is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Principal Designer at Adobe, Design Chair at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.+
It’s rare that it happens, but once in a while I do get to do a little freelance design work for other businesses. Recently I did some foundational identity and user experience design for Pluot, a startup in San Francisco run by two friends. Pluot is trying to reinvent video conferencing for small- to medium-size businesses; they have an elegant set-top box that hooks up to large, flat-screen TVs and makes the process of connecting to remote coworkers—both via camera, and also via sharing your desktop—incredibly easy. The company recently completed the Y-Combinator program and are in an early release phase right now.
The first thing I did was work on establishing a simple brand identity. I used varying weights of slightly hand-modified Rein Grotesk letterforms to imply a subtle motion in the letterforms, and added a small terminator dot at the bottom right that’s meant to suggest the power light at the bottom of an HDTV.
The logotype is actually meant to be somewhat quiet and is aesthetically less forward-leaning than the vision the company has of itself. The video conferencing market has traditionally been dominated by very conservative players who themselves market to often stodgy Fortune 1000 enterprises, but Pluot is focused on getting their product in the hands of startups like themselves and other technologically savvy companies—not because a Pluot box requires advanced skills, but in fact because these buyers are much more demanding in terms of having a superb user experience in their video systems.
Video conferencing software also relies on a lot of background screens, or wallpapers, and so I used those “surfaces” as an opportunity to communicate Pluot’s less conventional qualities. I strove to create an abstract visual language from photographic “materials”; I used a series of stock photos that are refracted through a geometric kaleidoscope, if you will. The effect distorts their details substantially but not entirely. Here are a few of the backgrounds that I created to set the tone.
In these designs you may also notice some of the patterns I set up for the user experience. The amount of space that you need on an HDTV (or even a web browser; Pluot also works on your desktop) to display video conferencing controls is relatively small, and so I really wanted to make the wide expanses feel intentional and not just a byproduct of poor layout planning. So I tucked everything at the bottom right of the screen—the “end,” if you read screens from top left to lower right—and stacked the elements up, one by one, from the bottom edge. In this example, you can see how the controls grow upwards as they get expanded:
I used that same stacking pattern for the setup wizard. As the user completes each setup step, it gets nudged upwards by a new one that replaces it below. The older steps also get progressively more translucent.
Establishing that lower right region as a central control area also set the tone for the Pluot experience on screen when viewing conferences, too. Users join meetings by entering a simple six-character code that’s displayed on the screen in the room; I broke the code into two parts and stacked them so that they would be easier to read from the screen and type into the control interface. The shared screens sit side by side or stack as necessary to accommodate all the participants; Pluot meetings can host as many as four of your colleagues at once (with support for more coming soon).
It was actually a lot of fun working through all the various permutations of video meetings and trying to create a cohesive user experience for combinations of video and desktop participants in all sorts of configurations. Working with Pluot was a great side project for me for a number of months; I was able to set a clear, finite scope with the company that allowed me to get a lot of these foundational pieces done in a limited amount of time. Unfortunately, due to being ridiculously busy with my day job and my family, I wasn’t able to stay really close to the implementation process, though I continue to chat with the co-founders periodically. They’re off to a great start though, and I feel very fortunate to have been able to work with them to get it out to the world. If you work at a company with remote colleagues, I encourage you to give Pluot a try and let me know what you think of the experience I designed.+