May 1, 1998
At the last dinner party I went to, Plumb Design was the focus of awestruck testimonials. A new-media producer declared the company's work to be "the only interesting stuff on the Web," and a divinity-school graduate said Plumb had "the most beautiful metaphors for thought" she'd ever seen. Our entire table seemed under the spell, as if Plumb Design's youthful crew had created some of the greatest masterpieces of modern art.
Even without the hyperbole produced by wine, candlelight, and company, Plumb Design's pretty impressive. In less than a year, the tiny six-person firm has managed to snag contracts with places like the Smithsonian and National Geographic, winning rave reviews for its "beautiful," "innovative," and "breakthrough" technology and site design.
Perhaps the best-known illustration of Plumb Design's work is the Visual Thesaurus, a demonstration of the company's Thinkmap technology. Thinkmap is one of those rare software solutions that isn't simply a decorated electronic version of an existing idea, but an elegant addition to thought itself. Written in Java, its Maplets make navigation, not just content, part of the process of understanding. As words float across the screen like shooting stars, darkening and brightening, you begin to understand the complexity of language and the relationships between words, as objects animated in 3D space touch and connect and spin off each other.
But a more practical side to Plumb's software is that it may help organize massive amounts of information and display data in ways that are more useful than the current systems. For example, imagine a business logic application that uses Thinkmap to analyze the flow of information within a company. You might map the hierarchy of a company with, say, 10,000 employees and overlay all of the emails that pass between all the employees. "You could have a much better picture of the information flow in the office," says director of technology Marc Tinkler, "to be able to better assess how effectively your company is structured." Thinkmap can represent this information graphically and in real time, using sliders and other tools to change the information as it's being viewed, allowing users to make qualitative judgments on the fly.
As you might imagine, Plumb Design is growing fast: In addition to the company's work designing Web sites and museum installations, it's going after clients with large databases, taking advantage of the craze for "database visualization" to offer its own innovative tools to information publishers. CEO Mary Azzarto wants a new programmer who will be involved in the further development of Thinkmap: "someone who has a strong understanding of where the technology is, and can develop it on a conceptual basis."
Plumb Design's intimate office demands a responsible, sane, creative grown-up "who enjoys working with smart people," says Mary. The group has a notable preponderance of architects, and needs programmers who understand not just visualization technologies for databases but also the intellectual and aesthetic elements of "data animation" software that creates animated displays of real-time information. Java expertise is a must, with strong UI design skills and a knowledge of the fundamental structures of computer science, along with a deep understanding of object-oriented programming. The ability to work independently and spin off new projects is valued. "And," adds Mary firmly, "everyone who works for Plumb Design is expected to have a healthy, well-balanced life outside of the company."
You'll be on lower Broadway, just north of the New Museum and Soho's galleries. But don't be surprised if you wind up spending more time at your desk, watching words zip across the sky - where the real art is these days. Salaries and benefits are competitive; the cachet that gets you talked about at dinner parties is worth just a little extra.