October 11, 2002
Q&A with Michael Freedman, CEO, Plumb Design
By Erin Joyce

When the Visual Thesaurus Web site was unveiled in 1998, the graphical depiction of word relationships became an instant sensation, and not just with students. In many ways, the project represented a new realm of possibilities in the Web era of the information age.
Then came the crash of the Internet bubble, taking with it investment in new forms of information design. But innovation kept marching.
This week, Plumb Design, the New York Web services firm that created the visual map, as well as one for the Smithsonian Institution and other museums, celebrated the project's birthday by unveiling an updated version of the Visual Thesaurus.
As companies search out ways to leverage their vast troves of data for incremental revenue, look for increasing usage of the visual map style. Indeed, just ask the folks at online music services such as Pressplay, or entertainment giant Sony, database and educational publishing company Wolters Kluwer. Those are just a few major media companies deploying 3D design in order to make their data more relevant, less of a tunneling-through-Web-pages exercise.
AtNewYork chatted with Michael Freedman, Plumb Design's chief executive, about the project.

Q: Can you talk about the original concept behind Visual Thesaurus?
We wanted to create a way of visualizing the English Language, a way of seeing words and their meanings and how they're connected. Using Visual Thesaurus, you can explore not just how words are connected, but in shared meanings, and understand the hierarchy that is part of the English language.
Then you can click through and find more about the connections and relationship between information, in this case words. It's not just showing the relative difference between words, but also the qualitative reasons they are related. The other work we've done includes the quantitative data, how you can add more information -- such as drawing a thicker line between data points.

Q: How about an example?
We're working with a research organization (RLG) that has a relationship with research libraries around the world. We worked with them initially to help analyze their data and have now developed an interface that will, I think, create a new revenue stream. It's now a way for them to identify the value of the data and show researchers that the value is worth paying for, or show sponsors that its worth sponsoring.
PBS, for example, is developing a new interface for teachers looking to find video applications that might connect to state standards. We've worked on a thinkmap that gives you a way to see how subject matter might connect to a state standard so that people can make decisions about what to teach in classrooms.
One area of continued interest is in electronic publishing, basically organizations and companies that derive a good portion of revenues through premium content by providing access to huge databases of information. Wolters Kluwer (the database and training and education manual publisher), for example, and other media companies, is one example.
We've also worked on some security applications, people that are trying to understand who has access to networks, in working on security violations. We've also worked with visualization of epidemiological data. By that I mean data on diseases, such as who has them, other ailments what might be particular to that disease. You can understand data for that with charts and graphs, but it's also hard to understand the different relationships within the data and make decisions. That's why we've done thinkmaps of the visualized data.
A thinkmap isn't just a data visualization tool but is also navigation that lends itself to where people have a need to not only understand a group of data but also where they need to interact with it, how to work with it, such as knowledge workers. Other variations on the map examples would be dynamic timelines, or adding the ability to display more complex sets of information.
The Browse section of the Sony Music licensing site is one example. It's a way to navigate through large amounts of information because based on the search, the connection to other data might be closer together, or feature thicker lines that suggest a connection to larger information bases.

Q: But given the wipeout in the Web services sector, and the crash of the Web craze itself, how tough a sell is this kind of Web design?
We're actually doing quite well. We're finding that many of our customers have made a tremendous investment in collecting data and are putting together high quality content. What they need help with is through interfaces for that data, which we do with subtle things that help them find ways to increase incremental revenues.
We're seeing a lot of innovative needs right now. I won't say we're doing as well as in 2000, but there is a lot of interest in this type of application. Much of the work involves looking for ways to help our clients work with premium data, increase their incremental revenue and profit from it. So in some cases that means working with clients in organizing and displaying information, taking premium content and taking advantage of it to generate more revenue.

Q: So content never lost its crown in your world?
Not at all. I think the advances in data visualization, and with Visual Thesaurus, are becoming more important especially for knowledge workers who have great needs to understand what they do and have better access to tools that help them understand new discoveries. You may not see the next version of Windows with folders connected by lines, and Yahoo! may not be using an interface like this, but people with advanced search and browse applications, researchers especially, will be using interfaces closer to this. That extra bit of information is key and can make a huge difference in new discoveries, and in trying to make sense of a mix of information, secondary information.
Thinkmap. Visualize Complex Information.