What Richard Saul Wurman and René Magritte Don’t Know

I’m a big fan of Richard Saul Wurman’s approach to solving problems.

If you’re not familiar with his name, you’re likely familiar with his work. Mr. Wurman has written and designed over 80 books and started the TED conferences, which have rightly been getting more and more influential in presenting the edgiest developments in myriad fields to the world.

I think of all the books that I’ve read by Wurman, and all that I’ve learned from the conference that he started, the most important lesson that I took away was from a forward in one of his books (I don’t have it here to check, but it would have been from either Information Anxiety 2 or Understanding USA) where he talked about his approach to learning and how it influenced how he presented information.

Essentially, Wurman’s gift is the ability to take in and analyze information as if he knows nothing about the subject.

An architect and designer by trade, Wurman could be tasked with developing building plans or creating a set of icons to convey some complex information and would be able to do both in a novel and highly-intuitive way.

His solutions are aimed at the novice, since that’s how he approaches problems, and therefore anyone can understand and see the value in them.

This isn’t always the ideal approach or demeanor to present — for example, if you’re trying to get a new client’s business, it’s probably better to show that you know what you’re talking about that flaunt your ignorance — but when the goal is to make information attainable and digestible, being able to look at the information available as if you are seeing it (or anything like it) for the first time is a super-valuable skill.

There’s a classic painting by René Magritte entitled ‘The Treachery of Images’ in which he has illustrated what appears to be a pipe, along with text that says ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ (translation: ‘this is not a pipe’). This seems to be a ridiculous statement at first, until you realize that only by removing your own burden of knowledge about what you’re looking at can you devise other, perhaps more practical, deeper, or just more creative purposes for the object shown.

It’s amazing how seldom the ‘right’ way to do something is not the most effective or efficient. Try breaking the rules, or just ignoring them completely, and see what you come up with.

You won’t always end up with the ideal solution using this method, but at the very least you’ll have developed another (possibly far superior) approach than what’s accepted as the status quo.

Update: December 16, 2016

Huh, this is a much tighter argument than a lot of the other pieces from this time period, I think.

I should also note that I wrote an email to Richard Saul Wurman, thanking him for his books and his ideas, which were quite valuable to me as a design student at university. I didn’t expect a response, but he wrote back, all in caps, YOU MAY CALL ME, along with a date when I should call, and his phone number.

I totally chickened out and never called.