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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.
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.)