Stamen is a design and technology studio in San Francisco.

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We've been designing and building maps and data visualizations in San Francisco's Mission District for happy clients since 2001.

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Acconci.com Story

Why we don't make comps

It started with a visit to Studio Acconci in 2005. Their space, on the East River in Brooklyn, is full—full—of books; walls of them, piles of them, glorious stacks of them spilling onto tables and chairs and the floor. Sketches and drawings covered the walls, computers hummed in the corners, and every desk could be turned into a conference table at any moment. If ever there was a place where study played a part in architectural practice, I knew had walked through the door.

Vito showed a slide show that the studio had made of their work, to use at an upcoming presentation. In his beautiful Brooklyn accent, he took me through their work project by project, lovingly describing the ebbs and flows of concepts throughout the work. One project was about threads, another about braids, another about implosion, another about peeling off a surface—and Vito kept saying "we'll come back to this project later." When he turned to a new concept, he'd bring up a previously presented project, threading the whole of the studio's work into an extended conversation over many years, spinning a breathtaking and complex story of investigation and imagination.

It became clear that each project had multiple contexts, multiple ideas, and that any presentation of the studio's work would have to take these threadings into account.

Our challenge was to find a place where Acconci and Stamen could push and pull on the same material. We had no design comps to show, since we didn't know what was there—and Acconci couldn't know how to structure their material without some idea of how it would all come out.

The first thing we did—well before even taking pen to napkin—was to build a system which could hold the entirety of the studio's prodigious fifteen-year output in one place, so we could look at it from multiple angles and directions & see what would emerge. We had just finished Mappr, which discovered emergent patterns in flickr's enormous pool of images, and we felt sure that we could find similar beautiful and unexpected connections here.

What we found, after some push and pull, was that the connections between the different vectors of study the studio had undertaken were much more varied than we had originally imagined. It bristled:

Ephemeral connections became apparent, if somewhat obscured

Outlines made things a bit clearer

Once we had gotten (we thought) a handle on the material, we started adding images. We realized very quickly that we were going to have to impose some kind of order here. We had hoped for a free-form, approachable-from-any-angle space, which would let you explore whatever connections struck your fancy—but found that too many connections, all at once, rapidly made the space unworkable:

We quickly bumped up against complexity issues

We realized that we had made the cardinal mistake of forgetting that time was involved. Seduced, as usual, by the quality and the quantity of what we had to work with, we wanted to show all the connections—and it got away from us.

We pulled back, and made comps for the first time. What if the connections between projects were more tenuous? Could we find a lighter, more rarefied way to show that the projects were related to each other—so that the projects hung together, as diaphanous nodes on strands of something airy and delicate, but tangible?

We started thinking of literal threads: slender and fine-grained slivers that would pull you in, instead of wrapping themselves around you.

Something like a gossamer thread

Selections would allow you to perceive connection

And the space itself would buckle around you

Some of this turned out to be unworkable in Flash—another reason that comps are a bad idea when doing this kind of work—but the idea was born. Somewhere around this time we were asked to change the site from white to black. We had been working with black alot—"the designer's crutch" we sometimes call it, since it makes everything look better on a screen—and we wanted to try something a bit different. maybe a little cleaner? We couldn't argue with Vito's observation:

"With a white background, you get things on a page.
With a black background, you get things coming out of a void."

Since we obviously weren't working with a page, we couldn't really say no... so black it was.

It's quite something to be asked by a client to go further out there than we were comfortable going—when's the last time you heard a client ask you "can you make them more like cotton candy, like silly putty, like rubber bands?" We were asked to make "a page made of words, not words on a page"—and struggled for a while because the front page was "too corporate," of all things:

In the end, the site became a way to provide multiple ways into the work—and once you were in it, to let you get a sense for where the studio is at and where it is going. Backing up from the site & looking at the different threads in relation to one another, you get a sense for the arc of the studio's interests & vectors. Each thread is organized by time from left to right, so the clusterings matter: "Inside-Out" seems to be something that they have been dealing with on a regular basis for a good long while, as is "Expanding-Contracting," whereas "Flying-Floating" seems to have only recently become something they deal with regularly, along with "Mix-Swarms-Multitudes." Luis Vera seems to have been with the Studio pretty constantly over the years, whereas Eduardo Marquez was with them for a while, took a long hiatus, and is now back and contributing a great deal. Data visualization, of a sort—but a different kind. Something lyrical, something tenuous, something growing.

Pulling back reveals overall patterns