On September 14 and 15, a team of Scouts headed to Pittsburgh for Google’s SPAN Conference. We spent two days learning, listening and mingling with artists, designers, researchers, strategists, writers and technologists. The clearest theme: everything intersects. So often we think of brand “Design” and brand “Strategy” as two totally separate beasts. In actuality, we’re using similar parts of our brains to create, whether we’re working with a set of images or sentences. Both contribute equally to the way a brand shows up in the world, which is why we closely link these specialties in our work at Redscout.
Some of the the things we overheard offer broader lessons for brand strategists and designers:
“How can you make this a sculpture for the blind?” - Lenka Clayton, Artist
In two days at SPAN, we heard more than 20 technologists, artists, designers, writers and academics share their work. Hands down, the most interesting stories focused more on “what inspired me” than “what I did.” They led with great, curiosity-provoking questions. Lenka Clayton described the frustration of seeing Constantin Brancusi’s “Sculpture for the Blind” sitting behind an inaccessible glass case at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. After suggesting quite a few alternative display options to the museum, she set about rectifying the situation herself, describing the statue to 17 visually-impaired artists so they could make accessible versions. The work itself was just one beat in her story. It made us wonder - What if we thought of our own output as more of a story than a solution?
“We need to stop thinking of AI in colonialist terms.” - Heather Kelley, Game Designer
It became immediately clear that you can’t talk about the intersection of design, art and tech without talking about machine learning and artificial intelligence. Speakers pushed and pulled at the “machines are going to take over the earth” narrative. Molly Wright Steenson started her talk on AI and architecture by questioning the sterile faces, Tron-like lines, and futuristic blues of Artificial Intelligence. Madeline Gannon presented a curious, playful vision of AI with her pet-like industrial robot, Mimus. And Heather Kelley introduced the idea that AI is worthy of empathy with questions like, “What’s the cyborg version of cake?” and “What does a robot poem look like?”
Some audience members, however, remained skeptical. In a workshop about design writing, one asked: “What are you going to do when computers write as well as you?” As AI becomes a larger part of our day-to-day lives, branding and design will have an important role to play in helping people to embrace and understand these technologies.
“It’s not a good program if it doesn’t do something you didn’t expect.” - Molly Wright Steenson, Designer, Educator and Writer
Alex Wright, Director of User Experience at Etsy, called the modern era “an age of unintended consequences” - particularly in tech, it’s a time when new tools and programs often result in totally unexpected uses. We heard quite a few examples of creations that produced surprising results. Molly Wright Steenson described Generator, a collaboration space with programmable rooms designed by architect Cedric Price in the late 1970’s. The system’s “boredom program” automatically started reorganizing the site if it hadn’t been changed in a while.
As brand strategists, we’re afraid of things that don’t work - or that aren’t perceived - as we intended. But what if we embraced that idea, creating work that is designed to yield surprising and unintended results?
“Turns out, cows, on average, face North.” - Golan Levin, New Media Artist and Engineer
This “age of unintended consequences” has produced a wide variety of underleveraged tools and programs. Golan Levin found inspiration in a computer vision satellite intended to help hedge funds jump the gun on sales reports by analyzing the number of cars in big box parking lots. He saw a tool with broad potential being used for a hyper-specific task, so he developed Terrapattern, an open-source platform that provides access to the satellite and its geo-spatial intelligence. Levin hoped his program could be used by artists, scientists, hobbyists, and other curious humans to make discoveries not for profit, but for knowledge, or even just for fun. One of its current uses? Tracking the angles of cows standing in fields. Why not?
We have more tools at our disposal than ever to create, innovate and communicate in service of brands. The trick will be finding and leveraging them.
Cassidy Krug is a strategist at Redscout and contributed to Redscout's event presence and reporting.