Beautiful Intelligence

Art direction meets AI in a growing library of beautiful, expressive content within Microsoft 365

Rachel Romano
Sep 17 · 5 min read
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A conceptual depiction of AI searching for the perfect font for your PowerPoint slide.

Mark Rothko used color to paint abysses deep enough to lose yourself in. Prince used his voice to conjure images of raspberry berets and oceans of violets in bloom. Break dancers and ballerinas use the body in motion to express everything from love to fury.

We instinctively engage with color, sound, and motion from the time we’re born. These universal forms of expression take us places the written word sometimes can’t go, viscerally animating ideas and providing context.

But people often associate these communicative tools more with the arts than with corporate spaces, which is perhaps why we haven’t traditionally seen these elements in digital productivity ecosystems. Color, sound, and motion fell by the wayside in a world of suits and ties and black and white documents.

That world is increasingly antiquated.

Even in offices where you may still have to cover tattoos and remove piercings, people are starting to welcome gifs and emojis in professional content. And why not? Whether your desired aesthetic feels more Bauhaus or more pop, moving beyond letters and numbers makes productivity more authentic, beautiful, and resonant.

In Microsoft 365, we’re blending art and science to create a library of high-quality content that leverages our powerful AI. From creating original work in-house to commissioning designs from artists worldwide, we’ll be rolling out a curated array of new illustrations, looping videos, photography, fonts, animations, stickers, and much more, beginning primarily within Office.

An intelligent canvas sifts through an array of content, surfacing the most relevant results for you.

The art

Bodies of all shapes, sizes, colors, and abilities. Expressions ranging from boredom to joy to despair. Imagery of skylines, seascapes, home offices, or outer space. You name it, and our global design team has likely created or commissioned it.

What began two years ago as a font expansion project has become a far broader effort to modernize, enrich, and grow our overall content library. It’s a process that entails identifying gaps from a design perspective, conducting deep user research, and understanding broad trends, such as a widespread desire for more playful forms of communication.

Across apps and platforms, people are digitally expressing themselves in weird and wonderful ways, and that bleeds into the productivity space as well. Playful animations, humorous illustrations, and silly stickers are increasingly making their way into the Microsoft 365 content library so you can communicate across an emotive spectrum.

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A small sampling of the new illustrations available in PowerPoint, with color accents that can dynamically adapt based on your color choices.

That spectrum also includes more hard-hitting content that feels raw and honest. Our current era includes COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, and Me Too. People share their pronouns in email signatures and talk openly about pumping breastmilk between meetings. Cookie-cutter images of smiling professional stereotypes simply don’t resonate, and the content people can use in professional documents needs to reflect that.

Beyond individual imagery, we’re expanding our theming options as well. From choosing a background theme that strikes your personal fancy to creating custom themes that reflect company branding, you’ll be seeing more avenues for authentic expression. We’re also actively exploring how sound design can play a stronger role in Microsoft 365, particularly as Fluent increases its role in our future experiences.

The science

While Microsoft designers and researchers have been creating and testing content, engineers have been working to pair that art with intelligent technology.

At the most basic level, AI saves time and improves your content by matching imagery with words. Type “home office” into a slide, and voila, PowerPoint Designer offers corresponding images and layouts without you having to leave your document. Perhaps you want aspirational imagery of uncluttered surfaces and gleaming white Eames chairs, or maybe you want to lean toward realism with images of spilled coffee and kids or pets running amok in the background.

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Some of the photographs curated for PowerPoint Designer.

In more advanced settings, AI can act like an invisible blueprint. Once you’ve decided on a document style, it up-levels your assets and maintains consistency if you change file formats. By intelligently shifting assets like images, graphics, or icons, you can focus on your content while AI sources for art direction. Similarly, if you decide to change the color scheme of a deck, AI automatically matches existing assets to the new scheme.

The expression

As human beings, we rely on our senses to experience the physical world and express ourselves in it.

Facilitating sensory experiences in digital environments can be tricky because it’s not just a matter of mimicry. Mobile design is a great example of the need to rethink how experiences are built from the ground up, versus just shrinking the desktop to fit on a tiny screen.

With something as fundamental as expression and communication, we need to similarly research, explore, and design experiences based on unique digital contexts — and leverage uniquely digital abilities like intelligent technologies.

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A selection of animated emojis from the Microsoft Teams experience.

This is particularly true in our current era. Even before COVID, more and more people were learning and working remotely and missing the context and connection that comes from in-person interactions. Much like how a joke’s punchline may get lost from one language to another, human interactions don’t always fully translate from in-person to remote.

These new types of content and the intelligent ways they surface can help bridge that gap by creating space for beauty, humor, and honesty in communication.

To stay in the know with Microsoft Design, follow us on Twitter and Instagram, or join our Office or Windows Insider program. And if you are interested in working with us at Microsoft, head over to aka.ms/DesignCareers.

Microsoft Design

Stories from the thinkers and tinkerers at Microsoft

Rachel Romano

Written by

Microsoft Design storyteller & strategist. HarperCollins author with pieces in The NYT and The Atlantic. Current mom to plants & a fur child. Views are my own.

Microsoft Design

Stories from the thinkers and tinkerers at Microsoft. Sharing sketches, designs, and everything in between.

Rachel Romano

Written by

Microsoft Design storyteller & strategist. HarperCollins author with pieces in The NYT and The Atlantic. Current mom to plants & a fur child. Views are my own.

Microsoft Design

Stories from the thinkers and tinkerers at Microsoft. Sharing sketches, designs, and everything in between.

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