His Fingers Do the Remodeling of Yellow Pages : Guru of Guidebooks Rethinks an Institution for Pacific Bell

Times Staff Writer

Richard Saul Wurman, the oracle of orderliness, was at his desk in Manhattan, four newspapers spread at his feet, a mound of magazines before him, wading through, by his own description, "a swamp heap of clutter."

"My office is chaos, always," Wurman acknowledged. "And I'm usually dressed like a slob."

Wurman's passion is for putting things in their mental places, making them understandable to even the most simple-minded (among whom he counts himself).

To that end, he has just revamped Pacific Bell Directory's venerable Yellow Pages, which--organizationally and graphically--have come down virtually unchanged from the 1890s--other than the introduction a few years later of products such as mustache wax and pinch-waist corsets.

The new "SMART Yellow Pages," to be distributed Tuesday to Pacific Bell's 3.1-million Greater Los Angeles households, will feature zippy graphics, easy-read headings and "subject search" groupings of related services in index form. Need a water bed? It's under "Home Interior and Decorating," as are pots, pans and quilts. Planning a party? Look under "Entertainment," where you will also find video games and getaways.

Through the years, the book had "just gotten bigger," not better, acknowledged John R. Gaulding, Pacific Bell Directory's president and CEO.

There was another problem. In the '60s, an AT&T; executive ( former executive) had decided to let the trademark lapse on one of commercial America's best-known slogans, "Let Your Fingers Do the Walking." It fell into the domain of the generic, thus fair game for any of the 400 or so other Yellow Pages now published in California.

Pacific Bell, wanting a punchier product to get consumers to "bring our book out of the closet and put it next to the telephone," as Gaulding put it, turned to Wurman, the architect-mapmaker-guidebook guru whose innovative "Access" guides to major American and European cities put his Access Press, founded in Los Angeles in the early '80s, on the world map.

Pacific Bell got Wurman's grand plan for the new directory--designed to "Let Your Fingers Do the Running," which is Pacific Bell SMART Yellow Pages' new (and duly trademarked) slogan.

The company is wagering $1.5 million this year that consumers, and thus advertisers, will like it. Gaulding is confident. "People don't think and behave alphabetically," he said, "although we've tried to make them. When they have a problem with their foot, they don't look up podiatrist. They say, 'I'm sick.' " (Now they'll find help under "Health").

"There hasn't been an information explosion," Wurman theorizes. "There's been an explosion of non-information" and, with it, widespread anxiety because people think "that the stuff around us is information and we should be able to understand it."

For example, "How big is an acre?" he asks. Everyone may know that it's 43,560 square feet, he says, but that doesn't mean anything to them. He defines an acre as "just a teeny bit smaller than an American football field without the end zones. That's information. That's warm. It doesn't give you any anxiety, and you don't have to process it."

As for the Pacific Bell Yellow Pages, with scheduled distribution of 29 million statewide, Wurman is assured of a best seller or, as he prefers, "best giver-awayer." And he's elated: "Every single thing I suggested has either been done or is planned," including illustrated community access pages that direct subscribers in each area to facilities from malls to museums. (The Central L.A. directory has Chinese, Korean and Tagalog language indexes).

The revamping is not simply what Wurman calls, disdainfully, the "mascara" approach, a few strokes of color, a new type face.

And he thinks it was "pretty gutsy" that a staid major corporation let him fool around with its product before it had to. "Look at the automobile business" by contrast, he said.

Wurman and Pacific Bell had one standoff, on cover design. Wurman wanted to develop the hands concept, as in "Let Your Fingers Do the Running," with photographs of hands, some of them famous. "They looked nice," he now acknowledges, "but they weren't good." The majority opted for a cover that spells out what's inside, rather like a children's primer with pictures filling in blanks in sentences.

Although Wurman "really likes" Los Angeles--it "gives you permission to do what you want to do"--he moved to Manhattan two years ago "because it was there" and because he had just turned 50 and "had to live in New York sometime in my life."

What he's doing now is "Wall Street Journal Access," a guide for people who, like him, "don't understand interest rates and commodities and bonds and options." Also coming: A new L.A. Access (in September) and Access guides to teen well-being, nutrition, aging, baseball, the Winter Olympics and San Diego.

Many a tourist wouldn't leave home without an Access guide to Rome or London or Paris. But Wurman limits his own trip-taking to one exotic vacation each Christmas (this year, India). "I think everything I do is a vacation," he explained.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
65°