The flip side of mastering information is presenting it. Information Masters aren't worth much if they can't communicate their insights to others. So we asked Richard Saul Wurman for advice on how to make the complicated clear.
Wurman is chairman and creative director of the TED Conferences, which focus on the converging fields of technology, entertainment, and design. In 1976 he coined the term "information architect" and declared himself the first of many to come. Since then he's mentored a generation of creative disciples who work with words, pictures, and video. One result is Wurman's recent book, Information Architects. It presents the creations of 20 colleagues who've mastered the skill of presenting clear information. From their joint efforts, we've highlighted five rules for mapping information so others can find their way.
Rule #1: You understand something new relative to something you already understand.
Look at a photograph of a painting alone on a wall and try to figure out the painting's size. You can't. The only way is to compare it with something you already know.
"For most things in everyday life, scale is best understood if it's based on a relationship to a human being," says Wurman. "Scale always relates to us."
Rule #2: There are just five ways to organize information: by location, alphabet, time, category, or hierarchy.
These methods can be remembered by the acronym LATCH. Roads, towns, and bodies of water are best organized by location. Dictionaries, encyclopedias, and many collections of data, by alphabet. Museum exhibits and planning documents, by timeline. Department stores and Yellow Pages, by category. And physical objects, by hierarchy — from the largest to the smallest, from the densest to the least dense.
"I've tried a thousand times to find other ways to organize," Wurman says, "but I always end up using one of these five."
Rule #3: Don't beautify, clarify.
"Computers give us the ability to better display information," Wurman says, "but what do graphic designers do? They take a simple statistic, turn it into a pie chart, add millions of colors, shade it, make it three-dimensional, explode it into parts, suspend the parts in space, and show their shadows on the ground. Each step is a step away from understanding."
What should they do instead? "Just present the statistic." When asked if the goal is to simplify, Wurman boils over. "No, no, no! The simplification movement is just another minimalist fashion. The goal is to clarify — make it easy to understand."
Rule #4: To decide which information is worth keeping, determine what you really want to know.
Wurman has authored, designed, and published more than 60 books. "Each one was inspired by something I didn't understand," he says, "whether it was a diagnostic test on my own body, finding my way around Tokyo, or following the Olympics on TV." The information he chose to include answered these "must-know" questions; information that didn't was discarded.
"We're taught when we're young that we're not supposed to look stupid. So we don't ask questions. Well, you'd better ask questions, and you'd better ask about things you really want to know. That way you'll convey your fascination and explain it in a way that other people will understand."
Rule #5: Most information is useless. Give yourself permission to dismiss it.
The best way to deal with information overload is to realize that it's not a mental or a physical problem, it's an emotional problem. And the only way to overcome it is to "hold on to what really interests you and make connections from there," says Wurman. "Connecting one interest to the next is how you teach yourself and others.
"It's worthless to read something you're not interested in, because you won't remember it anyway. Nothing occurs during that experience that helps your insight and understanding. Once you realize this, you'll free yourself from the guilt of not paying attention to most of the news and information that's out there."
Coordinates: $39.95. Information Architects, Graphis Press Corp., 1996; Richard Saul Wurman, firstname.lastname@example.org .
A version of this article appeared in the August/September 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.