www.wired.com | By Gary Wolf | Published 01 February 2000
On the stage of a small auditorium, Nathan Myhrvold falls to his knees. Myhrvold, the billionaire CTO of Microsoft, on his knees. Not a bad tribute, eh? Not bad for a little pisser like Richard Saul Wurman, for a schlepper, for a smelly old man!
Downstairs, in the lobby of the city convention center in Monterey, California, there's a great commotion. The people arriving for TED, the technology, entertainment, and design conference Wurman holds every year, are greeted at the door with dozens of gifts – too many to carry. Later, in the auditorium, Wurman comes onstage with good news: "Free shipping, ladies and gentlemen, to your offices and homes!
"This," says Wurman, waving a piece of paper, "is an overnight-delivery slip. In order to have your bags shipped, you'll have to fill this out. Many of you have never filled out your own delivery slip before, but it is easy, and somebody can explain if you get stuck."
Wurman is a 64-year-old designer who was trained as an architect. He has a closely trimmed white beard, and his eyes, which bug out slightly, gaze at you with genial incredulity, as if he's just caught you in a little fib but is willing to overlook it. The TED conference, which he owns, is arguably the hottest gathering around for media and technology executives. Tickets cost $3,000 and sell out a year in advance. The tenth TED, aka TEDX (styled with a Roman numeral, Wurman says, "because I wanted something a little more pretentious"), is being held February 23 to 26. As his facetious offer to help with airbills at last February's conference suggests, Wurman likes to have fun with the fact that nearly everybody at TED is a big shot.
In the lobby at TED9, an angry man argues with Kimberly Gough, who has worked for Wurman since 1995. The man pushes his picture ID toward her face. "It's an old photo," he snaps. Gough just shakes her head. After a few minutes of lingering in the lobby, the man returns. "I came over to apologize," he says. "You were absolutely right. The picture wasn't me. This conference cost my company a lot of money. Can you give me a badge with my real name on it, and I'll give you my real ID?"
"No," says Gough calmly.
Gough is very important to Wurman. When somebody calls him for tickets he doesn't want to relinquish, he says, "Gee, I'm out of the loop on that – you'll have to talk to Kimberly." Then Gough has a friendly conversation with the person and refuses.
Wurman has lots of acquaintances who think he owes them a favor – understandably so. It would be very expensive to run an event like TED if the presenters – many of whom are prominent executives, scientists, writers, and business consultants – charged their customary fees. Wurman covers their travel and hotel expenses but doesn't pay for their time, even though TED is a for-profit operation that grosses more than $2 million a year.
Wurman also convinces corporate sponsors to foot the bill for most of the incidentals. Almost everything at TED has a corporate patron. There are breaks for IBM jumbo hot dogs and Rockport fruit and coffee. People who sponsor something at TED feel they're entitled to a little consideration, and sometimes they show up without tickets or try to sneak someone in from their firm who didn't register in advance. Wurman rarely gives them satisfaction. "It wouldn't be fair," he says.
Wurman is never short on help. Each year, a dozen volunteers – many of them accomplished professionals – don red T-shirts and move furniture. Others donate money. Penelope Finnie, VP of product development at Ask Jeeves, spoke with Wurman the day after her company went public in 1999. "I love talking to rich people," he told her. Then he asked her to pay for a TEDX cocktail party, and Finnie said yes.
Wurman's manner is so brazen that his friends can't resist joking about it. "Have you heard his famous conversation-starter?" asks Stephan van Dam, a well-known graphic designer in New York. "He says, 'You don't know me, but you owe me.'"
Maybe they do. For 15 years, Wurman has tracked the convergence of media, technology, and business so closely that he can pose half-convincingly as ringmaster of the digital economy. In 1984, at the first TED conference, Apple introduced the Macintosh, Nicholas Negroponte discussed his plans for the new Media Lab at MIT, mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot demonstrated how to do wonderful things with fractals, and Sony executive Mickey Schulhof gave away samples of his company's new medium, the compact disc.
Unfortunately, the room wasn't even halfway filled: It was still too soon. The technology people had their own conferences for new stuff, while media and entertainment people didn't understand why they were supposed to care. Wurman and his partners lost money, and the second TED wasn't held until 1990.
But by 1992, when TED3 took place, the world had caught up. The hall was sold out for appearances by Bill Gates, Adobe cofounder John Warnock, information-design guru Edward Tufte, futurist Paul Saffo, and John Sculley, Apple's CEO at the time. Jaron Lanier explained his experiments with virtual reality. MIT AI professor Marvin Minsky, entertainment technologist Bran Ferren, and computer-interface pioneer Alan Kay also presented and, like most speakers, sat in the audience for the rest of the show, mixing it up with the conferees. Conversation between sessions was lively. In the ensuing years, as cross-pollination took off, so did TED's influence and the number of people anxious to get in.
So when Myhrvold falls to his knees at TED9, the longtime TED speaker is having fun with the subservience of powerful people, including himself, to the whims of their host. And with Wurman, there's no distinction between big and little whims. For years, attendees were afraid to book rooms at the nearby Doubletree Hotel; Wurman had feuded with the management, and they didn't want to be persecuted by association.
Wurman's belligerence is well documented. Michael Everitt, who worked in Wurman's design studio for more than a decade, has vivid memories of his boss's talent for imposing his will. "Whoever was in the office was subject to a barrage, often very insulting," he remembers. "Some people were shocked and couldn't handle it. Others took it as a good-natured and very intimate kind of joking. The worse the abuse was, the more they laughed – and the more Richard got his way. My mouth would just hang open sometimes. He would be in the office in a food-stained, mismatched jogging suit, and he'd be joking about the way people looked and about what dumb ideas they had." Everitt laughs. "He was a real pig, and I'm sure he'd say the same thing."
Pretty close: "I don't have proper filters between my brain and my mouth," Wurman admits.
But there are no food stains on Wurman's shirt when he takes the stage in the main auditorium at TED: He wears white cotton trousers, a multicolored Missoni sweater, and a long scarf. There's something medieval about the way he carries on. He is lordly, appetitive, and impulsive. He makes attendees submit to an elaborately ritualized hierarchy. You'll be one of either 500 or so VIPs in the main hall or the 250 also-rans in a nearby "simulcast room," and you'll wear your rank on a color-coded name tag for the duration. (When I arranged to go to TED9, I discovered the lowest rung yet recorded. "You can come," Wurman said, "but you can't sit down.")
Wurman expresses amazement at his apparent power. "I have limited intellectual capability," he says. "I was just clever at the right time." But modesty is one of the more difficult virtues for the founder of TED to pantomime, and even his wife, novelist Gloria Nagy, finds it irritating when he tries. "I've figured out your self-image," she told him once. "You're a little piece of shit at the center of the universe."
TEDgoers often wonder how Wurman came to preside over such an elite group. Most of the presenters are industry old-timers who have built something, invented something, run something, or sold something. What can Wurman take credit for – aside, that is, from his yearly party? Is Wurman's importance merely a convenient fiction that enables four days of California schmoozing?
It drives Wurman crazy that he might be remembered only as a guy who threw a good bash. He recites his list of accomplishments with the fluency of a man long misunderstood. He has written or published more than 60 books. He built his own design studio and publishing company, which he sold for millions of dollars to HarperCollins in 1990. Most important, the host of TED has challenged architects and designers to rethink their professions' boundaries by defining a new discipline – information architecture.
A Wurman coinage, information architecture combines all the design, research, and editorial arts to arrive at intelligent ways of visualizing data. Information architects design interfaces, make statistical maps, produce guidebooks, and develop signage for cities, museums, and airports. People were doing these things long before Wurman, but he synthesized them to create sophisticated new organizational metaphors and systems. "Most designers have done relatively unimportant things – corporate logos, styling, packaging," says Ralph Caplan, a New York-based designer who sits on the advisory board of IDCA, the prestigious International Design Conference in Aspen, Colorado. "Ricky moved the field."
But TED has almost completely obscured Wurman's lifelong career as a publisher and designer. Perhaps the trade-off has been worth it to him. TED itself is a triumph of information design. The meticulously tended social dynamic of the conference is the crowning achievement of a talented man – one who realized long ago that the presentation of information can be more important than the information itself.
Wurman's gregarious and insistent style is a family legacy. His father, Morris Louis Wurman, was an executive at Bayuk Cigars and a respected man in Philadelphia's Jewish business circles. He was abrupt and gruff, but also generous and sophisticated. He was a macher, a player. He knew his way around Havana, how to get the best room in a hotel, the best table at a restaurant. His son wanted to be a painter, but this struck Wurman senior as insufficiently professional, so he arranged for aptitude tests. The results suggested three career paths: architect, archaeologist, or hairdresser. Ricky, as he's known to longtime friends, chose architecture.
In the '50s and '60s, Philadelphia architecture meant Louis Kahn – absent-minded, impecunious, visionary Kahn. In 1959, when Wurman graduated, Kahn was establishing himself as one of the major American architects of the 20th century. He put up celebrated buildings around the world, including the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. All the best students at the University of Pennsylvania's architecture school worked in Kahn's studio. They ate with him, drank with him, and loaned him money. Most of all, they listened. Kahn designed by talking and would enthrall his students with musings like, "The sun never knew how great it was until it hit the side of a building."
During Wurman's first year in the studio, Kahn sent him to London with sketches for a barge. It was to be anchored in the Thames and used as a setting for musical concerts funded by H. J. Heinz, the ketchup king. When Wurman arrived, he went for a pint with the naval architects supervising the construction and showed them Kahn's rough sketches.
"But where are the working drawings?" they asked. There was an awkward pause. Wurman suddenly realized what Kahn had sent him to England to do. Creating all the drawings and mastering the construction details would take months. He had little money, little experience, and a wife and newborn waiting for him in Philadelphia. For days, Kahn refused to take his phone calls. When Wurman finally got through, Kahn told him, "Well, come home, then, if you can't do the work." Instead, Wurman stayed for six months, bluffing and bullying until the barge was done. At the opening concert, Wurman sat next to the American ambassador in the grandstand. He was 25 years old.
"Lou was demonic and adored," Wurman remembers, smiling. "He didn't obey the rules because it didn't occur to him that there were rules."
In 1963, Wurman started his own firm with two Penn graduates, John Murphy and Alan Levy. The partnership lasted 13 years, but the going was rough. Murphy Levy Wurman did small design jobs in downtown Philadelphia – signs and banners and the lobby of a bank, buildings for some of Morris Wurman's business acquaintances – but big commissions were scarce. Levy remembers talking once to Ed Bacon, head of Philadelphia's city planning department, when they ran into each other on a commuter train. "I'd help you guys," Bacon said, "if it weren't for your partner." Wurman had problems with clients, and they with him. "Ricky always said you have to force your ideas on people because people don't have any ideas," Murphy recalls.
The highlight of Wurman's architectural career was an ambitious plan for the redevelopment of Penn's Landing, a run-down parcel along the waterfront. There was an international competition for the job, and Wurman and his partners brought a single page, laminated like a menu, to a meeting with city officials. "You don't need to see our work," Levy recalls Wurman proclaiming. "The role of this one-page document is to say, 'You don't know what you want. We will work with you to help you figure it out.'" The outrageous pitch won the firm the job; the partners produced an elegant plan of giant circular developments that included a boat basin, a sculpture garden, and a shop-lined waterfront.
Maybe if the economy hadn't tanked in 1973, Penn's Landing would have been completed, attracting other large commissions. But a building falloff in Philadelphia shut it down. The pressures of the recession and Wurman's temperament frayed the partnership: In 1976, it dissolved. In a way, but only in a way, Murphy says he still misses Wurman. "Ricky was a neurotic egomaniac," Murphy says, "but he loved to laugh. He was not a jerk." Murphy pauses for a moment, thinking back. "He was an asshole, but he was not a jerk."
As a sideline to his work at the firm, Wurman published books and taught architecture at several universities. His first book, Cities: Comparisons of Form and Scale, originally published in 1963, was a thin, octavo paperback produced during a short teaching gig at North Carolina State University at Raleigh. Wurman directed his design students to make plasticine models of 50 cities. The results were delightful: Shown on a common scale, the cities appeared as discrete objects, molded to the landscape and radically divergent in form.
Over the next decade, Wurman's fascination with comparative information introduced him to problems that neither architects nor graphic designers were trained to solve. He produced other books of comparisons, the most ambitious of which was a geographical tome, Urban Atlas: 20 American Cities. Wurman's idea was to display demographic, economic, and sociological data in a standardized form. How is wealth distributed? How many churches are there? What sorts of jobs exist? He enlisted architecture students at Washington University in St. Louis to painstakingly cut and paste hundreds of thousands of little circles onto maps, creating elaborate overlays.
Wurman's method of representing a flood of statistics using basic graphical elements anticipated today's computerized data-visualization techniques. The only problem was that, in the late '60s, geographers and urban planners didn't have desktop computers – or classrooms of students to hand-layer their maps. "Urban Atlas was the tree falling in the forest," says Wurman. "Back then, there was nobody to hear it."
By the time Wurman's architecture firm closed, he had two sons and was separated from his first wife, Dorothy. With no company, no secure job, and a split-up family, he continued to teach at sporadic academic jobs. Residing briefly in a Venice, California, flophouse, he even considered opening a restaurant.
Between teaching assignments in the late '70s and early '80s, Wurman had plenty of time to explore LA, a city that baffled him. Where were its borders, its neighborhoods, its reasonably priced delis? Slowly, Wurman puzzled out an answer. What LA was missing, he concluded, was him. Working with a team of young associates, Wurman produced his first guidebook, LA Access. Self-published, it was arranged by location rather than category, using a color scheme to identify restaurants, hotels, and points of interest. The book was a popular success, and, thanks to a subsequent cash infusion from Frank Stanton, former head of CBS, Wurman's fledgling Access Press grew into a multimillion-dollar enterprise that would publish dozens of other Access guides.
The books earned Wurman a reputation for transforming complicated and often dull information into user-friendly "machines for understanding," as he called them. In 1986, he got a plum job that gave him lasting influence on the new-media industry: He redesigned Pacific Bell's Yellow Pages.
To get the task done, Wurman set up a studio, The Understanding Business (TUB), in a big corner office in San Francisco's SoMa district and hired a team of designers, many of whom have since become well known in interactive media. The Pacific Bell project was a preview of the interface tasks that obsess design firms today: icons, nested hierarchies, cross-references, deep databases. Wurman's contribution was not his hands-on work so much as his metawork: He redefined the problems his designers were trying to solve. "All of Richard's work seems obvious now," says Nathan Shedroff, who worked with Wurman at TUB before cofounding vivid studios. "But, of course, once you do something great in this business, that's how it's seen."
In 1989, Wurman produced Information Anxiety, a book-length manifesto on information design. In 1996 he came out with Information Architects, an oversize, full-color anthology that highlights the work of 27 designers, along with his own contributions.
Despite these and other accomplishments, Wurman remains a remarkably marginal figure in the design world. He is critical of mainstream designers and yet bitter that he doesn't receive their applause; as with his architectural and academic pursuits, Wurman's capacity for self-indulgence has dogged his design endeavors. After more than two decades of publicly haranguing his fellow board members, he failed to gain reelection to IDCA's board, and he has fallen out with the major professional organization of designers, the American Institute of Graphic Arts. Angry that he wasn't invited to speak at a recent AIGA conference, Wurman banned the group's executive director, Rick Grefé, and one of the conference organizers, Chee Pearlman, editor in chief of I.D. Magazine, from this year's TED.
Wurman knows this behavior makes him seem childish, and he doesn't mind a bit. "Call me childish!" he says. "Childish is good. Picasso was childish. Chagall was childish. It's the twinkle in the eye! I predicted for 40 years that information architecture would become one of the most important jobs for graphic designers. They hate that I saw it coming. They think I rub their noses in it.
"Plus," he happily continues, "my pool is bigger than their pools."
Wurman's pool is 90 feet long and shaped like a half-moon. It's a semicircle of blue water that meets a semicircle of neatly trimmed hedge to form a giant zero in the backyard of his 7-acre Newport, Rhode Island, estate – a lush layout known as the Orchard. If Wurman is an outsider, the Orchard is his redoubt, headquarters for TED, and the command center from which he can control a handful of independent design and publishing projects.
On my visit there, I'm buzzed through the entry gate, then travel over an endless gravel driveway before climbing the steps between two tall, spiraling lampposts of patina-green metal and ringing the doorbell. A housekeeper directs me to Wurman: Dressed in sweatshirt, shorts, and baseball cap, he's playing computer solitaire in his office. The TED staff, housed three floors up, pesters him with a steady stream of phone calls.
Wurman takes me outside for a tour of his spread. He has scattered a dozen metal buoys across the lawns to add a sense of intrigue. He directed his gardeners to build mounds in the grass that look like the pointed breasts of female totems. There's a spiral rose garden with 350 bushes, a secret garden of high hedges, and a perennials garden. There's a circular inline-skating park (Wurman doesn't skate) and a circular putting green (Wurman doesn't putt, either – he just like circles).
Back inside the house, a marble staircase sweeps down to the entry hall; not far away, a 4-foot-long, gold-colored alligator stands guard. On the walls are etchings by Picasso, Bacon, Klee. Across the entry hall from Wurman's office is the room where Nagy, his wife, writes. "We are basic, simple people," she tells me. "We don't have a yacht. We have a nice house in a state where real estate isn't expensive." Wurman and Nagy rarely have anyone but family and staff at the house. "It's about freedom," Nagy explains. "Richard's greatest fear is losing the ability to say 'Fuck you.'"
As the afternoon wanes, Wurman, sitting with me on the back patio, looks across the pool and expounds upon the subtleties of his landscape design. You are near water, he says, which is relaxing. When you turn the fountains on, they make a soft splash that allows for private conversations. Every granite tile surrounding the pool was cut by hand to ensure the proper curve. It's very soothing to sit out on the porch, drink cosmopolitans from plastic martini glasses, and watch the breeze sway the branches of a 60-foot beech.
"Hey, Tim! Hey!" Wurman yells at a young man across the grounds.
"Yes, Mr. Wurman?"
"Two things!" Wurman bellows. "What is the switch for the secret fountain?"
The young man calls out some numbers and letters. There are so many switches controlling the Orchard's machinery that it's hard for Wurman to keep them straight.
"And the second thing! That spotlight – it's aimed wrong. It should shine right up the ass of that bronze fawn – straight in!"
"OK, Mr. Wurman."
He leans back and smiles.
The next day, I watch him work. TEDX is already coming together in typical Wurman fashion. Each TED features a giveaway teddy bear; for TEDX, Wurman is negotiating for a special, light-furred millennium bear that will be unmistakably modeled after him. (Fights over the limited supply of bears are another TED element that verges on satire. The plan is to have enough bears to go around, but a few avaricious executives always manage to make off with two or three, leaving some of their fellow millionaires bereft.)
Upstairs, Kimberly Gough is already untangling registration problems, and another employee, David Sume, is clipping stacks of magazines and making endless revisions to early drafts of the program. Sume, amiable and easily distracted, is utterly dedicated to TED. He worked at a Seattle copy shop when he first heard about the conference, and he traveled to Monterey on his own dime to volunteer. He came back for another TED, made himself indispensable, and eventually moved into a remodeled carriage house at the Orchard. Sume does a lot of the heavy labor, tracking down potential speakers, negotiating with their staffs, and briefing Wurman on their requests.
Michele Corbeil, Wurman's personal assistant, controls the phone traffic. A Rhode Island native, Corbeil has a studied calm that contrasts starkly with Wurman's unrestrained exuberance. When Wurman buzzes her on the intercom to bring down some documents, Corbeil appears in the doorway with the apprehensive expression of a zookeeper passing dinner to a well-fed but unpredictable lion.
Months before TED convenes, Wurman begins peppering conferees with emails that offer a constantly updated schedule. Wurman has his team comb the media for mentions of the speakers, which he passes on to everybody who has signed up. "A number of TEDsters were included in recent lists in magazines," says a typical Wurman missive.
Wurman's small staff, while smart and competent, is also young: It's hard to believe he creates TED with such spare administration. When I ask Wurman why he has no disciples, why there are no trained and ambitious designers helping him out, he sighs. "Nobody comes here for me," he says. "No graduate student ever asks to work with me. Nobody calls me for a job."
After a few more hours in the office, it occurs to me that Wurman wouldn't know what to do with disciples if he had them. He makes (and unmakes) decisions instantly, without asking for advice or explaining his thinking. While I watch, he takes a call from Nigel Holmes, a designer whose work was featured in Information Architects and who is collaborating with Wurman on a new design anthology, the title of which Wurman has decided to graphically modify from Understanding USA to Understanding – with the letters U, S, and A in boldface.
"Did you see the new title?" Wurman asks. "What do you think?"
"I have mixed feelings about it," answers Holmes.
"Oh, fuck you," says Wurman, brightly. "I don't want to hear your goddamn criticism."
"Well, don't ask me, then."
"Have a nice day," says Wurman, and changes the subject.
In business matters, as in creative ones, Wurman works with partners but doesn't actively collaborate with them.
He actually had a partner in the early days of TED; not surprisingly, the arrangement caused misery on both sides. The partner was Harry Marks, a retired TV executive who was an important early adopter of computer graphics. In 1983, Marks wanted to move to Pebble Beach, California, but was afraid he'd be bored there. A friend suggested the idea for TED. Marks then asked Ricky Wurman, whom he'd met in LA, to join him in the venture.
Marks knew that Wurman had previously chaired the IDCA, organizing a popular meeting in 1972 called the Invisible City. After that, he had orchestrated half a dozen other successful events, including a series in Monterey on California architects that was held three years in a row.
Wurman agreed to sign on. For seed money, Wurman went back to CBS's Frank Stanton. Stanton, Wurman, and Marks put up $10,000 each. Since none of the partners wanted to take responsibility for a flop, they agreed that if they didn't reach their target for advance registrations by December 1983, they'd call the meeting off.
And that's what happened – sort of. They failed to reach the target, which was extremely disappointing, especially to Wurman, who had become fixated on the TEDconcept. The poster was designed and speakers were invited – Mandelbrot, Negroponte, Megatrends author John Naisbitt. The new Macintosh would be there. But people didn't register. Wurman didn't want to cancel the meeting, but he'd made an agreement with his friend and with his publishing patron and therefore felt he had a personal obligation. Still, Wurman couldn't let go of TED: He held the conference anyway. His partners reluctantly showed up.
"Frank was furious," Wurman recalls. "He never trusted me again. And Harry wouldn't talk to me, either."
Wurman admits he's ashamed he broke his word. "I was not to be trusted," he says. "I'm not trying to make excuses. But they also disliked me, I think, because I had this, this courage to do it! And it should have been done!"
It's hard not to feel sorry for Wurman's partners. He didn't respect their interests – their legitimate concerns – then he rubbed salt in their wounds by eventually succeeding. Surprisingly, they still came back. Well, not Stanton, who was a stickler for principle. But Wurman has a history of patching things up with ex-friends. "He knows people's weaknesses, and he reminds them of it," says Joel Katz, a designer who has worked frequently with Wurman (though they once didn't speak for a year). "My weakness was that I was afraid to work for him again. He used to tease me about it several times a year. He'd say, 'You don't want to work with me because my ideas are better than yours.'"
In 1989, Marks called Wurman and said that people from the first TED conference were pestering him to do another one. The Pacific Bell project was going full tilt, so Wurman hit up the phone company for $80,000 to fund the second TED. The conference drew a full house, and Marks and Wurman even made a little money. "Let's do it again," Wurman said to Marks.
But TED2 proved to Marks – once more – that he didn't like working with his friend, who insisted on getting everything for free, asking everybody for favors, and shaming people into donating their services, even as paid registrations mounted. "The math was easy to figure out," Marks says. "There were millions floating around. I was always asking, 'How can you get away with that?' Richard would tell me, 'I just look at them with my baby blues.'"
Marks wanted out so badly he sold his half of the revived TED to his partner for a dollar. This seemed unfair, even to Wurman, and the next year he offered Marks his 50 percent ownership back. Marks refused; he didn't want to be involved. "He uses people in a way I can't deal with," says Marks. "I couldn't face them."
Wurman, however, was thrilled with TED, which quickly displaced Access Press as his major interest. Yet when he sold Access and The Understanding Business to HarperCollins in 1990, he thought he would stay closely involved. Instead he was soon asked to resign: His new partners, he says, felt that his mind was on other things. By this point, he was almost able to agree; today he can even acknowledge that he's never been particularly successful in any cooperative enterprise he didn't control.
Planning for TED starts more than a year in advance and reaches its peak about a minute before Wurman takes the stage. On location at TED9, Kimberly Gough stiff-arms begging friends and strangers while Michele Corbeil helps Wurman find his sweater, tracks down the supplies that never arrived, negotiates with the conference-center staff, and oversees the control room's endlessly ringing phones. David Sume makes last-minute changes to the program, which looks like a film script broken down into half-minutes. Wurman, meanwhile, heartily greets the many friends who come to him for a preconference blessing.
I watch as Wurman works the crowd, occasionally grabbing a moment to discuss some of his side businesses. He huddles with Jay Chiat, the founder of TBWA/Chiat/Day, to chat about a secret project, then shares his idea for a new line of health guides with Horace Deets, executive director of AARP. Elsewhere in the lobby, similar reunions are taking place – some demonstrative and emotional, others polite and wary. (Old friends meet at TED, but old enemies do, too.) As the program begins, there's a rush for seats in the main auditorium, while the second-class citizens trudge into the surrounding simulcast rooms. After warm-up acts by Firesign Theatre and jazz singer Hazel Miller, the man himself – offering no welcome speech, no formal remarks – takes the mike to tell the audience how they must behave at TED.
There's something liberating about TED conferences, even when the host is childish. Especially then. "People are so much more open and approachable at TED," says Sunny Bates, an executive recruiter who has been coming since 1995. "I think they say to themselves, 'If Richard can act like that and pull it off, what do I have to be afraid of?'"
At every TED, Wurman is teased mercilessly all weekend long. Some of the gibes are about his weight or his egotism, but most are about his lust for patronage. Often, when Wurman turns his back, the conferees' good-natured facade disappears, and they marvel at what they see as his avarice and shamelessness.
Wurman has always fiddled with TED's format, but some elements remain constant. The list of presenters includes architects like Frank Gehry and Richard Rogers, tech-business big shots like Steve Case and John Doerr, and scientists like Stephen Jay Gould and George Dyson. Wurman admires showbiz types, so people like Herbie Hancock and Quincy Jones are invited to perform or mingle. A core group of TED supporters presents year after year: Nicholas Negroponte and John Warnock have spoken at almost every meeting. Wurman enjoys animals and often invites trainers or scientists to bring the creatures they work with or study.
There's even a kind of predictability to the surprises – someone who isn't a designer, entertainer, or techie will show up and fascinate the audience with a refreshing point of view. Peter Kramer, author of Listening to Prozac, gave a charmingly awkward talk at TED9 about the psychology of people who fall in love in chat rooms, and Jane Goodall explained how the lack of educational and economic opportunities in Africa has led to the destruction of the continent's primate habitats.
Inevitably, many of the sessions fall flat. The casual style and lack of a fixed theme tempt some presenters, especially first-timers, to improvise and meander – never a good idea when tickets cost $3,000. Other presentations are well delivered but opaque. Wurman used to allow questions, but not anymore. "I know the audience wants that confrontation, but I refuse to give it to them," he says. "Why should I waste people's time just to satisfy a few egos?"
Speakers do get something in return for donating their services: Wurman looks out for them, aware that his audience includes a number of dyed-in-the-wool troublemakers. In 1996, literary agent John Brockman opened a midday Q&A by telling presenter Larry Keeley, a business consultant, "I loved the charts and graphs, but I have no idea what you're talking about, and Iwonder if you do." (Brockman blithely concluded his attack on Keeley by saying, "I still want to represent your book.") Now Wurman keeps such interactions to a minimum, preferring instead to push the confrontations and disagreements out of the auditorium and into the spacious lobby.
At the first TED, presentations ran as long as 90 minutes; these days, Wurman will move as many as six speakers on and off the stage in that time. He seems to be seeking the maximum program speed, and many speakers find themselves cut off before they finish. (Wurman stands closer and closer to them as their time runs out.)
Wurman explicitly forbids speakers to pitch their companies or products from the stage, which clearly distinguishes TED from most industry conferences. TED doesn't promise deals, but rather serendipitous, cross-discipline networking. The chance to introduce themselves to an eclectic mix of highly placed executives is what attracts many of the speakers and induces them to waive their fees.
"Unlike most conferences," says Keeley, who normally charges $10,000 to $15,000 a speech, "the star attraction is the audience. Getting a speaker's fee is trivial, compared with the opportunity." Keeley sold his company, the Doblin Group, to Perot Systems after appearing at TED in 1996. He has returned regularly, and he marvels at the intensity of the schmoozing. "Before the conference starts," he says, "I get 20 to 25 emails from people trying to arrange specific 5- to 10-minute breaks."
Wurman loves to hear about every deal that was in some way influenced by a contact made at TED. His staff can reel off a long list: Stewart Brand's meet-up with Nicholas Negroponte led to his best-selling book The Media Lab. After showing off his robotic insects, Robert Full, a UC Berkeley professor, received generous funding to continue his research. Animatrix founder Marney Morris found a publishing partner for her educational software. Steve Case asked TED speaker Billy Graham to officiate at his wedding. Wired also has TEDian roots: In 1992, at TED3, Louis Rossetto and Jane Metcalfe, the magazine's founders, reestablished an old friendship with designers John Plunkett and Barbara Kuhr, who became Wired's creative directors. (Wurman's condensed version of the story: "Wired came out of TED!") Wurman has a feeling of intimate genealogical entanglement with many of the successful new ventures sparked at TED. He's disappointed, though, that his facilitation has never been acknowledged with offers of equity or lucrative positions on corporate boards.
"I wonder what it is about me or my personality," he muses. "I don't understand it. I mean, all my friends are on the boards of directors of things."
TEDX was supposed to be the last one. Wurman understands the dramatic appeal of a swift millennial termination, and the numerology – TEDX in 2000 – was auspicious for a big send-off. A few years ago, when Wurman discussed the prospect of selling TED to BPI Communications, the rumored price was $16 million. The sale foundered during negotiations over the exact nature of Wurman's continued involvement. Absent a sale, Wurman is anxious about TED. He doesn't want it to fade away, but if he can't sell it – and he doesn't want to sacrifice its accumulated worth – he has to keep running it.
Paradoxically, this has made him want to build TED up, and he's negotiated with partners to launch a medical TED, a Canadian TED, an automotive TED. Neither of the two TEDMEDs, held in 1995 and 1998, sold out, TEDCity is on track for June 2000 in Toronto, and Wurman stopped automotive TED in its early stages because he wasn't happy with his partner. He says he's trying to "build a brand" to make a sale more plausible.
If TED is to expand, it will have to grow beyond the boundaries its founder's controlling style imposes. But there's always the danger that too much self-restraint by Wurman could diminish TED's unique appeal. If Wurman is unclonable – and ex-partners from coast to coast pray that he is – then TED itself can't be duplicated. Wurman passionately disagrees. "That's a fundamental misperception," he says. "There can't be a Disney when Walt Disney dies? Come on! Things go on – they just change."
With TEDX, Wurman is returning to his longtime campaign on behalf of information architecture – and he's using his platform to present his newest book. Understanding, an anthology of work by 12 of his favorite colleagues – including Nigel Holmes and Ramana Rao – most of whom will present at the conference, attempts to clarify America's social issues through the intelligent presentation of data. (See Infoporn, page 80.) Sequences of maps and graphs show how the government uses its budget, how income is distributed, and where health resources go, among other topics.
The rest of the conference will offer a classic mix of techies, big shots, and entertainers, including Steve Case, Jim Clark, Jeff Bezos, Qwest's Joseph Nacchio, Sun's Bill Joy, Schwab's Dawn Lepore, pundit Arianna Huffington, and BET's Robert Johnson. Danny Hillis will show the first working prototype of his millennium clock. Outside the center, as in years past, GM will let attendees get behind the wheels of its concept cars.
Wurman has by now decreed that there also will be a TED in 2001. He intends to continue celebrating the new century with a program called Was and Will. The operative idea is that many of the speakers will be over 70 years old or under 30. If Wurman manages to recruit four days of plausible presenters who are at the very beginning or end of their careers, he'll at least be introducing a new cast of characters to TED.
As for 2002, things remain undecided. Ticket sales have never been brisker. Last year, before the conference was over, Wurman announced that all tickets for TEDX were gone. But popularity entails contradictions. The early sellout didn't please many regulars in the audience, who complain that the TED crowd is changing. The conference used to be invigoratingly esoteric, full of new ideas that were all the more appealing because they were far-fetched. For 15 years, the meeting bridged wide gaps between professions and industries. These gaps have narrowed, and scores of bankers and ecommerce-marketing execs now prowl the lobby. "TED has peaked," says an attendee who has been coming since 1990. "It's been taken over by vice presidents of marketing."
This is a frequently encountered sentiment among TED old-timers. Success has put the conference in competition with its own past, when a feeling of spirited opposition to the status quo made it more fun and unusual. A few TEDs ago, John Brockman began hosting an annual Millionaires' Dinner in honor of his acquaintances at the conference whose net worth exceeded seven figures. But rising equity values prompted Brockman to rename his party the Billionaires' Dinner. Last year Case, Bezos, and Nathan Myhrvold joined such comparatively impoverished multimillionaires as Barnes & Noble's Steve Riggio, EarthLink's Sky Dayton, and Marimba's Kim Polese. The dinner party was a microcosm of a newly dominant sector of American business.
Disappointment, under these circumstances, is inevitable. The gemütlichkeit of the early TEDs, the atmosphere of nerdy fellowship, was based partially on the hope that intelligent people with good technical ideas could make the world better. There were always powerful pecuniary motives, but the tension between business ambitions and nonconformist, utopian dreaming gave Wurman's meeting an energy that couldn't be found elsewhere. Fifteen years down the road, the thrill of taking a chance on a new industry has been replaced by the simple enjoyment of success. These days, there's less risk-taking at TED, but there's more caviar and better vodka.
At dinner one evening in Monterey, while Wurman dissects a fillet of sole with a fork and his right thumb, I ask if he experiences a letdown when TED is over. After all, changes notwithstanding, the gathering remains a simulation of the better world he and his prescient companions set out to create. It has many of the trappings of conventional power, but it's more intelligent, more eccentric, more interesting, more spontaneous. Commerce, while embraced, is also mocked, and corporate self-interest plays temporary second fiddle to people with ideas. Nowhere, of course, are sponsors treated as badly as at TED, where $100,000 one year can get you a rejection at the door the next. And only at TED, in an atmosphere of make-believe, will Microsoft executives get on their knees.
So isn't it a little sad for Wurman when TED ends? When the stage is dismantled? When the conferees step outside, clear their heads, and go home?
"People always ask that," says Wurman, with great irritation. "The reason they ask is that they don't want me to be happy. In our puritanical culture, you're supposed to suffer for your fun. But I'm not going to say I'm depressed, just because it would really satisfy people if I did." He stabs the air with his thumb, which glistens with fish juice. "I refuse to suffer!"