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Supply's Executive Creative Director, Sam Jeibmann, was recently tasked with creating an art direction strategy for articles featured on our website. He saw this as the perfect opportunity to dive into the creative sandbox and have fun with a new tool our studio has been excited to experiment with —generative AI.While defining an art direction strategy for Supply's articles, Sam also uncovered a few best practices for establishing an art direction that leverages generative AI. We thought we'd share them with you. Distilling a message down into a simple metaphor can be immensely helpful when creating content with generative AI because a metaphor provides a visual shorthand that will encapsulate your core message and theme. We like to use a simple framework we call SEL (Subject, Emotion, Landscape) to help us with this. SubjectWhat is the central theme, concept, or message you are trying to convey? What takeaway would you like your audience to walk away with?EmotionWhat feelings and emotions are you hoping to elicit in your viewer? Do you want them to feel joy, excitement, nervousness, optimism, etc.?LandscapeWhat does the contextual landscape of your narrative look like? Are there adjacent or supporting concepts that might add visual interest or help create tension in a composition? An example metaphor that we created for another article. Mood boards are crucial in creating art direction because they help communicate and define a project's visual and emotional direction. They are a source of inspiration and a guiding framework for a creative team. Setting out to create AI-generated content without a mood board can quickly lead to predictable and uninspiring results. While AI can generate art based on various algorithms and data, it lacks the intrinsic understanding of human emotions, intentions, and context that a mood board can provide. Sample from the mood board Sam created as part of his art direction. (Source: 1. Andrei Cojocaru, 2-4. Unknown, 5. Frank Moth) Colors have psychological associations and can evoke specific emotions. Defining a color palette allows you to set the emotional tone —this isn't something you want to leave to chance when creating art with AI.When you define a subject in a prompt, you are, by default, effectively locking in a color palette based on what the average version of that "thing" looks like on the internet. You can add prompt language to tune the color space from there. Keywords like "cool tones," "warm tones," "crushed black," "sunset-inspired hues," or film keywords like "Kodachrome" will change the overall tonal space of the image. You can also affect the subject by adding more obvious color modifiers such as "blue banana." From there, it's best to make final adjustments in posts using Photoshop or other editing tools to tweak your colors. Too often, people focus all their attention on the subject and not on the environment around their subject when creating content with generative AI. A composition plan is like a roadmap for generative AI's creative process. It gives the AI clear directions, purpose, and a sense of order. Without one, you risk producing content that misses the mark and is less effective. Take time to consider the space around your subject carefully. What elements are off to the sides? Above or below? Behind and in front?Establishing a spatial composition through a well-crafted prompt is helpful when composing a photographic image with generative AI. When designing an illustration, you might be better served by splitting your final composition's foreground, middle ground, and background into separate prompts and then stitching them together later in post to achieve greater control. Generative AI systems, particularly those used for content creation, often rely on the keywords and attributes within prompts to guide their creative process. These keywords and attributes help the AI understand the context, treatment, and content requirements for generating the desired output. When writing prompts, carefully considering the keywords and attributes you include will enhance the quality and relevance of the content being produced. Here are a few examples of Keywords and attributes we use."Photo" renders the image based on three main characteristics of digital or film cameras: the lens, the sensor or film size, and the film or digital file. This keyword can be augmented by including specific attributes. For example: "Photo, Nikon 7D, 85mm lens.""Studio" renders the image as if it were on a stage or production studio. This keyword can be augmented by including specific light attributes and background colors. For example: "studio, grey background, left and right softbox, rear key light.""Hyperrealism" or "Hyperrealistic" renders the image in an artistic style made famous by painters in the early 2000s. This keyword generates a near photo-real image but is stylized to create slightly more organic shapes and vivid colors. This keyword can be augmented by including other artistic media attributes such as "Oil," "gouache," or "colored pencil." You can use any number of artistic styles and corresponding attributes to achieve your desired effect. Cover art examples created by our design team in collaboration with generative AI for Supply's articles. Generative AI is more powerful than ever, but it is essential to remember that it's still a tool. A hammer alone can't build a house. A carefully constructed art direction remains a critical part of the equation, and generic AI art directions will produce generic results. Until a time comes when we can quickly and easily build AI models that understand the nuances of individual brands and that have the social-emotional intelligence required to anticipate how an audience might react to various visual triggers, a solid art direction along with a plan for generating quality content is still needed. Hopefully, these best practices can help you create better results the next time you leverage generative AI in your creative practice.
Our work creating digital products and services always starts with a discovery phase. But our clients often want to truncate discovery and get right to the making part. I kinda get it. Especially when we tell them we want to conduct our own interviews of team stakeholders, and we want to do our own user research. It takes time and costs money, and for clients who have already conducted research, it can feel like they’re buying the same horse twice. Of course we’ll take whatever they have—“Bury us!” we say—but we still insist on identifying for ourselves the inputs that will inform whatever recommendations we’ll eventually make. I call it “getting stuff in the box.” It’s a reference to that scene from the movie Apollo 13, where they realize the C02 filters are failing, and they need to rebuild the extra square ones on the command module so they fit in a round receptacle. “I suggest you gentlemen invent a way to put a square peg in a round hole.” (So good.) Anyhow, in the next scene there’s a bunch of NASA guys dumping a huge box of random stuff on the table with a mandate to “make this, fit into the hole for this, with nothing but that.” Discovery is how we get the stuff in the box that we’re going to need to solve your problem. Don’t let “nothing but that” characterize the stuff our team has to work with when it comes time to tackle your biggest challenges. Because here’s the thing: those NASA guys would no doubt have done their level best with a nearly empty box of sad bric-a-brac. But how great is it that they had duct tape, and a spool of wire, and a space suit, and some pliers, and a hose? Likewise, we’ll devise a solution with whatever information and insights are available to us. But as long as we’re in the phase where we’re putting stuff in the box, let’s assemble a rich profusion of insights and ideas, quotes and context, so when it’s time to get to work, we have inspiring material to work with. Credit to Steven Johnson, who first pointed me to this inspiring scene in his excellent book "Where Do Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation". I read it 12 years ago and think about it once a week.
Here’s a story from the #failureFiles. Once upon a time, a civilian owned space exploration company who shall not be named approached us about designing part of the user interface in their ship’s command module. Yup. They wanted us to design a spaceship UI. For a team of sci-fi fanatics, this was pretty the most astoundingly exciting thing that had ever happened. By far. The brief was thin on details. Apparently almost all ship functions were handled by mission control on the surface, but at a certain point—in an emergency, or perhaps when docking with the International Space Station—the crew played a critical role in controlling the ship. That was about all they would tell us. They wanted to talk that very week. But determined to prepare a mind-blowing pitch, we convinced them to give us a couple of extra days. In the absence of a detailed brief, we figured we would give them a window into how we thought. So we studied spaceship UIs from TV and movies, and demonstrated how these did or didn’t align with best practices of great interface design. We also redesigned about half our case studies. In the end the deck was more than 60 pages long. It was glossy and beautiful and we were incredibly excited to share it. So we flew down for the pitch--I remember we dressed much better than usual. We gladly accepted their offer of a facility tour, during which we ooh’d and ahh’d like starstruck kids. The pitch itself was a blur. We only got through about half the slides. We flew home with fingers crossed. We didn’t get the job. But they did tell us why, which is rare, and very much appreciated. In an adjacent sliver of the multiverse, the sun’s light scattered through an atmosphere laden with Saharan dust, primordial chemicals, and wildfire smoke, revealing the vivid dawn of a planet almost identical to our own. Except in this world, we’d received a simple brief for a tight little project. Our clients were under extreme time and budget pressures. They wanted a partner who could roll up their sleeves and working side by side with their people, rapidly explore, prototype and produce a rock solid design solution. They wanted pragmatics, not pitches. This was yeoman's work, not portfolio fodder. Recognizing this and acknowledging our obvious lack of experience designing spaceship UIs, we determined it was enough to just be sponges. Having offered to meet them as soon as possible, we sent a small group who came prepared with nothing but a long list of questions. They offered us a tour and we said, “Sure, if it’s important, but our preference would be to spend our time together learning more about this particular challenge…” Back in our slightly sadder sliver of the multiverse, I’m reminded that some situations demand the opposite response to what our emotions may dictate. Buy stock when it’s low, sell when it’s high. Swim parallel to shore in a rip tide. And, next time you get a chance to design a spaceship UI, play it cool and put your client first.
We live in a dynamic age. In the interest of avoiding snap judgements and sclerotic thinking, it’s worth remembering that big ideas, particularly the truly novel and disruptive ones, will rapidly evolve in predictable ways. First, there is a Hypothesis, a supposition based on limited evidence. Then an idea becomes a Thesis, a statement or theory that is put forward as a premise to be maintained. Then there’s the Antithesis, when people come to think in an opposite way about the original idea. And then there’s a Synthesis, when the idea outgrows its hypothesis and thesis, and makes a certain peace with its antithesis. Here’s an example: The four theses of Crypto. Hypothesis: Blockchain technology when applied to money will democratize finance. Thesis: Financial democratization will come through widespread consumer participation in large exchanges like Coinbase and FTX. Antithesis: Cryptocurrencies are dead, the provenance of swindlers and scofflaws, profoundly unreliable, risky, a terrible hedge against inflation and incapable of holding value. Synthesis: Inefficient aspects of the traditional banking industry will be disrupted by digital currency transactions that can be reliably verified and maintained, while conforming to basic standards of compliance and accounting. Consider Steamchain Corp. (Full disclosure, we’ve worked with Steamchain, but I didn’t wake up today planning to log-roll for them.) Steamchain Corp. created smart contract software using the Ethereum (ERC20) blockchain to facilitate currency conversion between trading partners. Traditional banks charge exorbitant hidden fees and can take days to process these transactions, which introduces uncertainty as currencies fluctuate. Steamchain processes transactions at a fraction of the cost, in minutes. That's good ol’ fashioned innovation.
I was 37 when I started working in design strategy, old enough to know not to shout out “Turtle Excluder Device!” as the meeting wrapped up. Most people avoided my gaze and walked away. I managed to catch the sleeve of one colleague gathering up his things. “No, really, you have to hear this.” (It was like that moment in The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, which begins with a bedraggled uninvited “grey haired loon” accosting guests at a wedding so he could tell a longish ghost story about why you shouldn’t slay an albatross. In my tale, you’re the wedding guest, I’m the loon.) In college Bio we learned that there used to be a whole industry around tourists helping newly hatched loggerhead turtles get to the ocean. So many hatchlings were getting run over while crossing roads on their way to the sea! So many were being eaten by gulls! If we could only save more baby turtles, the thinking went, their populations would rebound. But then a young graduate student named Deborah Crouse conducted a population modeling exercise for her PhD thesis, and discovered that no matter how many hatchlings were saved, the number of turtles laying eggs wasn’t increasing. And breeding pairs are what you need to make more turtles (I’ll cover turtle sex in a separate post.) Her work uncovered the real problem: that turtles weren’t surviving adolescence because when they got big enough, they’d get trapped in fishermen’s nets. This insight eventually led to the invention of metal hatches called Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) that were built into fishing nets. When a sufficiently heavy turtle gets caught in a net, it springs the hatch and the turtle swims free. Today TEDs are often mandatory, and the turtle populations are far healthier as a result. What lessons in product strategy can companies learn from the Turtle Excluder Device? Fast forward almost 20 years to me blurting out, “Turtle Excluder Device!” We’d helped our client design V1 of their telematics platform, after which people came out of the woodwork with bright ideas about what features they'd like to see next. Sales, Service, Maintenance, Product Management—everyone had thoughts about what they’d like to see in V2. Our challenge was to find a way to shepherd these ideas far enough along that they could be honestly evaluated, and potentially cross the gauntlet of doubt about their feasibility, likelihood of adoption and cost. So we created a workshop that incubated numerous ideas, deeply considering how they’d come to life and be experienced over time. And we had a large swath of critical stakeholders participate in shaping each idea, which helped because, well, everyone likes to have a say. The output we created was a marketing story for each—a website—that made it look like the idea was complete, built and launched. We shared these mock marketing websites with customers, other users, and senior leaders who eventually aligned on which ideas to fund and which to pass on. We created a Turtle Excluder Device—for ideas! Since then, I’ve realized that many companies have problems that could be solved by some version of a metaphorical TED. Maybe their strategy isn’t surviving the design phase because it was thrown over the wall from some long gone consultant. Or their design intent is getting lost in development, because engineers never had a chance to weigh in on its feasibility. Or the finished product isn’t surviving launch because Marketing isn’t clear on its true benefits. In each case, what’s needed is a process that can shepherd great ideas to fruition, and keep them from perishing in corporate environments that are weirdly effective at killing them off. That’s what we do at Supply. We help our clients succeed not just through expert digital design and development, but by helping them efficiently and effectively set up teams and processes to improve the parts of the product development lifecycle that need it most. Sometimes, that means building a Turtle Excluder Device. (Big thank you to my bio teacher Dr. Paulette Bierzychudek at Lewis and Clark College, who told us a good story about great science that I’ll never forget.)
At Supply, one of our founding principles is: On the surface, this might seem like a mantra that makes it easy for us to avoid partnering with companies that don’t approach us with a “great idea” in hand, but it’s quite the opposite. It is a call for us to remember that companies with a clear mission attract talented people who are invested in both the company’s success and in the customers they serve. They are deeply entrenched in the challenges of the business and the problems facing their customers, and because of this, they are often brimming with great product ideas. Unfortunately, most companies lack a process for fostering and evaluating internal ideas, especially when faced with the challenge of deciding which, among many, are worth pursuing. So how do we help our clients identify, clarify and envision their great ideas, and then determine which ones are worth pursuing? We look to the humble soup can. More about that in a minute, though. Let’s start at the beginning. First, talk to your team and collect ideasInterview individual team members and ask them to share their product or service ideas. Aim for a one- to three-sentence description of each one. Don’t worry about vetting at this point. Once you’ve talked to all team members and feel like you’ve amassed a decent collection of ideas, identify and merge any duplicates. “There are no bad ideas. Only good ideas that go horribly wrong.” — Jack Donaghy (30 Rock) Next, come together and strengthen each idea as a group Once you’ve got your hopper filled with ideas, bring your team together to discuss and strengthen those ideas. Give yourself some time to do this — consider dedicating one to two days to workshop them. This may seem like a big investment, but if even one idea worth pursuing rises to the top, it will have been worth it. This is how we approach it: Step 1Depending on the size of your company, you’ll likely want to split your team into smaller groups. It’s been our experience at Supply that the most productive groups are often composed of individuals who represent different roles in the company. The ideal group might consist of an engineer, a sales associate, a designer and an executive, for instance. Step 2This is where the soup comes in. You’ll want to evenly divide up all of your ideas amongst the groups (we usually have them pick the ideas out of a hat). Then have the groups turn their selected ideas into concepts. They will need to give each one a clever product name, write a value proposition, and identify what essential features are required. We like to use a soup can illustration as the framework for this stage of the process. Each concept gets turned into a label on a can of soup that has a name (your clever product name), a promise (your value proposition), and ingredients (the features of your product idea). You’ll want them to spend about five to ten minutes working on each concept. It’s best to limit their time so that they act on intuition and have less opportunity to second-guess themselves. Don’t overthink it; five to ten minutes is plenty of time to be clever. Step 3Once they have completed their initial draft of each concept, have the groups exchange soup cans with one another. Now they are going to explore how those concepts might evolve when thought about through the lens of a different audience, and through the lens of an emerging trend. Doing so will help ensure that your final product is relevant in the marketplace and meaningful to your intended audience. You can either provide the groups with audience personas and trend descriptions, or you can give them a few minutes to identify their own. Have them look for outlier trends and less-frequently considered audiences, then write out how the concept might change when viewed through these new filters. Challenge them to be willing to completely overhaul the concept if need be. Sorry kids, not even AAA could make a car rental service for teen drivers happen. Interesting is fine, but interesting & meaningful & impactful is where you want to be. Step 4By now each concept should consist of one or more soup cans accompanied by notes on the impact of emerging trends and/or a potentially unique audience. They should be starting to feel much more robust. Have each group swap concepts once more and spend some time storyboarding out a hero scenario for each one. A hero scenario is the description of a customer’s experience from beginning to end that demonstrates the core value of a concept. If some groups are uncomfortable drawing, don’t fret — have them describe the scenario in words. Encourage them to write out what the customer is thinking as well as what they are doing, as this may surface additional opportunities. Real heroes take a Lyft home at the end of the night. Step 5Lastly, have those same groups take one final stab at rewriting the soup can labels. At this point, they will usually feel like they need to be updated. The can on the left is the store brand soup. The can on the right is top-shelf stuff. Once you’ve finished refining, critically assess each concept as a team By now you should have a number of well-thought-out concepts that have been put through their paces. Some people will naturally develop a favorite or two, so how do we impartially identify which ones have real potential? Begin by defining what a successful concept looks like. We usually challenge our clients to grade each one using the following questions: Is the concept actionable and achievable? Is it customer-centric? Is it differentiated? Does it align with the company’s vision? Before you begin the grading process, you will want to discuss as a group what each of these terms (e.g. actionable and achievable, customer-centric, differentiated, aligns with vision) means and looks like to ensure that everyone is aligned. Grading — not just for teachers. Then visualize the top concepts At Supply, we believe that one of the easiest ways to determine whether or not a concept is viable is to jump to the end of the product-development process. This means marketing your “new product” to potential customers for feedback. Choose a few of the top-scoring concepts to push forward and continue exploring. You may even find that some concepts overlap and can easily be combined. Once you’ve narrowed it down, the next step is to create mock marketing web pages for each one. These should include a value proposition and an overview of the core features, accompanied by supporting UI mockups, in order to help it feel more compelling and real. These don’t need to be actual web pages — static comps created with the aid of a designer work just as well. It’s all coming together now. Now get feedback from potential customers Rather than simply asking participants to pick a favorite, use your mocks as prompts for a deeper conversation. Lay them all out and ask your participants to read through each one and talk to you about what comes to mind. Which concepts resonate with them and why? How would each product impact them? What’s unattractive, what’s questionable, and why? Use each conversation as an opportunity to learn more about your customer, their world, and their needs, so that you can strengthen the concepts that resonate with them. You may even identify new concepts that you had not previously considered Finally, share what you learned Once you’ve spoken to potential customers and collected their feedback, you’ll want to share everything you’ve learned with your company’s leadership team. At this point in the process, you will have taken a one- to three-sentence description of an idea and turned it into a fully formed product vision that has been evaluated by customers. Seeing how a product will be marketed and sold, as well as how customers have responded to it, makes it much easier for your company’s leadership team to determine which ideas are worth investing in. If you believe this process would work well in your company, then you’ll probably need to get buy-in from your team. Here is what we believe you and your company stand to gain from working this way: Avoid prematurely killing ideas with potential value just because the details haven’t been fully thought through yet Avoid pursuing opportunities that don’t have a strong value proposition and that likely won’t be adopted Standardize the way opportunities are represented so they can be honestly compared and evaluated Build a culture that supports experimentation and a learn-fast mentality that is customer-centric Drive alignment across your organization and facilitate funding and development conversations We’ve helped many companies, large and small, integrate this process into the way they work. It’s been used to help auto manufacturers identify and develop new service offerings in a repeatable way. More recently we used this process to help a nonprofit begin developing a large-scale online platform for low-income first-time homeowners. It’s a tried-and-true process that has worked for them, and it can work for you and your company, too. You’ve got this!