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The Business of Understanding

In this chapter author Richard Wurman explains how information architects can open themselves up to understanding, learning, and ultimately being able to explain information to others.
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When I came up with the concept and the name information architecture in 1975, I thought everybody would join in and call themselves information architects. But nobody did—until now. Suddenly, it's become an ubiquitous term. Of course, as is the case with any ubiquitous label, there are some information architects who legitimately meet the definition of the term, but there are lots who don't.

Effective information architects make the complex clear; they make the information understandable to other human beings. If they succeed in doing that, they're good information architects. If they fail, they're not. It's not unlike the case of a lot of people who practice law calling themselves lawyers; some of them are good lawyers and some are bad lawyers. There is a real variation of competence underneath the guise of a title.

The only thing we know is our own personal knowledge and lack of knowledge (our own personal understanding and lack of understanding). And since it's the only thing we really know, the key to making things understandable is to understand what it's like not to understand. What makes communication possible is my ability, sitting across from someone, to know what it is that person doesn't understand. If I don't sense a lack of knowledge or appreciate a person's capacity for knowledge, then I will have a hard time communicating.

When I was an architecture student and in my early 20s, I had an epiphany. My epiphany was not that I was an information architect, but that I wasn't very smart. I was, in a sense, an empty bucket—a bucket being filled up by others. All that I knew was what people were teaching me, with none of it coming viscerally from me. So I decided that I would put into that empty bucket only those things that I truly understood. How would I know if I truly understood something? I would know I understood if I could explain it to another human being. So my epiphany had nothing to do with architecture—only with my personal limitations, a collection of my own thoughts which had nothing to do with a career. In fact, it led to a very unsuccessful life (for quite a number of years).

I roamed the countryside searching for answers to things I did not understand.

– Leonardo da Vinci

Nobody cared about the fact that I was stupid or an empty bucket. Nobody cared at all. In fact, I was unpopular at meetings for admitting that I didn't understand what people were saying, because an admission of ignorance wasn't the behavior that was rewarded in our society. It wasn't—and still isn't—popular to ask questions rather than answer questions. Answering questions was rewarded; asking them wasn't. It also wasn't popular to try to understand the nature of failure. It was popular to try to replicate success.

He was a self-made man who owed his lack of success to nobody.

– Joseph Heller

I kept doing what I was doing, and success caught up to me when I was in my 50s. But I had a long run of not doing anything that was thought to be valuable to society—I'm talking about financial success, power, positioning in companies, positioning in society.

I'm a success when I do something that I myself can truly understand. That's step one. And if my understanding of things gets published in a book and people buy the book, and they like it and tell other people to buy it, then I guess I've done OK.

Ode to Ignorance

To comprehend new information of any kind—be it financial reports, appliance manuals, or a new recipe—you must go through certain processes and meet certain conditions before understanding can take place. You must have some interest in receiving the information; you must uncover the structure or framework by which it is or should be organized; you must relate the information to ideas that you already understand; and you must test the information against those ideas and examine it from different vantage points in order to possess or know it.

But the most essential prerequisite to understanding is to be able to admit when you don't understand something. Being able to admit that you don't know is liberating. Giving yourself permission not to know everything will make you relax, which is the ideal frame of mind to receive new information. You must be comfortable to really listen, to really hear new information.

We are, I know not how, double in ourselves, so that what we believe, we disbelieve, and cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn.

– Montaigne

When you can admit to ignorance, you will realize that if ignorance isn't exactly bliss, it is an ideal state from which to learn. The fewer preconceptions you have about the material, and the more relaxed you feel about not knowing, the more you will increase your ability to understand and learn.

At the age of 26, I began teaching as an assistant professor of architecture at the University of North Carolina in Raleigh. I realized immediately that there was a binary choice: I could teach about what I already knew, or I could teach about what I would like to learn. I was more motivated by what I didn't know and was comfortable with admitting my ignorance, so I chose the latter. As a teacher, I directed my subjects of inquiry to that which I wanted to know and ran my mind parallel to the mind of a student, rather than acting as a director of traffic.

My expertise has always been my ignorance, my admission and acceptance of not knowing. My work comes from questions, not from answers.

Failure is unimportant. It takes courage to make a fool of yourself.

– Charlie Chaplin

When you can admit that you don't know, you are more likely to ask the questions that will enable you to learn. When you don't have to filter your inquisitiveness through a smoke screen of intellectual posturing, you can genuinely receive or listen to new information. If you are always trying to disguise your ignorance of a subject, you will be distracted from understanding it.

By giving yourself permission not to know, you can overcome the fear that your ignorance will be discovered. The inquisitiveness essential to learning thrives on transcending this fear. Yet this essential prerequisite to learning is a radical concept. As there are few rewards and many punishments for admitting ignorance on a personal or professional level in our culture, we go to great lengths to mask a lack of understanding.

And the energy expended diminishes our ability to learn. The classic progression of conversations—especially those in the workplace—illustrates how destructive this process is.

A minute's success pays the failure of years.

– Robert Browning

Let's say two people are talking about a project they are both working on, and Person A introduces new material. This will most likely set off a warning bell in Person B, who will start to worry: "Should I have known this? How did he find this out? What's wrong with me? How can I pretend that I knew this too?" While Person B is berating himself with these questions, he is likely to miss the chance to make the new material his own, to ask the questions born of a genuine desire to learn.

The same people who would delight in confessing to sexual indiscretions or income tax evasion blanch at the idea of saying, "I don't know." Instead, we practice the "Uh-huh, ah, yes" defense. One of the things we all learn in school is how to respond with a look of thoughtful intelligence to even the most incomprehensible information. I probably could elicit this look from most Americans if I suddenly started speaking Swahili. The focus on bravado and competition in our society has helped breed into us the idea that it is impolitic, or at least impolite, to say, "I don't understand."

I'm not a speed reader. I'm a speed understander.

– Isaac Asimov

Most of us have been taught since childhood, at least implicitly, never to admit ignorance. We've all heard the parental admonition: "If you keep your mouth shut, the world can only suspect that you are a fool. If you open it, they will know for sure."

This plays on an almost universal insecurity that we are somehow lesser human beings if we don't understand something. We live in fear of our ignorance being discovered and spend our lives trying to put one over on the world. If we instead could delight in our ignorance, use it as an inspiration to learn instead of an embarrassment to conceal, there would be no information anxiety.

The refusal to admit to ignorance hampers us every day in our personal relationships and professional development. Collectively, it bears primary responsibility for the anxiety and frustration of staying informed. The issues relating to ignorance and understanding are so highly charged and subjective that—human nature being what it is—we are all easily distracted from the intangible toward more imminently solvable concerns. It simply is easier, for example, to conceive of building a new corporate headquarters than creating a new corporate philosophy.

An Overview of Understanding by Nathan Shedroff

Understanding should be thought of as a continuum from data to wisdom. The distinctions between the steps along this continuum are not terribly discrete but they do exist on some levels. Therefore, the distinctions between data and information, for example, seem like shades of gray; and on the other side of the continuum towards wisdom, not only are the differences difficult to understand, but the concepts themselves are hard to define (such as what knowledge and wisdom are). This is mostly due to the fact that at this end of the spectrum, understanding gets increasingly personal until it is so intimate that it cannot truly be shared with others. Instead, only the process that leads to it can be shared.

Data and information, although words used interchangeably in our language and our culture, are not the same. Not only does information have more value, it takes more work to create and communicate. For all the talk of this being the Information Age, it would be more accurate to call it, instead, the Age of Data—though this is still not the case.

Figure 1

"One of the best ways of communicating knowledge is through stories, because good stories are richly textured with details, allowing the narrative to convey a stable ground on which to build the experience."


Data is not the new driving force of our age. It is true that we have never before had so much data in our lives and this tends to obscure the fact that it is nothing new. We have reached a new relationship with it, surely, but it doesn't define our time.

An example of data passing as information would be the trivia we call news. Whether it is the obvious (like CNN's "Factoids" that serve to ease audiences in and out of commercial breaks) or the subtle (just about anything included in a celebrity biopic), data has nothing to teach us. As Richard says, "if it does not inform, it can't be information."

A more precise way to identify data from information is to look at its context. Without context, information cannot exist, and the context in question must relate not only to the data's environment (where it came from, why it's being communicated, how it's arranged, etc.), but also from the context and intent of the person interpreting it.


Information comes from the form data takes as we arrange and present it in different ways. One of the most confusing points for many people is that the presentation and organization of data are entirely different. The organization of data itself changes the meaning of it, or at least its interpretation. As much as we would like to think that information is objective, it isn't. Most people already suspect that "statistics can be made to lie," because without changing any of the data (no fudging of the figures, for example), they can still be moved around in different patterns to conceal or reveal what the informer intends. This is because the organization creates, or at least, shapes meaning.

The presentation of the very same organization of data can vary drastically, from verbal (or textual) to visual, to auditory, or to something else entirely. The presentation also creates meaning (or highlights it), but it always is based on the organization already determined, which can be ultimately more powerful since it operates on a conceptual level instead of a sensory one.

Imagine what we could accomplish if we spent the same time, energy, and money to use the information skills we already know as we do on the tools and technologies otherwise labeled as Information Technology. In fact, the culture of IT, including most of the people who call themselves MIS (Managers of Information Systems) or CIO (Chief Information Officer), is precisely the problem. By renaming an industry (and the people and techniques within it), we've succeeded in subverting the question of information altogether since we've now given all of the prominence to data exclusively. This makes it harder than ever to see the information in our work lives.


The knowledge industry fares a bit better, on average, because the focus, at least, is more on the people than the IT industry, but the problem still remains. The bulk of those working as "Knowledge Officers" are still too concerned with the mechanisms of the solutions rather than the meanings, understandings, or personal issues of how people learn from each other and share what they know. Technology forms a near-disastrous distraction from real information and knowledge issues.

What most differentiates knowledge from information is the complexity of the experience used to communicate it. By necessity, knowledge can only be gained by experiencing the same set of data in different ways and, therefore, seeing it from different perspectives. This is also why education is so notoriously difficult: because one cannot count on one person's knowledge to transfer to another. We all must build it from scratch ourselves through experience—and not, ultimately, through books. Only through multiple experiences and questioning can we see the patterns that mark knowledge's trail. It is these patterns of information that define knowledge and allow us to not only understand the subjects better, but understand those patterns so that we can use them in different contexts with different subjects. This is what education should be about, but too often it is only focused on information—and worse, data—simply because those are the only forms that are easy to measure.

The field of experience design is emerging to help define what great experiences are (so that knowledge can be built from them) and to discover processes for creating these experiences for others. It is, in some ways, a new field (never having been recognized as a professional endeavor before), but in reality it is as old as humankind. We have always been creating experiences for each other, with a growing complexity as our own tools, expectations, knowledge, and sophistication grow.

One of the more difficult aspects of knowledge for many people is that it is much more casual than information, and the experiences that create it are more personal. Without the opportunity, willingness, or openness to interact on a personal level, much of the power of these experiences are not made available to us. People need to move past their fears of things (including information, certain experiences, and dealing with people personally) in order to learn on this level.

One of the best ways of communicating knowledge is through stories, because good stories are richly textured with details, allowing the narrative to convey a stable ground on which to build the experience, and often allowing multiple interpretations. Telling stories face-to-face can also allow the story to change with the reactions, interests, and experiences of the audience, making it even more personal. Conversation (the interactive analogy to storytelling) comes very easily to some people, and these tend to be the people who gain knowledge the quickest. In contrast, those who find conversation difficult or would see the act of telling a story to be a terrifying exposure of themselves gain knowledge with great difficulty. It is only when we find an internal confidence and start telling stories for ourselves that we can best begin to understand the stories others tell us.


Lastly, wisdom is an ultimate level of understanding in which we understand enough patterns and meta-patterns that we can use them for ourselves in novel ways and situations in which we didn't learn them. Wisdom is as personal as understanding gets—intimate, in fact—and it is a difficult level for many people to reach. Like with knowledge, wisdom operates within us instead of outside us so the transmission or sharing of wisdom is next to impossible. What can only be shared is the experiences that form the building blocks for wisdom, but these need to be communicated with even more understanding of the personal contexts of our audience than with information or knowledge.

As with knowledge, our comfort with ourselves—our ability to confront ourselves on an intimate level—is crucial to building wisdom. We cannot trick ourselves into becoming wise, and we cannot allow someone else to do it. We must do the work ourselves (and hard work it is), and we must be willing to find out things about ourselves along the way that we did not expect. This takes the most courage but offers the greatest reward.

Recognizing and valuing wisdom in others is one way to start down this path, as it will help define the framework of wisdom in our own minds. Introducing the concept itself to people is a critical step, for without the concept of wisdom, we cannot see it nor can we motivate ourselves to achieve it. Also, we need to expose people to the processes of introspection, pattern-matching, contemplation, retrospection, and interpretation so that they will have the beginnings of the tools to create wisdom.

Nathan Shedroff
Experience Designer

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