Interview: Richard Saul Wurman – TED Talks


After addressing the L&H, Richard Saul Wurman spoke to Killian Woods about TED Talks, WWW and failure

An architect by trade and recipient of the 2012 Smithsonian Lifetime Achievement Award, Richard Saul Wurman now describes himself as “gainfully unemployed” and in his journey to understand the inner workings of whatever tickles his fancy, has managed to turn his gainful unemployment into a full-time occupation.

For 13 years, Wurman practised architecture at his own firm until he was drawn to investigating the complex intricacies of topics that interest him. Wurman realised that everything he knew was told to him by someone else and he hadn’t discovered or worked out anything for himself. He began to ask himself questions about the simple facets of life and these questions manifested into 83 books on broad range of topics, from sports to healthcare and guidebooks to cartography.

Elaborating on his reasons for writing, it is evident that his passion doesn’t lie in the topic, but in understanding: “I do a book for the opposite reason that most of you are studying or most of you think somebody does a book. And that is, that they all come from my ignorance and curiosity. I do a project because I don’t understand a subject. A journey from not understanding, from not knowing to knowing, is what I put between the covers of my book or project.”

The motivations behind Wurman’s books correlates to his frustration that there is too much information in the world that is both indecipherable and inaccessible at the same time. He cites the “big data” provided by the Google search engine as the essence of this problem.

“There are 300, 400, 500,000 citations of me on Google. If there are roughly 10 or 11 citations on each page, then there are 30- 50,000 pages. That’s ridiculous because you’re not going to go past the first page. They are not organised in a fashion that you can search.

“It can’t show you the latest thing, the best thing, organise by the books I’ve done or by the conferences. You can’t find your way through it. It’s junk, all junk, big data. But we think we should understand so we have information anxiety because it’s that gap between what we can really understand, which is very little, and what we actually understand. Learning is truly remembering what you’re interested in.”

Understanding is power to Wurman, and his ability for deep visceral understanding is what makes him such an interesting personality. When he speaks about TED Talks, he clearly struggles to identify with the organisation today and is adamant that it has lost its vision.

“TED was a hobby; that wasn’t my life. And I certainly don’t identify with the TED Conferences. In the 1980s, due to work I spent a lot of time on airplanes speaking to people and the only interesting people were those in the technology, entertainment and design industries. Everyone else was so boring.

“These people did not realise that they were in the same business. None of these three professions could do anything without the help of the other two. So, I created a clever name, TED (Technology, Entertainment , Design), and invited interesting people like Steve Jobs who brought along the first Apple Macintosh and Herbie Hancock, the jazz pianist who composed a piece of music on the computer for the first time.”

However, TED to Wurman was not just about speakers explaining their ideas, it was a revolutionary format of speeches that exposed the individual and made them embrace their vulnerability on stage. “Innovation can be done by subtraction or addition, like an iPhone. The iPhone is not an invention; it is a combination of different inventions. TED was innovation by subtraction.

When I did the first TED in 1984, I subtracted lecterns because their role is to protect your groin and make you feel less vulnerable and because people use them to put a piece of paper down so they can read to you. Speakers shouldn’t read to you. So I subtracted that because I didn’t want them reading speeches and wanted them vulnerable.”

Like most of his projects, Wurman got bored of TED Conferences and admits: “If I was to go back in my life, I would not have done as many TED Talks conferences; 18 of those, I should have probably done in five”. However, he still enjoys organising such events, like his upcoming Prophesy conferences, to be held over five sequential Mondays in 2013, and his latest event WWW held in early September.

For WWW, he subtracted even more cues, limiting the opportunity for speakers by taking away the presentation screen and placing them in a typical conversation situation on a stage. But, most of all, he subtracted time. “I put two small couches close together on a stage and invited extraordinary people that I know. Many of them didn’t know each other and they just faced each other, not the crowd. I opened the conference by saying: ‘Welcome to the great leap backwards. This whole conference could have taken place 2,500 years ago in Greece with Aristotle and Plato talking.’

“There were no rules. They spoke for 18 minutes, five minutes, an hour. There was no schedule. I was the schedule. I sat in on conversations and when I got bored told them to move on. It was improvisation, intellectual jazz.”


Wurman’s sophisticated concepts are difficult to describe and writing a piece on his ideas is sort of an injustice. After his talk at the L&H Society he is quick to ask: “Was the event was okay? Did it go well?” Even for a man who claims to have embraced that he can be socially unacceptable, does seem to worry if he has gotten his message across.


Although he doesn’t normally field questions from an audience, he commented at being particularly stimulated by his “failure to explain a concept” to an audience member and said he would reflect on that “failure”.


Wurman shows no signs of stemming his passionate drive to understand different aspects of life and society. This motivation is summed up by his parting message. “At 77 years of age, it is not particularly interesting for me to do something again, because I’m going to die. It’s not interesting to do something better, it’s interesting to discover a different path.”