Role Model
by Steve Bodow
July/August 2000
When you're visiting the Shiseido Studio store in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood, don't bother taking out your wallet. Commerce may have otherwise defeated Art in these environs, but at the Spring Street store, the Asian cosmetics company refuses to sell you anything. All Shiseido wants you to do—in fact, all you can do—is play with the company's beautiful toys. The store's gleaming white interior is stocked with seductively packaged Shiseido products—makeup, skin creams, scents—as well as large, generously illuminated mirrors. Should you want to try anything on, you are warmly invited to do so, and the white-garbed clerks will attentively answer any of your questions. Perhaps the little bar-coded plastic cards inscribed with the names of Shiseido's product lines will pique your interest, and you'll insert one into any of the several computer kiosks arrayed around the gallery-like room.
If you do pick up a card for, say, Shiseido's Vital Perfection collection and slide it into one of the kiosks, the screen springs to life as the Vital Perfection product line gracefully bubbles into view. A touch-pad that drifts around the unusually wide 16:9 screen enables you to navigate the various products on hand, with every graphic element appearing, moving, and disappearing in a blissfully choreographed animation. The qualities captured on-screen—clean, simple, light, elegant—reflect the virtues that Shiseido's high-end creams, lotions, and tints strive to embody. What lies behind the screen, on the other hand, is a mesh of technologies that would seem to have nothing to do with Shiseido's cosmetic sheen. Though the store's surface thrives on esthetic enchantment, the underlying foundation is build with a careful combination of art and logic. The Shiseido Studio kiosk, designed by New York-based Plumb Design, is not just a catalog presented on a pretty display system: It's a complex relational product database that uses advanced animation interface software. And more than just a cool way of guiding shoppers to the products they might like, the kiosk system is a sophisticated marketing tool that constantly gathers information on customer behavior and tastes.
Plumb Design, the firm behind the Studio kiosks, was founded in early 1997 by CEO Mary Azzarto, business development director Michael Freedman, and creative director Marc Tinkler. The trio had been working together at Razorfish, the Silicon Alley Digital media agency that is now among the biggest interactive agencies in the world. While Razorfish was growing at a staggering clip, the Plumb cabal wanted to go in a direction the more comprehensively integrated design and technology. In starting their own company, they rejected advertising's account management-driven model for one they believed better addressed the challenges of designing interactive media: the architecture firm.
Architects commonly approach building design simultaneously from three angles. In creating new business structures, they consider function (for what and for whom the building is meant), design (what it looks and feels like), and technology (the feats of engineering that give the blueprints life). Whatever creativity and invention occurs must (or at least should) be technically feasible and also appropriate to the structure's function; when architecture firms are working well, innovations in one area often beget innovations in others. In the best buildings, technology and design are in constant dialogue.
Interactive design, like architecture, is intrinsically cross-disciplinary, and as interactive media proliferate, the ability to wed complicated technology and find design is increasingly in demand. While there are many good Web designers, and the software-engineering talent pool is enormous and growing (though seemingly never large enough to meet demand), few companies have mastered the combination. Plumb Design is in the vanguard of small, specialized firms that have set out specifically to integrate the disparate pursuits of design and technology. "We're very much designers, not artists," says Tinkler, himself a software engineer who trained in architecture at Carnegie Mellon. "We're at a loss in the absence of a problem to solve." Today, Plumb employs about 40 problem-solvers, mostly in their twenties and early thirties, who come from backgrounds including architecture, graphic design, industrial design, software development, and business development.
Early Plumb clients included National Geographic, the online zine Feed, and the Smithsonian Institution, for which the firm developed a pioneering online exhibition that allowed visitors to explore the sometimes obscure connections between historical events and objects in the museum's collection. Plumb's breakthrough project came in early 1998, after Tinkler had developed a Java tool called Thinkmap®, a digital-age translation engine that interactive designers could use to transform complex data sets into dynamic visual geographies.
Plumb proved Thinkmap's capabilities in a highly touted project called Visual Thesaurus. "We wanted to create something that was pure navigation," Tinkler says. "People like linking." When Plumb discovered that Princeton University had made its WordNet electronic thesaurus available to the public, the word collection seemed a natural fit for Thinkmap, since, after all, a thesaurus is essentially a compendium of semantic links. Visual Thesaurus simply took the form a step further by representing those links graphically.
When you type a word into Visual Thesaurus, a list of related words appears in a multiple-spoked mobile with the primary word at the hub. Some spokes are shorter than others, indicating that those words are closer in meaning to the root word. Because Visual Thesaurus was designed as a brainstorming tool, the words hover around the screen, growing and receding, becoming darker and lighter, presenting themselves momentarily to see if they might spark a creative flash. Click on any word and that word jumps to the center of this lexical galaxy, and the map coalesces into a new constellation of related words. You can surf Visual Thesaurus looking only for words that are a certain part of speech, or turn on the autopilot function to see what bubbles up. Whether you're driving or the Thesaurus is self-navigating, the sense of traversing some sort of semiotic space—in this case, a word-association space—is palpable.
Given Plumb's architectural underpinnings, it's hardly surprising that the main hallmark of the company's work is its emphasis on such navigational systems and spatial experiences. One of the core tenets of Plumb's philosophy is that the act of navigation is intrinsically pleasurable. And Thinkmap, a product of this idea, may be what most tangible differentiates Plumb from its peers. The software, because of its elegant commingling of information and visual analog, is a versatile tool that could have a valid place in most any database-oriented design problem—in other words, most interactive projects.
Plumb design director Courtney Smith's attitude toward design may be responsible for much of Plumb's accomplishments in this area, if only because he realizes what he shouldn't do. "It used to be that designing was about control"spec'ing our paper and type and picas," says the 29-year-old former industrial designer. "But with the Web you give up a lot of that control; all we know is the nature of the data." Since it's impossible to anticipate exactly what will appear on-screen at any given time, Smith's task is more about designing elegant modular systems than specific layouts.
Thinkmap demonstrates that Plumb treats design and technology as one and the same problem, and that mindset is an approach clients appreciate: "We're always conducting periodic [interface design] contests," attests two-time Plumb customer J. David Waldman, vice president of new technology and business development at Sony Music Entertainment. "Plumb stood out as being especially talented in the very ugly area of database integration. With many Web shops, if they have a weakness, that's where it is."
The challenge Sony's Waldman face in late 1998 was substantial: He was assigned to bring online the inventory of the Sony Music Licensing department—what he describes as "the larges depository of sound recordings in the world"—with a site that would facilitate both unusually complex searches and real e-commerce. The division's customers are music supervisors in the advertising and film industries who need to identify and purchase just the right background music to complement a scene or a commercial. Finding the music effectively is usually the music supervisor's biggest challenge, and Sony's goal was to create a happier marriage between what its customers were looking for and the way they could find it.
Pre-Internet, the licensing group was successful but operationally unwieldy. At great cost, the division would burn and distribute sample CDs to clients who could then weed through the samples until they found what they liked. It was a costly and slow process, especially when compared to what it could if conducted over a networked database (i.e., a Web app) searchable by a variety of criteria.
When it was time to pick a firm to develop the site, Waldman recalls, he was particularly enamored of Thinkmap and Plumb's Visual Thesaurus, which he thought would be a good model for the free-associative, intuitive way that music supervisors conduct their searches. Today, if you need music for a 30-second Chevrolet commercial, you would head for the Sony site ( and enter some initial criteria relating, for instance, to the song's lyrics. Once you've plugged that in, the system will immediately display any and all songs that might fit the bill; it will also, in an adjacent Visual Thesaurus-like array, suggest related topics for research. Users of the site can listen to samples instantaneously and create personalized accounts so that they can bookmark songs of particular interest as well as organize different projects.
Waldman was please enough with the Licensing site to hire Plumb again for Soundtrack for a Century, Sony Music's mammoth farewell to the past 100 years, a 26-CD box set containing material from more than 500 artists. The set's accompanying Web site, designed by Plumb, provides access to volumes of information about every track in the release, as well as samples, contextual historical information, and archival photos. A consumer-oriented site, it has a much more handsome face than the Licensing site; here, Thinkmap was once again put to use, but instead of organizing material for a music supervisor, Plumb built and electronic archive that is heady temptation for music aficionados.
The Soundtrack for a Century project demonstrates Thinkmap's versatility. Many "middleware" database management software packages could have handled the project's data requirements, and many other graphical tools could have represented the information visually. Thinkmap, though, integrates the tasks in an unusual but ultimately intuitive way. A scalable timeline runs near the bottom of each screen in the site, placing the content featured in chronological context. The timeline's scope ranges from the entire 20th century—encompassing broad genres such as jazz, classical, and rock—to smaller segments that showcase the careers and recordings of individual artists. For these smaller windows of the timeline, the site displays related works in a right-hand frame, selected courtesy of Thinkmap's database management. (Notably, Soundtrack for a Century has no Visual Thesaurus-like component whatsoever, proving that Thinkmap is not simply a one-hit wonder.)
Plumb has also done work for businesses such as investment ratings firm Standard & Poor's, software and hardware developer Sun Microsystems, and communications giant Motorola. For the latter, the shop developed a rich online corporate history intended mainly for in-house use.
But Plumb does seem to have an affinity for music-related clientele. Its most ambitious project yet might be the electronic "extension" for Seattle's recently opened Experience Music Project (EMP), a highly interactive museum of rock and pop music ( With about 15,000 artifacts, EMP aims to be the biggest and most accessible treasure trove of musical memorabilia in the U.S. Like many earlier Plumb clients, EMP wasn't looking for a shop that would come in and teach Web site 101; EMP, funded largely by billionaire and ex-Microsoft honcho Paul Allen, already had a great deal of in-house technical savvy. It also had a strong interest in being, and appearing to be, progressive. The museum leadership, well-versed in interactive media, wanted a design team that would use the Web to invent truly new visitor experiences.
"We talked to shops of all sizes, and we weren't seeing a lot of innovative design," says EMP online project manager Diane Andolsek. "There's a real e-commerce model out there these days, and everyone can anything out of a database, but there wasn't an understanding of how to serve this up in a visually compelling, interactive manner that encourages the user to actually do something. Then we noticed Plumb's Smithsonian project. It was a museum-without-walls that showed how in virtual space you could see objects and relationships that you might not usually see. The skill to bring all those connections to the surface was something we saw at Plumb and nowhere else."
The EMP Digital Collection is both a stand-alone Web site and a meaningful enhancement to the experience of physically visiting the museum. In this latter respect, the site marks a true breakthrough. The museum conceived a system whereby visitors each receive a unique dog tag (made to look like a backstage pass), which in effect "logs them in" to the museum and creates a personalized file corresponding to the tag. As visitors wander the museum, they can bookmark any of the exhibits with the tag. Then—either right there at the museum's 24-station kiosk room, or from any Web-connected computer at any time—they can view the Plumb-designed Digital Collection, for which their dog tag provides access to a customized account featuring links of audio, photographic, historical, and other Web-based exegesis relating to objects bookmarked during the tour. In all, it's exponentially more material than the museum could display in its gallery space, and more ways for visitors to explore the collection. "Having that much information come together in one place is something we hadn't seen before," says Andolsek.
For the site's graphical identity, Plumb applied its well-tested and somewhat generous method of design development. Where many firms will work up and present a handful of plausible design directions, Plumb generates literally dozens of quick sketches—"vibes" in shop lingo—that communicate a great range of possibilities. EMP, for example, saw around 30 vibes, including designs inspired by industrial esthetics, 4AD Records, Fantagraphics, a certain Nike campaign, Blue Note Records, and many others. In the end, EMP responded to a dark background with a somewhat techie look, and Plumb went from there. In the final product, EMP's site does exhibit many of what are emerging as signature Plumb stylistic touches: bubbling round-cornered boxes; palettes that tend to the blue/black swath of the spectrum; a kind of pared-back, RayGun-y propensity for overlapping elements; and what appears to be a self-imposed moratorium on serif fonts.
In the interactive environments Plumb designs, such elements of style are more than just "Windows" dressing. They are, in the sense Robert Venturi meant when he wrote about Las Vegas, architecturally significant signs, conveying crucial information about where to go and what to do. Each bit of screen real estate must do more than just look good; it must also accommodate and encourage particular interactions, be they commercial, educational, or recreational. And if Plumb models itself on the architectural firm, the company's projects embody the virtues of the best architecture: pragmatically functional entities that nevertheless foster a sense of esthetic pleasure.
Steve Bodow writes about business, media, and design for Salon, New York magazine, Wired, and Feed, and is also co-artistic director of Elevator Repair Service, a New York-based theater ensemble.
Sidebar: A Touchy Assignment
by Jeremy Lehrer
Because of Plumb's fluency in interactive design, PRINT asked the firm to create this issue's cover, with emphasis on the special Interaction 2000 section. It was a new challenge for the shop, since Plumb has not done any formal print work. In coming up with a suitable cover, Plumb used a working method that has served it well for Web projects. Creative director Marc Tinkler, design director Courtney Smith, and senior information designer Nina Dinoff developed a variety of potential approaches, which they refined in response to the feedback of PRINT's art director, Steven Brower. "Some of our initial sketches were more representational of interface elements and interactivity, and some of them were a lot more concept-based, playing off an idea related to the Internet or interactivity," says Smith. Though dealing with a static page, the team conceived that final cover as what Smith describes as "a moment in time of some kind of installation or interactive experience."
Designing for the print medium forced Plumb to form a structure that didn't require a navigational counterpart. "Normally, we have a particular situation, and we need to develop an interface that works for that," says Dinoff. "In this case, it's more of a reference than an interface. The interface doesn't actually work, so [the cover design] becomes an abstraction of what we do." Smith adds that the cover project enabled the firm to stretch beyond a "Web-friendly" color palette and to transcend the standard Web resolution of 72 dpi.
A cover's relatively long-lasting shelf life was somewhat intimidating for Plumb. "If we design a graphic for a Web site, once we optimize it, we spit it out, we take a look at it, and if it's not right, we just upload a new one," says Smith. "But obviously here, there's this level of permanence, in that whatever we do, this is it. So it's interesting for us, but it creates just a little bit of paranoia."
The advantage of the cover's relative permanence is that Plumb will finally have something literally to hold on to, in contrast to its ethereal creations for the Web. Observes Smith, "The best part of this, and one of the things we're most excited about, is the tangibility of the cover—this is going to be something we can pick up and touch and look at."
"This is something my mother will understand," adds Dinoff. "That's new for me."
Thinkmap. Visualize Complex Information.