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Generative Design: Q&A with Creative Algorithm Developer, Patrik Hübner

Generative Design: Q&A with Creative Algorithm Developer, Patrik Hübner

Branding is an essential part of creating an identity whereby users can associate themselves with. Traditionally, it has been the case that branding strategies are a top-down approach, centered around the minds of the clients and what they think their consumer base needs and desires. But, there seems to be a new player in the field. By using generative design-approaches and focusing more on data-driven design, the tables have turned, with the users telling the executives now what they want to see.

To help you better understand this user-centric transition and how algorithms are being used in creative ways, we’ve asked the creative algorithm designer, Patrik Hübner, to help explain this matter.

Firstly, thanks for taking the time to speak with us today! To start things off, could you tell us a little bit about what you do at Edenspiekermann?

Edenspiekermann brought me in to tackle a creative challenge from a new perspective using generative design. To explain, generative is a rather new chapter in the field of design and could be described as using a combination of algorithms, data, human interaction, programming and classical aspects of design in one grand mix to tell new and fresh stories while also creating novel expressions of visual design.

At Edenspiekermann, I currently focus my attention on two aspects of this: either, to create stories and interactive designs that center around people and how they can experience and possibly even influence a brand’s story. Or, stories and visual forms of output which are propelled by data that is at the core of a brand or product to illuminate new aspects of it both visually and contextually.

To make this a bit less esoteric: Here, with Thom and Kay, I’m developing a solution for a client that has the challenge but also opportunity where they have thousands of individual websites that contain teaser- and hero-images. It’s really hard to keep them on brand and relevant. Additionally, it’s really expensive to continuously buy new stock images for new sites and maintain everything. So, we set out to develop a new solution that is using a generative, algorithmically driven approach that can actually generate infinite amount of on-brand web-materials and graphics. So, when you access any one of these pages, you get your personal version of the design we created that is always different but also always on-brand.

We then quickly expanded the scope of this project to actually incorporate more storytelling aspects that center around the client’s product-data and services but also on how the users interact with this data and shape their individual version of it through time. We’re now exploring different ways of how we can express that. One example would be if you as a user searched for a lot of specific terms in the database, the output could actually adapt to that and be centered around your professional universe. In the final stage we found ways to expand it even bigger. When the guys at Edenspiekermann realized what the potential was, we went away from creating just one design system for a specific product of the client to creating a whole range of design systems that are visually able to express the larger narrative of the brand. The creative challenge now is to combine stories, data, user-input and varying platforms of use into a coherent on-brand ecosystem that is expressive and ideally even fun to use.

It’s common conception that algorithms are primarily mathematical or number related, but you say that you craft creative algorithms. How would you say the two of them intersect together? And how would you define that?

It is true that algorithms and computers only work with numbers but the way I see it is that the technology isn’t really the driving factor, rather it’s the stories you want to tell and the people who you want to reach that matter. To me, algorithms - and really all moving parts involved in the process of data-driven, generative design - are just a means to an end to grab the attention of people and to tell new and different visual stories. In that sense, generative design is yet another, albeit very powerful, tool in my toolbox as a designer that I use to do my job and solve client’s challenges.

The beauty of generative design is that it’s not like a top-down design approach where you talk to the client, define a focus group, do your research, then put your result in front of the audience in a static way and then repeat the process. It’s rather something that evolves continuously and has some kind of life on its own. It’s based around the core concepts of using rules and sets of instructions that a computer can interpret with varying degrees of autonomy to generate visual outputs that can be used across a vast selection of production assets.

Today, you can make everything into a number, be it images, sound, user interaction, etc. and recombine those numbers into new outputs. That’s one of the really new aspects of generative design when you use it in the field of applied design as this vast amount of data has just recently become available to the mainstream to be re-mixed and re-discovered in new and creative ways.

It's customary for companies to gather a lot of data and then not know what to do with it. For a master’s program that UVA provides, students are asked to visualize and tell stories from data for big companies. How do you visualize data? What kind of insights can this data provide?

I think it's first important to distinguish between classical data visualization, which serves a very specific purpose of finding patterns maybe or just visualizing large amounts of data and getting new insights from that. Generative design can also include this but it usually is able to work with data in a more free and expressive way. In that sense, data can be the seed for a beautiful image just as much as the driving factor of a dynamic identity. What I mean by that is that we as designers have a bit more freedom in this field how we use data, how we interpret it, how we use it to drive our experiences. It’s more about asking what a company or what a brand is all about.

I created this case for a wine company that tasked me with developing a packaging design that was purely driven by the weather-data collected at its vineyard. In the end it was a simple but powerful story: Wine will always be different depending on what weather it is grown in and exposed to. It is a unique sensual experience that will never be the same for two vintages. Making this aspect of the wine a core factor of its story, branding, design and packaging was a successful move to set it apart from its more established rivals. In the end, it often comes down to this question: What is it that makes this company work and what makes you tick - what is the essence of it and what new visual forms and insights could we generate from that?

I just launched another project for a non-profit that focuses on fostering the world-wide conversation around women in politics and promoting relevant key topics. So, I built a design system that tracks live, real-time Twitter-conversation to create an interactive data sculpture. The idea was that this data-sculpture can both be used at events as an ever-evolving key-visual that raises awareness for the state of things and also be explored by everyone worldwide to dive deeper into the topic and narrative of this. The system is currently tracking more than 10.000 conversations a day and uses machine-learning and AI to identify the sentiment of those conversations. Combined with other factors, the result is a 3D-experience on the web for a brand to foster new debates that focus on the key essence of what they’re all about: Conversations.

Looking back on your past 10 years working in the web industry, what do you think the next 10 years hold for branding and digital design and even generative design?

I think it's going to spread to everything. There are various new technologies emerging with augmented reality and virtual reality. Virtual reality seems like a lot of hype right now. For me, it's not that much of a focus because it puts you in this very isolated space. But I think augmented reality and all these technologies will create incredible new opportunities for brands and interactive, immersive storytelling. I think it's a really interesting question of how you deploy the web to the next level without being intrusive. I already see that it shifts away from sitting in front of the desk, or in front of a laptop or computer—and that you get to take this stuff with you and it's going to be all around you. I believe, the companies that find a way to incorporate the new physical world into their storytelling and their brand are going to succeed. The beauty of this is that with generative design-approaches and data-driven design, the users will be telling us more about what they want and what their desires are simply by how they use our interactive designs.

Just before you go, are there any final remarks you would like to make?

There’s a huge amount of philosophical and also emotional discussions going around generative design. Sometimes when people misunderstand it, they feel like it's just handing everything off to the algorithm or computer. That's not what it’s about. It's about, as a designer, to build your you own tools and to be able to go way beyond the current capabilities of what we are able to do as designers. And I think that's an incredibly amazing thing that you can now actually build your own tools to tell stories that more traditional tools like Photoshop and Illustrator just can’t tell.

With generative design, you get to spend more time developing good ideas and cool stories for outputs that can be generated and deployed on a massive scale.