A great conversation with Tina Roth

If you are lucky enough to notice design work that just makes you stop everything and appreciate it for what it is, you can empathize how I was hit with Tina Roth’s design. I was introduced to her through her photographs in flickr. Daily I’m fortunate enough to see images that she chooses to share.

Interested in the person that takes those images, I checked out her web site. It took less than a moment to recognize some of the design that she is part of. Visual thesaurus is a tool that I have benefited from, and if you haven’t – you need to explore it. Interested in more I asked her for some time. While preparing for a presentation in Seattle for the AIGA Currents 9 and preparing for a wedding on top of a mountain she took time out to respond to my questions. I hope you enjoy what she had to say as much as I did.

michael surtees: Growing up in Switzerland – did you always know that you wanted design?

tina roth: Yes, pretty much. How very swiss of me though, to briefly consider enrolling into business school ‘to study something serious’. Luckily my ‘inner voice’ was broadcasting “Don’t do it” really loud. Phew!

ms: What was it like to go to design school at the university of munich and ecole des arts décoratifs, in geneva? How where the programmes structured?

tr: I took a one year introductory program in art and design at the Ecole des arts décoratifs in Geneva. I was introduced to and trained in all the technical creative skills such as drawing, sketching, perspective, color, form, photography, working with 3D, illustration and so on. It was a rigorous program and I am glad I went through it. After that introductory year I had the possibility to move on to the 4 year Graphic Design Training but I decided to switch schools. I always knew I wanted to be able to freelance during my studies which would not have been possible in Geneva. At the Ecole des arts décoratifs you had to attend class every day, 8 hours a day and if you missed a class you had to bring a signed note (!) the next day, with an explanation. The university in munich took a far more liberal approach; you had to get a certain amount of credits but none would have ‘marked you in a red book’ if you missed a class. The school system in Munich gave me exactly the freedom I wanted. It allowed me to freelance a lot. I experienced the ‘deadline and money driven work environment’ of small design shops but also had the chance to be experimental and playful with my assignments at university – a perfect mix. I tremendously enjoyed the final thesis project which we got to pick entirely ourselves; I decided to create a photography/text book on the ‘Beauty of Every Day Life’.

I had never before been so consumed and fascinated by a project. Looking back I keep thinking: what a luxury to be given an entire semester (approx 4 months) to work on one single project. (sigh)

ms: were there designers that inspired you as a student?

tr: At the time, there were no big names I could have mentioned as being ‘my big inspirations’. I would expose myself to a lot of different work and be impressed by it, but I was never really the type that wanted to get to know ‘all about the designer behind it’. Also, keep in mind, those were the days where you actually had to go to a library to learn about a designer, what a concept! I sometimes envy the graphic design students today, as it is so easy to view thousands of designer portfolios online.

I vividly remember visiting an exhibit showcasing David Carsons work. I was truly fascinated by his ‘freestyle graphic design’, even though it was clear that it wasn’t for me. I always had the gridded-white-space-driven-swiss-designer in me. Now, I can clearly say, that Josef Müller-Brockmann’s work was, and still is, one of my biggest influences.

ms: Did you work in Europe before moving to NY? What were you doing.

tr: Even though I never had an official full time job before I moved to NYC, I feel like I did. As I mentioned before, the schedule at University in Munich gave me a lot of freedom. In those 4 years I freelanced for several studios. One of them kept me particularly busy with print projects for hotels and sports gear companies. I also took on freelance projects on my own, mostly corporate identities. I also had the chance to do quite a bit of illustration work; one of my favorite pieces I did, was for ELLE magazine germany, a shopping guide for the center of Zurich.

ms: Were you more interested in print or interface after school?

tr: I can definitely say that I’ve always been intrigued by the possibilities and challenges of interface design. But then again I could simply not be without a ‘dose of print’ every now and then. I let Goethe’s words speak for me: “Two souls dwell, alas! in my breast!”

ms: What was your motivation for moving to NY.

tr: In 1998 I did a 3 month internship at Bussedesign (www.bussedesign.com) in San Francisco and on my way back I stopped in New York for 3 days. I was bitten by the ‘big apple bug’ within minutes of arrival and upon leaving, I was determined to, at some point in my life, call the big apple my home.

Right after graduation I packed up all my belongings, put everything in storage and flew to New York. The stars must have been aligned, as I managed to find an internship, 12 hours after I got off the plane. And a few weeks later, Matthew Waldman, the head of the studio offered me a fulltime job (+ work visa). I was very lucky and still thank my ‘internship and work visa angels’ to this day.

I keep thinking back to what my english teacher in college once told me: “Tina, you should move to the States, you’d be so happy over there.” I remember just shaking my head and laughing it off; I had no idea how right she was.

ms: Was it hard to adjust?

tr: No, not at all. New York is fast, so am I.

I was happy to finally have found a place where I didn’t feel like I had to constantly slow down. Switzerland tends to be a little bit on the slower side, which can be a good thing, but, growing up, I felt like I was on the ‘fast lane’ with cars driving slowly in front of me. (You are not allowed to pass by cars on the right on swiss highways, so, if someone’s driving slowly ahead of you, you’re stuck.)

Moving to New York, crossing the atlantic, has definitely broadened my horizon. Living in a different culture, speaking a foreign language, makes you realize that there’s more than ‘one way’ of approaching life – life, in all its various aspects.

Just to give you a few examples on what amazed me, when I first moved here: Buying a cup of coffee to go? Oh my, what a strange idea! Or the concept of dating, as you have it here in New York, it does simply not exist in Europe. One thing that I just could not understand; how in the world, could one only start working at 10am? In Switzerland you’re in the office by 8am, sometimes even earlier. The overall shopping mentality here in the States is definitely one of the differences that struck me the most. I felt to me, as shopping (and returning things) was almost considered a hobby. Swiss store opening hours make that impossible: stores close down at around 7pm and even as early as 5pm on saturdays. And, now take a deep breath; NO shopping on sundays and holidays whatsoever!

ms: How did you end up working and Plumb Design (and Th!nkmap), what were you doing at first and how did your role evolve?

tr: Plumb Design knocked on my door in summer of 2002 and asked if I would like to join their team. I didn’t need much convincing, knowing of their visualization software called Thinkmap and their excellent reputation in the interactive field. I joined their so called ‘blue team’ in summer of 2002.

I knew immediately that this was a good move; the projects were challenging and divers, right off the start. I got to develop the IA and the overall design for e-ticketing platforms:::, multi-lingual investor relations sites, national educational resource sites, …, and most of all complex thinkmap applications.

Over the time an increasing percentage of customers have been looking to Plumb Design for visualization solutions that leverage the Thinkmap platform. This change, along with the development of the Visual Thesaurus product line, has led Plumb Design to fully commit to a product strategy centered around Thinkmap. In spring 2004 Plumb Design changed its name to reflect focus on its Thinkmap visualization products.

For those who are not familiar withThinkmap; Thinkmap is a dynamic, data-driven visualization technology that helps end-users navigate and understand complex information. www.thinkmap.com

During this redefining phase, I was put in charge of all creative: the re-branding of the company, the Visual Thesaurus and customized Thinkmap-Applications. Also, they started introducing me as their ‘Design Director’.

This change from services to product company proved to be incredibly interesting; no more clients – what a concept! All of a sudden, we were ‘our own client’ and had to set our own deadlines.

I enjoy the broad range of responsibilities at Thinkmap, as I am in charge of ‘simply all creative’. At the moment, I am mostly working on projects related to our Visual Thesaurus, these range from interactive (interface, websites, email campaigns, banners…) to print (packaging, advertising, t-shirts, posters, postcards etc)

I tremendously appreciate having the opportunity to be building a brand, the brand of the Visual Thesaurus.

About 2 months ago I was at a small gathering of friends and was discussing the Visual Thesaurus with one of my designer friends. A fellow next to us, turned around as soon as he heard ‘Visual Thesaurus’, and with a big smile on his face said: “What? You are the designer of the Visual Thesaurus? I am a subscriber and I LOVE it! I use the tool to brainstorm!” He went on and on and I was just simply thrilled to have run into one of our subscribers/customers. How exciting!

ms: How do you typically work on a project (process), and does the process change between electronic and print?

tr: How much time do you have – that is quite a question!

Of course, there are the basic ‘research, creation, implementation, testing phases, but I won’t bore you with that.

Working with many talented designers over the years, I’ve noticed how everyone has a different way of ‘creating’. It has always fascinated me to see how designers approach their projects. I’ve noticed that I clearly fall into the category of the ‘intuitive designer’. I don’t sit down and theorize and rationalize first. Instead, I make a few sketches and brew a few ideas in my head, then, I sit down at my computer and ‘get going’. I just follow my instincts and see what happens. It usually works.

ms: What are you currently working on? How’s MoMA?

tr: At Thinkmap, I am currently working on different marketing materials for the Visual Thesaurus. We also have two more products in the pipeline; I can’t say too much! Sit tight, they’re exciting!

I am temporarily working at the MoMA for two days a week, as a consultant. MoMA approached me about 3 months ago and asked me if I’d be interested in redesigning their current intranet. How could one turn down such and exciting opportunity? It’s a wonderful project that allows me to really see behind the scenes of this fabulous institution.

ms: Do you consider yourself as more of an interface designer, print designer or both?

tr: Definitely both! Whenever I get to talk to young or aspiring designers, I keep telling them to try to keep a broad portfolio, a broad skill set. Employers are eager to hire designers that offer ‘one stop shopping’.

ms: What are you currently reading, listening to and looking at?

tr: reading:
I just finished The Brand Gap” An excellent read for anyone interested in branding and how it actually works.

And I just started: “Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer” I can’t say much yet, it looks very promising. The many extraordinary illustrations in the book made it worthwhile purchasing already.

looking at:
Wedding bands : )

listening to:
I am currently enjoying the latest album of a swiss band called Lobith. Their music is a wonderful mix of pop, latin-lounge and a hint of jazz. www.lobith.ch

ms: How did you hear about flickr?

tr: My former Thinkmap coworker and good friend Red deLeon (www.990000.com) introduced me to the world of flickr. Yes, he won many instant karma points for that.

ms: Who are some of your favorite photographers?

tr: I absolutely admire Alec Soth’s eye and overall aesthetics. www.alecsoth.com

ms: Tina, thank you for your effort and time, it has been a great opportunity to talk with you. Merci!

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