Tools not rules

Intelligent Creativity is transforming how we create and use brand systems

MoMA Elevator Screens. Photo courtesy of Eric Li.

Intelligent Creativity is a recent term to categorize a new wave of creative innovation that uses AI and machine learning, data, and automation coupled with human creativity, to reinvigorate creative solutions for marketing and advertising.

For designers and creators of brands, the deeper integration and adoption of data, automation, and AI to inform marketing decisions will also fundamentally change how brand systems are developed, implemented and extended. Ultimately these innovations will evolve the way brand systems are traditionally delivered, in the form of static brand guidelines, to a new suite of bespoke creative tools that empower designers and non-creatives alike to translate brand rules into real-time communication artifacts and multi-channel creative.

Traditional brand guidelines do not operate at the speed of now

The creation of brand guidelines in the form of a PDF is still the most common way to efficiently capture all of the applications of a contemporary brand system. For designers, there is a certain romance to the creation of a brand standards manual. Brand guidelines allow creatives to develop a design object that is also a comprehensive encapsulation of a team’s hard work to document all of the behaviors of a brand’s usage. Efforts like Standards Manual have taken on the mission of preserving and archiving guidelines from the 1970s for the likes of NASA and the EPA. While curling up with a beautifully designed brand manual from a bygone era may be inspirational for designers, traditional brand guidelines can be cumbersome and difficult to parse for non-creatives and often leave room for a great deal of individual interpretation.

As a big step forward, online platforms like Standards, Brandpad and Corebook have brought brand guidelines into a digitally distributed context. These platforms allow for guidelines to continually be updated as brands become more living and evolutionary to respond to changes in technology and the market. Like all SaaS products, these platforms are not proprietary and there may be some reticence from larger organizations to use a new and unproven third-party platform to manage all of your brand guidelines. Conversely, small organizations do not have the scale and infrastructure of say an IBM, to build their own brand hubs.

As organizations get larger and more distributed, and as businesses begin to operate more rapidly, brand systems must operate in a way that is far more flexible and iterative without the outsourcing of talent, internal design training, and quality control. The answer to this is to transform brand rules into brand-specific tools that designers and non-designs can wield while taking subjective interpretation out of the creative equation.

Brand tools eliminate the distance between rules and reality

Traditionally brand tools are any creative software needed to bring a brand system to life. Adobe Creative Suite along with Figma and the like are used by designers to design and build a myriad of materials based on brand guidelines. Originally these tools were the sacred implements of the designer, but today most of these tools are becoming similar and easier to use from a UI perspective, so non-designers are using them more and more. Add to the equation even more user-friendly creative programs like Canva and we have a perfect storm where guidelines begin to gather dust in Dropbox while clients and other non-creative team members feel empowered to fiddle with creative unencumbered by guidelines. Enter the need for robust brand tools that preserve the rigor of what makes guidelines useful while providing the flexibility to be creative within those parameters.

Brand tools in action

In recent years, organizations have begun developing their own internal brand and design tools. Airbnb’s development of Lottie has transformed the web by allowing After Effects animations to be exported as JSON files and seamlessly integrated into responsive site designs. Similarly, Google’s creation of Google Fonts has opened a vast array of free and licensed typefaces to a global audience that are usable online, in print and in all Google products.

In 2019, the MoMA Design Studio and Digital Product teams began to reinvision how they approached their website and digital signage within the physical museum space. MoMA created a custom CMS for all exhibition and digital wayfinding that allows MoMA staff to update program walls, elevator directory screens, and ticketing screens dynamically while preserving the sophistication of MoMA’s brand language. The CMS shares data infrastructure and a unified code base with, the Museum’s main website. A shared atomic CSS infrastructure across and museum screens allows internal teams to more easily manage content and communications while also preserving MoMA’s key brand elements, such as baseline alignment across type sizes and columns.

MoMA’s work to unify data and design across all digital platforms, while ensuring their brand rules are seamlessly integrated is a perfect use case of the success of a brand’s “Tools not Rules” approach.

MoMA Design System. Photo courtesy of Eric Li.

Eric Li, former Senior Product Designer and Developer on the Digital Product team at MoMA, gave me some deeper insight on bringing design and technology together;

“Design bandwidth has always been a bottleneck for digital brand and design at MoMA. That’s why we decided to consolidate our design tooling into a core software library of CSS, JS, and components. This library underlies all of the museum’s digital properties, including the main website, membership, single sign on, and online ticketing. By investing in this bespoke tooling, designers and developers can speak a consistent language. Because this library has our typography, spacing, colors, and focus behavior all baked in, one can easily spin up a new MoMA branded project or page in a matter of minutes. And by ensuring that this library has our brand baked into its DNA, designers can spend less time reviewing designs for inconsistencies and more time designing.”MoMA Design System. Photo courtesy of Eric Li.

This blend of ambitious ideas and pragmatic solutions are the byproduct of brand systems needing to build replicable processes that allow designers to be more creative and less mired in production. In 2021, Athletics worked with the Square Design team to codify their motion brand guidelines. This resulted in the creation of Otto For Square, a web-based rapid prototyping tool, empowering anyone on their team to create branded motion. Building off of Square’s philosophy on motion, Otto allows their teams all over the globe to use the same scalable framework to build motion assets on demand — across web, marketing, video, social and products — and on brand. Otto is an example of a global company developing an internal tool to democratize brand guidelines for anyone to use and eliminates the guesswork that comes with complex brand systems.

Aaron Poe, Design Director of Brand Systems at Square and Square brand writer Justin Whaley capture their Tools not Rules ethos nicely in their article on Otto;

In 2022 and beyond, the Brand Systems team will continue to mature Square’s brand with innovative resources and expressive, connected communications. We do this through constant collaboration and by developing systems and frameworks that never existed before. We’re optimistic about design and technology, and we’re always looking for ways to find unique solutions by asking ourselves, “What if?”Otto for Square. Photo courtesy of Athletics.

Brand Systems are Creative Operating Systems

Putting brand tools in the hands of non-designers to help empower teams and foster collaboration is moving from the exception to the rule. Like operating systems, brand systems require upgrades and optimization. Building brand tools allow this to happen in an ongoing and iterative manner. Over the next few years, we will see rapid evolution in how brand systems specifically — and visual communication in general — will be developed and deployed.

In the near future, Intelligent Creativity will begin to spawn even more powerful and replicable visual, verbal, experiential, and auditory brand tools. AI and machine learning are on the cusp of fundamentally transforming how we do creative work. Open AI’s new AI system Dall E 2 can create realistic images and art from a description in natural language. For editorial, products like Jasper use AI for copywriting, allowing users to input a series of narrative rules and prompts that Jasper then uses to create everything from long-form blog posts, emails, stories, and SEO keywords. Unreal Engine’s MetaHuman framework allows anyone to create high-fidelity digital humans and place them in real-time immersive 3D architectural environments.

All of these new technologies can feel a little too Blade Runner-y for those of us that just want to make sure clients use the right colors, typefaces, and line spacing. A better way to conceptualize the future of brand systems is by seeing them as flexible and scalable visual, verbal, and experiential brand components powered by technology. Creating reusable components in a connected and collaborative space in Figma for example, is now the standard for the design of digital products and websites. This approach will expand to all other forms of creative work required to design, build, and maintain contemporary brands.

Building brand systems is a blend of art and science

The creation of successful brand systems that stand the test of time should remain a romantic science, blending the spark of human creativity and ingenuity with the informed objectivity of data, and embracing AI and automation to accelerate time to market.

When building brands systemization, reduction of specialization, and maintaining quality and sophistication will be a perpetual balancing act with AR, VR, and new virtual settings compounding the challenge to to keep pace with our rapidly evolving future. My assumption is that like an amazing DJ, keeping a fluid and evolving brand system relevant and fresh will always require the deep love, curatorial knowledge, and creative expertise of the brand designer.

By embracing brand tools that solve communication problems in replicable yet flexible ways, we open the door to new brand behaviors and approaches to working that will make our world more interesting, authentic, and meaningful, and hopefully less mechanistic. Speed of execution and the quest for data-driven certainty will always remain moving targets. As a designer, my hope is that a “Tools not Rules” philosophy to brand systems will allow us to speak a shared creative language, build better, more interesting brands, and open visual communications to broader audiences and teams to join the conversation and create more human and more meaningful brands.

Useful References

Eric Li and Stephanie Schapowal speak about product design at MoMA and Figma Config 2022

Forrester. The Agency Workforce 2023: Automation and AI Will Reshape Media and Creative Agencies

Forbes. Intelligent Creativity Overhauls The Creative Process

Tools not rules was originally published in UX Collective on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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