Academic Productivity has another great post, this time on the work of Carolin Horn at the Dynamic Media Institute at the Massachusetts College of Art (a visual designer, BTW, not an information visualization specialist) and her coder Florian Jenett. Using her Apple inbox as her petrie dish, her web page contains wonderful animations of species of hairy microbes that reflect the state of her inbox; spam and email from friends look totally different, while newer, more urgent mail is hairier and quicker. She also describes a grouping function of her project, titled Anymails, and the chains of microbes begin to look like early wormy life forms.
It puts me in mind of John Conway's Game of Life, an artificial life simulation that obeys only a small set of rules yet can exhibit surprisingly varied behaviors. It would be strange to not see rows of text but instead colorful wriggling lifeforms in my inbox. You could make it a game to clear the inbox, or take a cue from the Game of Life, and have a squirming microbe spawn an instant reply.
Carolin has a fascination with the natural world and its possibilities over static user interfaces: one of her other projects is an encyclopedia of the arts represented by different classes of jellyfish.