Our last day in Denver started with a chat with Richard Saul Wurman who has spent his life devoted to making information more understandable. He chastised us for falling short.
Wurman, who coined “information architect,” implored the page designers in the room to be clear by showing context. For example, we cite trillions of dollars as if this were a meaningful metric. Shouldn’t we somehow – and he didn’t offer how – illustrate the meaning of a trillion?
Wurman has written fables in the past, and shared one to explain trillions.
Ethel and Sadie in the year 1 opened up a store. They lost a million dollars a day ever since. So first year lost $365 million. Second year, same. Third, same. Fourth, they lost $366 million because it was leap year. Today, they’re still alive and with the same track record, losing a million dollars every day since the day 1. But they would still have to live to 2738 to have lost a trillion dollars.
That’s following “Wurman’s first law:” You only understand something relative to what you understand. The blue whale’s heart is as big as a Volkswagon Beetle and its tongue is the size of a bus, for example.
“Do you realize that each of your newspapers, websites, magazines have used a story where you used the number trillion and you and your readers don’t have the slightest idea what that means. It’s used and you’re party to it, to putting down information that people can’t understand. I don’t know what you’re supposed to do about that.”
Like how we don’t question the American Kennel Club’s categorization of breeds. There are sporting dogs and non-sporting dogs, and then a handful of other categories — not subcategories. How can there be other categories of equal importance? Yet newspapers just pass this along when reporting the results from Westminster.
The media are also guilty of publishing things as if they were unquestionably so when in reality, “what we know is transient,” he said.
Schools screw us up, also, by rewarding us for knowing and not for asking good questions. But he wouldn’t take questions after his speech.
“Who cares? Questions come in two varieties – bad questions and speeches. Talk to each other after the event.”
Maybe we should just start over, with everything. Yes, he is also an advocate of creating from whole cloth.
“If something doesn’t work we get a better version of it, and then we have a better version of something that doesn’t work. It doesn’t go back to zero to try to solve the problem. I live in the land of zero.”