RICHARD SAUL WURMAN THE KING OF ACCESS Q: WHAT DO BILL GATES, DANIEL BOORSTIN, MARVIN MINSKY, HORACE DEETS, HERBIE HANCOCK, NICHOLAS NEGROPONTE, EDWARD DE BONO, AND A SLEW OF OTHER ELITE DOERS AND THINKERS HAVE IN COMMON? A: THEY'RE ALL FRIENDS OF TED.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – My object in living is to unite My avocation and my vocation As my two eyes make one in sight. --Robert Frost, "Two Tramps in Mud Time"
When he wrote these lines, Frost probably didn't know he was describing a scheme for making millions of dollars. It took the shrewd, self-indulgent, childlike genius of Richard Saul Wurman to establish that possibility. After failing as an architect and getting fired as a college dean, Wurman found the calling many of us secretly want: intellectual hedonist. That's his term, and it fits better than the ones people usually apply to him, like graphic designer, cartographer, writer, publisher. For what Wurman really does all day is shamelessly indulge his own interests. It's hard work tearing around on one hobbyhorse after another, but the top brass at companies like Sony, Walt Disney, Intel, AT&T, and Microsoft pay him handsomely for it.
Recently, for example, he was captivated by a TV show on how insects crawl, featuring Robert Full, a biologist at the University of California at Berkeley. He immediately dialed Full and asked him to give a talk, gratis, at a conference Wurman was organizing. It would be teeming with big shots, Wurman said, and would change his life. Full would bowl them over showing how cockroaches stand up on their two hind legs to run. And how about those six-legged robots?
"I had no idea what it was all about," says Full, whose work on insectlike robots and movie animations has won national media attention. But intrigued, he came, lectured, and suddenly was swarmed by admirers with vaguely familiar names. "I loved the bug man," says conference attendee Stanley Marcus, retired CEO of Neiman Marcus. Full found himself talking biophysics with Nathan Myhrvold, Microsoft's chief technology officer. Other attendees offered the flabbergasted professor TV coverage and research funding.
Wurman's confabs are called TEDs, because they're supposedly about the convergence of technology, entertainment, and design. In fact, they're about who or whatever piques his hummingbird mind. At the latest one, the topics careened from the dangers of professionalism to dinosaur foreplay to the source of Intuit's competitive edge to a firsthand account of the Tiananmen Square uprising.
Which raises a roughly $1.5 million question: Why do some 660 people, largely senior executives, pony up $2,250 each to join a three-day magical mystery tour of Wurman's latest interests? Why does TED, held every February in Monterey, California, get rave reviews from CEOs like Bill Gates ("I wasn't prepared for the conference to be so profound"), Steelcase's James Hackett ("It connects the soul and knowledge in a unique way"), and Perot Systems' Mort Meyerson ("More powerful than any other gathering I have participated in")? Wurman replies: "I know my client. It's me."
This is typical: The man seemingly steals his critics' best lines and reworks them as disarming shtick. But he isn't kidding. No one cramps Wurman's style--try pinching quicksilver into a cube. And he's serious about the importance of whole-hog self-indulgence when it comes to one's interests. In his view, it's a skill sadly in disrepute and the answer to many modern ills, from rotten schools to information overload. Opining about the latter in his 1989 book, Information Anxiety, he declares: "Your work should be an extended hobby." He reached that conclusion ramming his head against the wall of his own nature, trying to succeed as an architect. "I needed quicker gratification; I needed to be able to follow my interests."
When he did, his career took off. In 1981 came the first of his popular Access guidebooks to cities, one on Los Angeles. The book, he says, was largely inspired by what he found himself wanting to know after moving to L.A. "in a full state of disorientation." Dozens of what-Wurman-wants-to-know guides followed, including ones on medicine and sports that sold millions.
In 1984 he started TED, styling himself an impresario of Information Age thought leaders. Correction: the impresario. Only an intellectual hedonist with an ego the size of Cleveland would be so presumptuous--and succeed. It helped that his design was inspired: TED is an unabashed schmooze fest, a series of standup snacks interrupted by short lectures. "Welcome to the dinner party I always wanted to have but couldn't," Wurman tells TED's audience, opening his annual gig as its avuncular, wisecracking emcee.
A stout man usually dressed in turtlenecks, khakis, and cardigan sweaters, Wurman, 62, downplays his showmanship--he seems to fear, with considerable justice, that it's his greatest gift. "I'm just amateur night at the circus," he insists. Forget it. "He plays the audience like a violin," says Paul Saffo, a director of the Institute for the Future and a regular speaker at TED. When America Online CEO Steve Case mounted the TED stage recently, Wurman just stood there, grinning, as the auditorium's speakers blared with the sound of a telephone busy signal. The crowd roared.
Wurman gets his kicks at TED from showcasing intellectual gems he's dug up, especially emerging trends that cut across fields. Multimedia computing, CD-ROM games, digital special effects, and virtual reality were spotlighted at TED when they were still falling between the cracks of other conferences. TED's latest toy parade was led by a device that promises to usher in the era of 3-D photography. Invented by Russian physicists and under development at MetaTools in Carpinteria, California, the prototype system can take digitized snapshots that have startling depth when shown on a computer monitor--thanks to novel software, the image of a face can be swiveled like a bust on a lazy Susan.
Says Nicholas Negroponte, head of MIT's Media Lab and the dean of digital visionaries: "TED is a place where most CEOs can find out how little their information technology department knows."
But Wurman isn't a wonk. He's the Barnum of the wonk elite--and the Bailey of the increasingly eclectic mix of doers and thinkers he's added to TED's agenda over the years. "Tedologists," he calls them, both solving a difficult problem of classification and locating himself at the center of a radiant galaxy. "He seems to know everybody," says artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky, a recent TED speaker.
On the strength of TED alone, Wurman will be a shoo-in at the huckster hall of fame. Not only do hundreds regularly pay a small fortune to find out what's crossing his radar screen, but somehow he gets luminaries who charge tens of thousands of dollars for speeches to talk free at TED. Wurman's handpicked benefactors have ranged from moguls (Bill Gates, venture capitalist John Doerr) to medical men (Everett Koop, Jonas Salk).
For TED7, the latest, he conjured up "lateral thinking" guru Edward de Bono, jazz great Herbie Hancock, megatrend spotter John Naisbitt, celebrated architect Frank Gehry, Time Warner editor-in-chief Norman Pearlstine, literary giant Daniel Boorstin, and ABC News veteran Forrest Sawyer. Still unsatisfied, he waved his wand and pop, pop--there was Li Lu, Tiananmen Square hero turned investment banker, and renowned juggler Michael Moschen. Assorted winners of Oscars, Grammies, and Emmies also were summoned--the full list of 55 reads like a who's who of, well, Tedology.
It is generally agreed, though, that TED's buzz issues mainly from its hallway hubbub, a rip-roaring group grope by dreamers with clout. A few years ago, digerati wannabes Louis Rossetto and Jane Metcalfe ran across Negroponte at TED. Soon the three were hatching plans for a magazine--Negroponte, egged on by his son Dimitri, agreed on the spot to fund it. The result: Wired.
Entrepreneur Bill Gross adds that all the cool ideas "thrown around" at TED inspired him last year to form idealab!, an incubator for Internet companies that has hatched more than a dozen.
Most every TED veteran has such stories. "It's a kind of religious experience for creative people," says media consultant John Evans, formerly executive vice president at Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. "At most companies they're out on a limb, living in isolation. They're used to everybody taking a swipe at their great ideas and seeing them get crushed. TED is the adoption society for new ideas."
Many of which arise on the spot from cross-pollination. Larry Keeley, president of the Doblin Group, strategic planners in Chicago, recounts how a talk by Daniel Boorstin at TED5 helped trigger a merger that changed his life: "I can quote him verbatim: 'Every advance in the history of communications has brought us in closer touch with people far away from us, but at the expense of insulating us from those nearest to us.'
"I was sitting there thinking, 'Oh my God, what if that's true?' So I spent a quarter of a million bucks at Doblin trying to understand what it takes to make a community."
Keeley presented his team's findings at TED6, identifying six main ingredients of social glue. (Excerpt: Most online interest groups are "a kind of narcissism disguised as a community...it's too easy to leave.") One enthusiastic listener was Perot Systems CEO Meyerson, who thought Doblin might mesh well with his Dallas computer-services company. Says he: "Larry's talk was the icing on the cake of why I wanted to buy Doblin. It's a subject that's going to be increasingly important in the computer world." Perot acquired Doblin in November.
All this holds clues about Wurman's legerdemain. One trick is simply amassing enough bright, can-do people to self-ignite. TED has the cachet of an exclusive club. Wurman limits attendance to 660. He rarely invites the press and relies on word-of-mouth advertising. Yet "he sells the damn thing out every year," marvels Joseph Schoendorf, a venture capitalist at Accel Partners in San Francisco. "I'm sorry you're writing about it. Now he'll charge us more."
TED's riotous eclecticism generally works: The visionaries hit off one another at odd angles, generating so many sparks that even the most sodden bystanders catch fire. Where else would you find Bill Gates chatting with Timothy Leary, the late psychedelic swami? (We doubt their talk at TED3 bore fruit, but users of certain Microsoft products may differ.)
At TED7, Wurman showed off his conference's breadth with an equally unlikely juxtaposition: The first speaker was Meta-Tools co-founder Kai Krause, a hyperactive showman who set geeks' propellers spinning with a warp-speed demo of new graphics software. Then came Boorstin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who sat like a Greek oracle and uttered one lapidary paragraph after another. His theme: the decline of the amateur spirit in a world of narrow professionals and bureaucrats. Consider, he began, that the Latin root for "amateur" is amare, "to love."
The assembled professionals loved it--the amateur spirit is so thick at TED that they doubtless felt he was critiquing their colleagues back at the office instead of them. This is part of Wurman's spell: TED offers a glimpse of work as an extended hobby. Remember the exhilaration of surfing the Web for the first time, before the dreck factor hit home? That's a Wurmanesque moment. Indeed, if you're wondering what immersion in the Web is doing to your children's cognitive styles, you should ponder Wurman's ways.
They started in a moderately well-to-do suburb north of Philadelphia, where he grew up, the son of a dapper, gregarious cigar-company executive who read voraciously and expected his two sons to keep up. Wurman and his older brother, Frank, an attorney who calls himself the "normal" son, say their father quizzed them each night at dinner about facts culled from the New York Times and a half dozen other publications--drawing a blank meant having to leave the table and look it up.
But the elder Wurman was a latitudinarian at heart, "indulging any reasonable interest we expressed," says Richard. Art was "something of an anathema" in the family, he adds, but when he showed a flair for watercolor painting as a high schooler, his father pulled strings with a friend, Temple University's fine arts dean, so his son could take college art courses. All this paid off. Says Wurman's wife, novelist Gloria Nagy: "Richard has a very short attention span. He's a total TV baby. But he has a childlike passion to understand things that never got messed up the way it gets messed up in most of us."
Wurman changed course almost yearly after getting a master's degree in architecture at the University of Pennsylvania: He set himself up as an architect, moved to North Carolina to be a professor, chaired design and architecture conferences, moved to California for a university teaching post, returned to Philadelphia to be deputy director of housing for a year, doubled back to Pomona, California, to be dean of architecture and urban planning at California State Polytechnic.
Says he: "I can't do just one thing. That's my problem. I don't know if it's an attention disorder." This is more shtick. Wurman has made a great success of doing flybys of varied specialties, getting an acute sense for their fertile intersections. Says Doblin's Keeley: "He understands that interesting things often don't happen in fields themselves, but in the grout between the tiles. That's the genius of TED."
But he didn't hit his stride for years. In 1976 his sometimes neglected architecture practice folded after 13 years, and two years later he was fired as dean at Cal Poly after only a few months on the job. "They said I should work a 40-hour week, but I was working on books and was there only ten hours," he says. Busted to professor, Wurman made a splash anyway, says Marvin Malecha, who co-taught a freshman design class with his ex-dean. Wurman recruited guest lecturers like Nobelist Francis Crick, co-discoverer of DNA's structure. Both as a designer and a teacher, Wurman is "a brilliant provocateur," says Malecha, now dean at North Carolina State University's design school. But "sometimes it felt like he did all the fun stuff, and I was left with the office hours."
That note is sounded often by past collaborators, including ones who have worked on the more than 60 books bearing Wurman's imprimatur. He's known for assembling teams of bright young designers and writers, bombarding them with his inspirations, then buzzing off to the next thing while they reduce his concepts to practice. "It's the modus operandi of master architects," notes Ted West, who worked with Wurman at Pacific Bell in the 1980s to develop its Smart Yellow Pages directories. "They're brilliant conceivers, but when it comes to stenciling in the toilets, forget it."
Wurman contends he gives "closure" to projects. But he concedes, "I love beginnings." One of his best came in 1980. Pulling himself out of a funk after his fiasco as dean, he produced the L.A. guidebook and drove around the city in a vintage Honda peddling it at car washes and bookstores. Sales were slow and bankruptcy loomed until an old friend, former CBS president Frank Stanton, invested in the enterprise, enabling it to develop more guides and beef up marketing.
The popularity of Wurman's Access guides helped elevate him to guru of lucid design. He christened himself an "information architect" and waxed philosophical about the nature of clarity in books like Information Anxiety. His style, best represented by the Access guides, is marked by no-nonsense graphics, handy color codings for different kinds of information, and maps cleverly cross-linked and geared to a traveler's-eye view. Above all, says longtime collaborator Jane Rosch, Wurman uses his interests to dictate how information is boiled down: "He thinks, 'Here I am on a page. So where's a place I can eat, or pee, or look at a gallery?' "
But why is a Wurman's-eye view so mass-marketable?
"I'm just a lumpy guy," he replies. This isn't exactly the first thought one has driving up the graveled drive of his mansion in Newport, Rhode Island, a mini-Xanadu modeled after a French chateau. (But inside--here's the Wurman genius--the place is livable and inviting. Even the $6,580 Knoll lounge chairs in his study, designed in 1929 by architect Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, are comfy.)
Yet it's partly true: Wurman lumpishly punctuates his enthusiasms with profanity ("I f--in' love TV!"), and at TED, he often sounds like a chummy borscht belt comedian handing out Nobel Prizes.
The lumpiness seems unaffected, but like much about Wurman, it can also be interpreted as canny shtick. (In Information Anxiety he counsels readers to "embellish with flourish ... To clarify or highlight something, you exaggerate it.") Says Roger Mandle, president of the Rhode Island School of Design: "Wurman sets the tone at TED with his informal style. It gets people to relax and makes them willing to encounter each other."
Lumpiness isn't as crucial to Wurman's magic as what his wife calls "Jewish voodoo," an almost "primitive sense" of what to put in and leave out so his works work. Nor does it rank with his Godzilla-size chutzpah. Says he: "I always ask for the best seat in a restaurant. Someone's going to sit in it. It's okay if it's not me, but it's not okay for me not to try to get it. My father told me that."
Without his oceanic gall, TED wouldn't be. Says Accel's Schoendorf: "When most of us read about somebody interesting in a magazine, we put it down and go on. Wurman calls the guy up and says, 'I'd like you to do something for me.' " Adds Saffo: "He's a little like [San Francisco mayor] Willie Brown. If you do him a favor, he doesn't feel he owes you one. He feels you're in his debt because he did you the favor of letting you do him a favor."
When a prospective speaker says no, Wurman pulls out his Sharp Wizard and goes to work. He's the Jascha Heifetz of social strings, and the Wizard is his Stradivarius--at latest count, it contained 1,496 names and phone numbers. As he bows it, names drop that are music to people's ears--for Full, the Berkeley biologist, the resonant notes included mention of Tedologists the scientist knew at MIT. Before trying to lure Vincent Barabba, GM's general manager of corporate strategy and knowledge development, Wurman dialed a mutual acquaintance and asked her to soften up the target. Says Barabba: "She called me and said, 'You're going to get a call from this guy named Richard Wurman, and I think you're going to want to do what he's going to want you to do.' That's pretty hard to say no to."
"I live by two credos," says Wurman. "If you don't ask, you don't get. And most things don't work."
The first is a gimme. But the second is like Ted Williams fussing that he didn't get a hit most times at bat--true, but laughably beside the point. At the latest TED, Wurman seemed to be everyone's favorite charity: General Motors loaned new Cadillacs, replete with chauffeurs, to ferry attendees to and from the local airport. Furniture maker Herman Miller chipped in 160 of its $1,200 high-concept Aeron chairs for Tedsters to take a load off in an overflow room for televised talks. Behind-the-scenes chores were handled by a dozen young computer whizzes and other professionals who made do with the same intangible pay as the stars out front.
Yet most, if not all, of Wurman's sprites deem the wages fair. Says Tedologist Stewart Brand, creator of the Whole Earth Catalog and now a senior statesman of the digital revolution: "People asked to talk at conferences a lot don't do it for the money after a while. They do it for the quality of the audience. TED offers a killer audience and a killer lineup of other speakers." Wurman asks the luminaries to stick around for the whole conference, and many do, helping to foster the camaraderie of intense, shared experience--My Dinner with Andre multiplied by about 50.
Wurman sold his Access Press to HarperCollins in 1991, and now his main passion is TED. In the past two years he has added special-focus conferences on health care and selling. Currently he's gearing up for "technotainment," a September conference on the emerging education business. The spinoffs are based on his well-honed design, but Wurman says he lost money on his first medical conference, which wasn't sold out. "I'm scared shitless about technotainment," he adds.
But clearly not shtickless. As Wurman is fond of saying, "Failure is just delayed success." And his customers are more than loyal--they volunteer as his sales force. Says John Warnock, CEO of software maker Adobe Systems: "I introduced my wife to TED three years ago, and now she insists on attending." So does his son.
So what's to worry for the modern Midas? Everyone touched by his intellectual hedonism turns into a repeat customer.