Help, the bots are coming!

Andreas Stiegler
Jan 15, 2020 · 5 min read

It’s dark in the agency. Another late night coding away some tickets. The only light sources are my screens — well and the ambient illumination of LED strips on the gaming Laptop I use. Suddenly, there is a sound. I decide to get some caffeine and, while I’m at it, take a look who’s still there. As I walk by the meeting rooms, I freeze. There is nobody inside. At least, nobody I know! My eyes widen as I stare at the moving mass of cables, chips and — is that our 3d printer? The creature of plastic and metal slowly turns towards me and a red camera lens focuses on my face, while it holds one of the drawing tablets and a countless number of pens. Synthesizers click as a generated voice echoes throughout the room “Welcome Andy. I am your new designer! I make everything… faster!” and then it approaches, the Cintiq pens still dripping with the blood of its murdered victims.

Puh! I think this was just a dream. Nevertheless, we see an increasing degree of automation in many fields, but none of them are made to kill you! Well except for applications in the military, I guess.

Here, at Strichpunkt, we have a pretty relaxed relationship with our artificial partners and I’d like to share a bit of this atmosphere. So first off, let’s try to understand what’s happening. Let’s take a typical agency task, like creating the corporate design guidelines for a brand. After many workshops, strategic discussions and creative hours, you have the core of the new CD set up and want to write it down for others to use. And here is where the problems start! Originating from a printing world, CDs were usually written by Humans for Humans. This was all fine and good, until the primary media changed.

We moved from a media landscape dominated by printed advertisements and newspapers to a digital environment where information and the surface on which it is displayed are decoupled. The same internet news-post might be viewed on a smartphone, huge TV or just being consumed by algorithms to show up in a news digest. If we still want to make sure that our CD guidelines are helpful, we now have to set them up so that they allow responsiveness, that they are flexible enough to accommodate unforeseen use-cases (“You know what, let’s create a streaming frame for Twitch!”), and yet they should still remain easy to read and use.

The solution we favor is called Modular Design. Essentially, you are no longer defining the CD as a whole, but instead you’d define how individual pieces (like a button, a headline etc) look and behave like. These modules can still have constraints and have an impact on their surroundings, but in principle you can now take a look at your module toolbox, use any number of them and compose your final product out of them. This allows for the same bit of information — say our news-post — to be represented very differently, depending on the current context.

While Modular Design is primarily a metaphor for development and design, something interesting happened: To a certain degree, the CD guidelines now had to be understood by simple algorithms that rearrange modules based on the screen size etc. Thus, we started describing CDs for machines to read! And the ability for a machine to understand what you are actually doing is the core of all automation. If you continue this line of thought, you could come up with a way to describe CD guidelines in a machine-readable way, so that the whole module composition could be automated! And that’s just what we are currently doing with SPML (the Strichpunkt Markup Language, yea the crappy name is on me). This opens up many exciting opportunities, such as creating CDs for a far broader field of applications, creating CDs that adapt automatically or that offer tools to dynamically spawn “sub-CDs” (such as a special Christmas versions) and — the most rewarding one for me right now — create tools that allow non-designers to PLAY with the CD instead of having to ADHERE to it. This is a huge switch in perspective! Instead of writing “Guidelines”, I’d rather develop “Experiences”! Tools that help people in a easy and fun way to get their task done or publish something without having to fear a CD-Police popping up. If people enjoy using a CD, they will find it of much more use, they will be more inclined to learn more about it and they will simply use it more consistently.

As a first example, we developed a Layout Creator for DHL that allows non-Designers to create documents without having to care about the details of the CD. Interesting lesson learned: you still need a single place people can refer to in regard to CD questions. When people find a CD or a Brand easier to use and play with, they will also have more questions and experiences to share. Thus, installing a Brand-Hub on a Human-to-Human communication level is still a good idea — although you might want to enrich it with machine readable information, such as usage metrics, best practices and prefab configurations. You know, the artificial designers will have questions, too! In the longer run, I see a portal like such a Brand-Hub as the forum where artificial and human CD-users meet and share stuff. Why not have a bot design a “poster of the week” which human users can vote for or comment? The precise shape of such a Brand-Hub depends highly on the brand in question, of course, and I could as well see more decentralized approaches.

So, coming back to our little nightmare: Are the bots coming to replace us all? Not in the slightest, and I really mean that. I’d argue that the current media landscape comes with so many challenges and open questions that are not answered by classic CD Guidelines that we, in the creative business, should get all the help we can get to tackle them! Together with our AI colleagues, we might be able to deliver CD experiences that are widely accessibly, that cover far more use cases and that are more dynamic and interactive! I’d rather see them as C3POs than Terminators. And this includes a special breed of systems that you might be thinking about now: If we moved towards CDs written by Humans for Machines, how about CDs written by Machines for Machines…

But that’s a story for another post.


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