The Medium is the Mirror: Automation in Visual Communication

Advances in AI make it likely that we will soon see fully-automated design and creative services delivering optimised messages with maximum impact. So what will creative people do instead?

Data-driven communication and automation go hand-in-hand in what could be called the most important discussion within visual communication of our time.

The combination of the two will not only allow AI to replace hundreds of thousands of jobs within the industry, but will be able to create communication that is faster, more agile, more concise and seemingly more human. Techniques that started in digital marketing are set to redefine the world of visual communication, as we know it.

 

Machine as designer

Automation is the word on every designer’s lips at the moment, and rightly so, but let’s consider the territory AI will cover and what’s next for graphic design.

Beyond editorial formatting and banner layouts, AI will be able to make aesthetic choices, using algorithms based on first and third party behavioral data to dictate appropriate colours, typefaces, style, and layout for the piece of communication.

AI can auto-research trends, peers and competitors within a category of enquiry and create composite design suggestions based on them, producing non-offensive, functional communication using half the resource, if any.

One would argue at this point that AI will go no further than being a glorified research tool, helpful for informing projects and improving performance, but something that creates homogenised communication, incapable of creating work that displays conscious or original thought, thus separating the machine from the creative.

Machine as creative

But what if we take it one step further and AI not only regurgitates what is popular within a specific category but also generates disruptive options by identifying what is less commonly used/obviously referenced in the field.

For example, the AI creates work for a new brand of cola, but instead of simply making a composite suggestion based on the industries’ main influencers, it suggests alternatives, factoring in what the core demographic respond well to whilst avoiding what they may have been over exposed to.

This way the AI produces fresh options, engaging the audience in new ways rather than simply benchmarking what already exists whilst at the same time overcoming ‘copy-cat culture’ a common problem even in non-automated creative industries.

So now, hypothetically, we have a fully automated creative designer, capable of generating good original content with aesthetic sensibility – scary. However without a human influence present, inputting variables such as themes to explore and what audience/criteria to acknowledge, it has no social awareness. At this stage the machine is useful as a commercial tool but redundant as a creator of artistic merit.

Machine as artistic voice

But what if AI not only creates disruptive and original work but can also develop it’s own themes and forms its own critical stance? Could the machine become socially aware and create work based on current trending topics, philosophy, ecology, activism and politics?

Micro targeting and personality profiling has infamously been used politically in recent general elections to sway voters using ‘dark ads’, with parties spending over £1.2m on content targeted to influence voters based on their political allegiances. But instead of targeted ads being used by politicians to sway the people, what if it worked the other way round?

Imagine that the AI identifies an important topic to address based on social listening and trend forecasting, it then identifies key discourse happening around the subject and adopts a critical stance by filtering through relevant opinions and scholarly articles. The AI then auto-generates creative and engaging work based on the world’s most urgent topics, informing what the wider audiences think, feel and do. AI would then become ‘The World’s Artist’ utilising the voice of the masses for world change.

Machine as studio

Massimo Vignelli stated that, “The three most important factors of design are theory, criticism, and history. Theory is what generates a product, criticism is what controls it, and history is what lets you evaluate it.” If AI works to all of its strengths at once, all three of these factors could be automated within seconds.

If all of the above is feasible, AI is set to jeopardise the role of the data analyst, designer, art director, creative, strategist and effectively the artist.

This is the most exciting thing to happen to visual communication since desktop publishing but quite obviously the most threatening. Automation will allow corporations to minimize spend on creative development and maximize spend on placement, allowing for all-consuming campaigns – think the stretch of the Trivago campaign with content that rivals that of the world’s best agencies.

Where will creative minds go and how do we make sure their skills are transferrable?

To avoid redundancy, the future visual communicator needs to be multi-disciplinary, adaptable and skilled but also informed of what AI can and can’t do, reacting to the climate of automation to remain socially and economically relevant in order to not only thrive, but to survive as a practitioner. The plus side is that creative people are also some of the most adaptable, this leads me to envisage a crossroads where creatives can either:

1. Embrace AI and attempt to stay one step ahead of the machines by utilising machine learning and data insight and hybridising their creative practice with automated process. (It’s also important to note that the majority of the people developing these systems are not working creatives themselves. Creative AI is mostly developed by programmers funded by big corporations with the vision of saving money in the long run. At this proto stage, creatives are needed in the process to make sure it’s done properly: their thought processes could become more of a commodity that the output.) UX design has boomed in popularity in recent years, a discipline reliant on the human touch and an understanding of human behaviour. Could this be one of the richer areas designers/creatives can move into?

2. Identify that some jobs can and will be automated and choose to work in channels that can’t, whereby humanity is still the heartbeat of the creative arts. The creative would join a battle for integrity with the belief that expression should be presented with conviction and unwaivered by mass influence.

The hand-rendered, the sketched and the unfinished could become increasingly championed as the most impactful media in a world where perfection has become mediocrity. One analogy would be the Navajo rug weavers who, for generations, have weaved deliberate imperfections into their rugs with the belief that there is beauty in the struggle and only god can create perfection.The foundations of this can already be seen in many current channels, whereby contemporary lo-fi sound and naïve imagery is glorified as a reaction to overly produced and formulaic work within popular culture.

Corporations are already funding artists to simply express themselves beside a brand name with little or no link to the brand’s heritage and with no other objective than to appear disruptive and human. Perhaps the age of automation will further this search for ‘something real’ and create a backlash where the creatives get the last laugh and get paid by corporations to simply to exist and create work with no committee to compromise with. 

Machine as mirror

We are living in the society of the mirror whereby media is in a live dialogue with its audience. Life imitates art and art imitates life immediately.

After we create the first truly creative machine will we ‘need’ to create anything else?

We could of course find ourselves in a recursive trap where input = output = input = output, mirroring what is already there exactly and reflecting it back on us. But as long as original thoughts are being published there is the opportunity for them to be appropriated into contemporary communication.

In a world where the lines are increasingly blurred between the supplier and the consumer of culture, perhaps automation will in fact empower the next generation whereby high quality execution is accessible to all and not just professional creatives. A world where your aunt can make that dog dating app and clients can finally make work just how they imagined it, that’s surely a good thing. Right?

Beyond economic benefits, automation is actually the science of optimising visual communication, conveying the intended message with maximum impact and clarity, so in some respects isn’t an automated revolution everything we believe in?

All illustrations: Sebastian Koseda

Sebastian Koseda is a Creative Director at design studio FEED

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