David Macaulay Explains It All

The author is one of a new breed: Information architects

You want to produce a book that explains how computers work, for readers from 8 to 80. Think of the computer as a machine that changes things--words, pictures, music--into code. Hmm...perhaps you could write a Wagnerian spoof about the computer, complete with drawings of maidens, knights, and gods crashing through the circuitry.

Offbeat? Sure, but so are many of the notions that illustrator David Macaulay comes up with to explain technology. The operatic treatment of the computer may never see the light of day, but it's emblematic of Macaulay's work--inventive, surprising, and wry. He's written more than a dozen books for children and adults, many with an architectural bent. But he is best known for his book The Way Things Work, a compendium of 400 inventions from the lowly zipper to a nuclear reactor. In it, he offers unusual close-up perspectives to explain how objects work, while a playful woolly mammoth demonstrates everything from levers to planes.

The book has sold 3 million copies worldwide in 18 languages since its publication eight years ago--and it is still spawning spin-offs from CD-ROMs to an interactive exhibit (table). Just out is the disk The Way Things Work 2.0 from DK Multimedia, which puts Macaulay's machines in motion and offers an Internet link to a site for young inventors to chat with Macaulay and enter contests.

Macaulay has made technology accessible to children and adults alike. Architect and author Richard Saul Wurman, in his new book, Information Architects, dubs Macaulay one of a new breed of designers--people who have a knack for understanding complex matters and presenting them in a coherent and interesting fashion. At a time when more and more information washes over people without apparent rhyme or reason, these information architects, says Wurman, are able to sort out everything from weather patterns to medical data and present information to readers in books, maps, or magazines that "make the complex clear."

NO ZEALOT. Corporations, too, increasingly turn to these designers for understandable mutual-fund brochures, say, or shareholder reports. Macaulay, says Wurman, is an information architect who "extends knowledge" and in so doing skillfully "demystifies technology."

Macaulay insists that he is neither an expert nor a zealot about technology--he doesn't own a cellular phone, uses his Macintosh for word processing only, and can't program his VCR. "I'm the perfect measure of the average person with average enthusiasm--maybe with a bit more curiosity," he says.

He certainly has the background and training for explaining how things work. Macaulay was born in the British mill region of Lancashire in 1946, the son of a textile engineer and a homemaker who knitted and sewed. In his youth, Macaulay was always building things, from elevators made out of shoeboxes to cable cars that glided across the family living room. In 1957, he moved to the U.S. with his family and a few years later enrolled at the Rhode Island School of Design, where he received a degree in architecture.

He decided not to practice and instead began putting together ideas for books. His first, Cathedral, was published in 1973 and explained the decades-long construction of an imaginary French cathedral. He has taught illustration at RISD since 1975, and for the past nine years has worked out of a 15-by-30 foot, two-story studio in Warren, R.I. His interests sometimes range far from technology: He's putting the finishing touches on a book called Rome Antics, an irreverent guide to the alleys and ancient buildings of Rome.

Macaulay views every new project as a problem-solving challenge. He believes that good illustration must be simple in its execution but offer unexpected solutions. Accordingly, in The Way Things Work Macaulay takes you inside a lawn sprinkler to see how it works. With science writer Neil Ardley, who wrote the technical text for The Way Things Work, he disassembled an ionizer, ripped apart a computer keyboard, and peered at the miniature workings of a quartz clock under a microscope. Then, producing up to a dozen drawings for every finished one over a four-year period, Macaulay illustrated the machines--with whimsical touches.

HANDS ON. The mammoth appears frequently throughout the book. It also figures heavily in the CD-ROMs and will be present at the Mammoth Institute of Technology, an imposing exhibit based on The Way Things Work that is slated to be part of a Sony Corp. family-entertainment complex scheduled to open in San Francisco in 1998. Visitors will be able to manipulate objects such as levers and springs. And the mammoth will be back in the 10th anniversary revision of the book, due in 1998, which will replace about one-quarter of the material with new objects such as the fax machine and the cellular phone.

Other spin-offs are also on the horizon--CD-ROMS that might, for instance, focus on electricity and electrical inventions and allow viewers to build their own machines. But after he finishes the 10th anniversary edition, Macaulay says, he's going to tread carefully. Although he's considering a book on computers, he'll do it only if he can say something new in a fresh way. "I want to have big conceptual problems to solve again," says Macaulay. Can you hear the thunderous notes of Die Walkure?

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE