The Rolling Stones and The Beatles of Modern Design

Start a conversation about influential modern designers, and you’re likely to touch on Steve Jobs and Apple products.  You might also discuss the 20th century’s famous architects and industrial designers, like Frank Lloyd Wright and Eero Saarinen. And then there are the two names that you should hear bandied about, but likely won’t: information architect and designers Richard Saul Wurman and Edward Tufte.

Wurman coined the term “information architect” in 1976, and the design world hasn’t been the same since.  Both Wurman and Tufte use infographics and other means to present complex information in seductive, easily digestible pictures.  Tufte’s and Wurman’s goal with these designs is the same as Jobs was with the iPhone: employ creative designs to make their products and the information they hold intuitive to use and understand.

If Wurman is The Beatles, defining a genre for years to come, Tufte is the Rolling Stones, riffing on the same themes, but in a way that shirks—rather than invites—comparison to his colleague.  Tom Wolfe famously summarized the contrast between the two bands when he wrote, “The Beatles want to hold your hand, but the Stones want to burn down your town.”  It’s a contrast that fits Wurman and Tufte just as well.

Wurman is the founder of the ubiquitous TED conference and seeks cross-industry collaborations that help build and expand on his own design intuitions.  Tufte, on the other hand, is a Yale statistics professor who fuels rivalries (scoffing, for instance, at PowerPoint’s “faux analytical” and commercial templates) and once credited his career to his “contempt for authority.”  “I think that’s been an enormously successful strategy,” he admitted in an article.

If nothing else, that strategy has certainly set Wurman against Tufte.  Wurman, when pressed, will grudgingly acknowledge Tufte’s analytic contributions, but he stresses that Tufte cannot be labeled an “information architect.”  (One imagines that’s OK with Tufte, who prefers “information designer” and earned the nickname the “da Vinci of data” from The New York Times.)

Regardless of their rivalry, it’s impossible to talk of design today without acknowledging the contributions of both design pioneers.  They’ve changed the way we all view the information around us, and their design influence can be felt almost everywhere. The trend to explain concepts via images and detailed maps? That goes back to Wurman.  The clean, sleek, white space of Apple products?  That’s Tufte.  And those infographics you see on the nightly news?  That’s both Tufte and Wurman, as much as they wouldn’t want to be mentioned in the same breath.

We stand at the precipice of design: In the next decade, design thinking will only spread farther, touching all aspects of business and society.  And as our economy becomes increasingly globalized, we will have to find new and inventive ways to share information.  This is where we need to look to Wurman and Tufte, the grandfathers of information architecture and design.  Companies that draw on the principals of information architecture have the potential to gain worldwide influence through design.  But, as shown in this Tufte-influenced chart of the evolution of popular music, you can only become Pink Floyd or Kiss if you study both Paul McCartney and Keith Richards.  So when looking to your company’s future, consider Wurman’s and Tufte’s legacies.

This article was originally published on The Wall Street Journal on February 18, 2014.

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