When Sesame Workshop first approached us, they were looking
to create an interactive table at their New York City headquarters that quickly
communicated their mission and diverse programs to visitors. Sesame Workshop is
the “nonprofit educational organization behind Sesame Street and so much more.”
Their mission is “to use the educational power of media to help children
everywhere reach their highest potential.” This inspirational brand messaging immediately
reminded us of Sesame Street’s nickname, the “Longest Street in the World.” The
challenge was how to communicate these concepts to visitors and take advantage
of the table as a digital canvas.
A table, of course, is meant to be experienced from any
side. This immediately presented a design challenge: imagine making a website
that you can navigate from the top or the sides of the screen. Even though much
of the content and the theme revolved around Sesame’s presence in various
countries, we initially shied away from using a map for the interface because
designing a map that can be experienced from all four sides is tricky. But we
knew we’d find a solution. Early on, it was determined that we’d be using
the new multi-touch Samsung SUR40 with Microsoft PixelSense.
We immediately tossed out classic cartography standards, by
which a map is designed to be viewed from only one orientation. Instead, we
looked to children’s atlases for inspiration, as they often divide maps in
unorthodox ways in order to focus attention on interesting facts and details. Making the leap to think differently about world maps, we chose to subdivide
the world and fan out the continents around a central point—a creative
approach that joins the traditional image of a round world with a bit of whimsy.
Employing trial and error, and loads of sketches, we were
able to sculpt the world into a design that represented Sesame Street’s
presence in 39 locations. Each location, marked by a street sign, is
interactive; activating the sign triggers videos, each with a different song and
With the map issue solved, we turned to the stories. We
needed to represent Sesame Workshop’s mission statement, specific milestones
from 40 years of programming, music videos and Muppet profiles. On the web, one
could solve this with simple information architecture, but the design was
intended to be a multitouch, multiuser table experience. One visitor’s
interaction couldn’t change the entire screen and disrupt another visitor’s
We positioned the mission statement in the middle, anchoring
the design with the organization’s primary message. We then overlaid the map with a path, weaving together the various regions of the world while simultaneously
emphasizing the global presence of Sesame Workshop. Interactive elements
integrate seamlessly with the landscape, so milestone markers became raised
patches of land. The illustrations were carefully considered, so that those placed in
the corners would work for both sides of the table. Also, these illustrations were designed to
subtly show the interconnections between regions. We selected icons that would
overlap the regions at a junction, like the rainforest illustrations that appear between
South America and Africa.
The software for the SUR40 allows us to determine where people are interacting around the table, a
functionality that enables us to automatically orient content toward the visitor. So
even if you reach across the surface, the content still shifts toward your
perspective. The interface is a single plane—you never have to navigate
to another screen.
For the graphic design, we found inspiration in Mary Blair’s
charming compositions, Charley Harper’s geometric natural forms and Alexander
Girard’s inventive use of color. Paper cut-outs were also a big influence. And,
of course, Sesame Street’s bold visual style was the foundation for everything.
The characters of Sesame Street itself were a major source
of inspiration. In a 1969 video pitch to PBS, before the show was established,
Kermit and Ralph brainstormed ideas for the show title and came up with
“Sesame Street,” based on the magical phrase “open sesame” from Ali Baba and
the Forty Thieves. This name suggests a place where doors open to a
treasure-filled room. Our motion and interactive designs were intended to reflect
this idea of an environment filled with surprises. Such interactivity creates
an experience where one can go and never know who—or what—is going to pop up.
When activated, stories spring out, and you can shuffle the deck to find even more
stories. The Muppets themselves are like game pieces that come to life, sharing
their own stories with the visitor. At every turn, a door opens to unknown
A video of the
final interactive is available here.
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In the information era, many factors have contributed to the overwhelming presence of chartjunks, but you don’t have to be one of those. Whether you choose a graph or a table, it doesn't matter—as long as you make clarity your goal.
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