation. In the 1980’s, he began to notice that his best ideas came out of random conversations and that these ideas seemed to merge and converge in the areas of technology, entertainment and design. Why not apply this conversation interaction to a larger group? So he organized the TED (technology, entertainment and design) conferences starting in 1984 in Monterey, CA. They became incubators for many new ideas and were RSW’s idea of a party. I bought the audiotapes for two of the conferences. The faculty members were diverse and multi-disciplinary, everything from jugglers to nanobot scientists. All the TED conferences were exciting idea bazaars where serious and playful exchanges took place.

Is it possible for instructors to learn from the TED conferences? What kind of learning takes place when people are free to explore and to learn from each other? What is the role of play in learning? Whether you are designing a classroom event, Web site or e-learning, consider the architecture. Ask yourself the same questions RSW asked about the design of his TED conferences. What experiences do you want to give the people before they arrive? When they arrive? When they leave? Are the experiences properly paced? How can you provide time for self-discovery?

Although I never attended a TED conference because the registration was more than I could afford ($3,000-$4,000) and the conferences sold out fast, I did talk to RSW about attending after listening to the first set of tapes. (He has a policy of answering his own phone part of the time.) A conversation with RSW is very comfortable and indeed a learning experience.

When RSW sold a 49% stake in the TED conferences in February 2001 to a British company, the Wall Street Journal ran the story on the first page of the B Section, “will TED Confab be the Same After Wurman?” WSJ comments that TED attendees have come over the years “to get a gander at early versions of the Next Big Idea, from voice recognition to virtual reality to artificial intelligence and all sorts of new hardware and software. But mixed into the quirky program is also a blend of science, art, music, exploration and plain old silliness, all brewed in the restless mind of Mr. Wurman.” You can find more about the TED conferences and RSW at

Ultimately, most conversations and conferences involve instructions. Some are task-based (“this is how to change your password”), others are goal-based (“get me a list of cases interpreting…”). Here is where Follow the Yellow Brick Road enters the picture. I reviewed it for Lawyer Hiring and Training Report, vol. 12, no. 5, May 1992 when it was originally published. The whimsical title is carried through to the illustrations which are reminiscent of Dr. Seuss . I exhorted lawyers to pay heed to the Yellow Brick Road. What RSW said then is true today. “Unfortunately, the very characteristics that tend to make successful executives–creativity, ambition and mercurial thinking–also make for poor instruction givers.”

After reading about the components of clear instructions, I followed my own review advice and applied RSW’s ideas by adding a discussion and handout to all my training sessions, “The Only Dumb Question is the One You Didn’t Ask.” It highlighted ten things that clerks and associates need to ask about their assignments, which the assigning partners often forget to mention, such as the time expectations, anticipated procedure, and preferred format for the results.

Some of the instruction material from the Yellow Brick Road is repeated in Information Anxiety2. The more we become buried in data, the more important instructions are. Ironically, there are few places to learn Instructions 101. Observation, normally a sound learning technique, is treacherous because our models are often faulty. Instructions are what instructors provide. If you instruct and do not apply the six building blocks of actionable instructions, exemplified by RSW’s six-step-invitation-to-a-dinner-party model, you will waste time, information resources and emotional energy. This six-step model is also valuable when working with and developing staff from other cultures to mitigate differences in language, values, gestures, emotional expressions, expectations and life experiences.

RSW was educated as an architect and apprenticed under Louis Kahn but has explored many careers beyond architecture. He has written over 70 books, including the well-known ACCESS series of travel guide to the major cities around the world. The ACCESS books use assorted colors to denote specific kinds of information: blue for lodging, red for food, green for shopping, and black for cultural and historic sites. ACCESS Guides are good antidotes for disorientation in new cities. Get one for your home city to lend to friends and relatives for wayfinding when they pay you a visit.

Posted in: Book Reviews, Guide on the Side, Information Architecture