I’ve Seen the Light

Have you ever had a book find you? That’s what happened to me a few weeks ago. I was in the artist’s studio here at work when I picked up a book from the shelf. It was “Information Anxiety 2” by Richard Saul Wurman. I thumbed through it, took it home, read it over the next two days, and knew that I had found exactly what I had been searching for.

For every copywriter, artist, project manager, Web designer, or mouth-breathing, upright-walking, word-using mammal that has ever struggled to provide a clear, sane way of presenting information, Wurman lays a foundation for a better method of communication.

His Earlier Work

An architect by trade, Wurman spent many years developing the Access series of maps and city guides, providing a different way to view city maps. Organized by neighborhoods, the color-coded maps do a great job showing you as much or as little information as you need to navigate through a new city.

You can see his methods when you visit www.understandingusa.com. One stunning example is called Children at Risk. He shows how to take a bunch of numbers and statistics and present them in a way that is easily understandable.

About “Information Anxiety 2”

One of the most critical chapters for me was Chapter 3, called “Land Mines in the Understanding Field.”

    “Since the advent of the Industrial Age, we have increased our use of a terrific word: more. It really worked for everything. When our roads became crowded, we built more roads. When our cities became unsafe, we hired more police officers, ordered more police cars, and built more prisons.”

Think of your work right now. Is your life simpler because of email and technology, or does the clutter get to you? Do you spend an hour or two wading through emails that you wish you could avoid? The paperless office we were all promised has gone the other way, and a return to simple information architecture can help.

The book is set up differently from other books as well. On each page are callout quotes from famous and not-so-famous people. If this book provided me nothing else but this quote from Howard Aiken, it would have been worth it: “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”

Here is a sample of information in “Information Anxiety 2” that hit home for me:

The differences between leaders and managers. He breaks out the different types of managers, including these: Just Give Me the Details; The Pacifist; Toadying Sycophants; The Terminally Obtuse; I’m Just All Thumbs; Wild Goose-Chasers; Style Meisters; Don’t Boss Me Around; Too Smart for Instructions; The Paper Warrior; The Overkiller; Guaranteed to Miss the Forest for the Trees; and Sure, Oh Shit. The most interesting part of this chapter is about combinations of personality types — which ones work well together and which ones are lethal combinations.

Education is to learning as tour groups are to adventure. “Contrary to Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss, we are not living in the best of all possible worlds. Not only are we overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information, most of us are also hampered by an education that inadequately trains us to process it.”

Remembering what it’s like not to know. “We need to hone our ability to understand what it’s like not to understand in order to communicate more clearly.” Have you ever tried to explain Dreamweaver 4 to someone who knows nothing about graphic design? Make sure you can give everyone in your audience a foothold to grab on to before launching into technical information.

Dangers of customization. “Customization eliminates serendipitous discoveries.” Remember what it was like to look up something in the encyclopedia? You pulled out the “P” volume to look for “pickles.” On the same page, you saw 15 other topics you knew nothing about, so you browsed and found things by accident. With the new onus on pinpoint information searches, this casual browsing is being extinguished.

LATCH. This is an acronym that will change the way you organize information. Wurman divides all information into five categories: Location, Alphabet, Time, Category, and Hierarchy. As he says, “Each way of organization permits a different understanding; each lends itself to different kinds of information; and each has certain reassuring limitations that will help make the choices of how the information is presented easier.”

Believe me when I tell you that you will find great information and ideas that will challenge the way you do your job. See for yourself. You can read a chapter online, which is an excellent way to kick the tires before you decide to buy the entire car. You can find it here.

I’d be interested to know what you think about the book. Email me at peter@stickyideas.com.

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