Idea first. Technology second.

July 26, 2023
This mantra from my college days stayed with me my entire career as I navigated the world of creative branding. Find out why it still holds true today and can keep you focused with the onslaught of new technology coming at us daily.

Idea first. Technology second.
This has been my mantra since junior year in design school, a principle that would later serve me well in a Minneapolis design agency. A mantra that served as a pact between me and a few schoolmates that separated us from others in our classes. They would receive an assignment and head straight to their computers to start the solution, which we believed was the death knell to the whole idea of creative thinking.
We were lucky to be at a conceptual school where critical thinking was encouraged, and we sought to get the most out of our time there. As a brand agency we also wanted to chase the giants that designed brands and artwork for the likes of IBM, Apple, and Nike that we studied in art history class.
Several creative classes held open critiques where work was pinned on a wall and broadly discussed. In real time, we were asked to pitch our idea and seek feedback to improve it. Knowing we had to stand in front of the class and defend the intention of our work hanging naked on the wall was all the encouragement our crew needed to make it make sense.
For me, and a few others, what made it matter was the focus on a single word - an idea. Not a theme. Not a sketch or a thought starter or a shape. But an idea. A proposition that held everything together. Years later, working with a creative digital agency, I would define an idea as, “an intriguing, imaginative, and transformative invitation into an experience.”
And, trust me, you’d know if you had a solid idea if it couldn’t be shredded by my classmates, much like the critique process in our design firm. The process of a creative advertising agency is to land on a great idea and that was no easy feat. It took thinking time. Soul searching. It required pain and suffering trying to challenge conventions and conceive of something clever and novel that would stir desire and attraction.
Fast forward to today yet all about yesterday.
The same mantra holds true today. Technology is simply a tool. Computers, apps, AI, ChatGPT, AR, and the like. None of those are ideas. Humans have ideas. That is our part, a lesson I learned while working in a creative design agency. Tools can help us realize them. Refine them. Make them better. But we hold the idea power in our heads.
Regardless of AI's "intelligence," it only holds all of the power of the past. Just think about that for a second. Yes, that is a ton of power, but it is from the past and doesn't have intuition about the future, which begs the question is it actually, "intelligence"? And on a grander scale, consider the following as it pertains to society’s repercussions of this technology.
I found this excerpt from The Guardian compelling, "The belief in this kind of AI as actually knowledgeable or meaningful is actively dangerous. It risks poisoning the well of collective thought and of our ability to think at all. If, as is being proposed by technology companies, the results of ChatGPT queries will be provided as answers to those seeking knowledge online, and if, as has been proposed by some commentators, ChatGPT is used in the classroom as a teaching aide, then its hallucinations will enter the permanent record, effectively coming between us and more legitimate, testable sources of information, until the line between the two is so blurred as to be invisible. Moreover, there has never been a time when our ability as individuals to research and critically evaluate knowledge on our own behalf has been more necessary, not least because of the damage that technology companies have already done to the ways in which information is disseminated. To place all of our trust in the dreams of badly programmed machines would be to abandon such critical thinking altogether." From James Bridle's, "The Stupidity of AI" via The Guardian
Chat GPT explaining what an idea is

A prompt is a direction. Direction needs a back story. A back story is an idea. The author warns of critical thinking as an imperative skill to navigate our future now more than ever. Generative technologies like ChatGPT and Jasper should not put us on auto-pilot. They still need critical thinking and critical confirmation to follow up on their responses not only to see if they are right and true, but also to see if your personality came through. 

Is seeing believing?

The same goes for imagery. In a creative digital agency, we can tell AI-powered tools like Midjourney to create anything we imagine. It will do nothing without our prompt. It will do nothing without our direction. AI needs us because we also hold the context and intuition—the experience and nuances of a client’s or business’s situational needs. AI lacks the empathy, understanding, and personality required to accurately articulate and communicate a message to the specific needs of an audience.
And without any law watching over the millions of images published by AI daily, will lawyers give us their blessing to use these in marketing? Perhaps startups and small businesses will harness the power and go live with manufactured imagery.
AI midjourney creating images based off of text
For clients at our creative design studio, we are only using AI as a research tool, thought-starter, or mockup generator. We are not publishing any AI-generated imagery in the market.
A few exciting ways we are using generative technology at our Minneapolis design agency include deck imagery, mood board inspiration, storyboarding, artist reference, mock-up resources, concept art, and idea generation.
One exciting way to deploy AI copy and imagery is for internal projects to test and learn from. Known for generating haiku, poems, and college papers, ChatGPT can also be used as an advanced Google—an advanced research tool without pages and pages to sift through. You can ask it about a particular topic and deliver an overview quite quickly, beating the often exhaustive Google search. We have even used it to get opinions on the copy we have written to see if there is anything missing in an article we wrote only to be quite fascinated by its sound suggestion. Internal projects have fewer stipulations, resources, and constraints. AI can be a fun brainstorming partner to generate ideas or visuals to help spur your idea or make for an engaging—even entertaining—program or campaign.
While AI and other technologies are exciting and trending, they can help refine and realize ideas. However, they lack the intuition and imagination—the emotional power— necessary to generate truly strategic concepts that can connect emotionally, a critical component of any successful branding campaign. Furthermore, an over-reliance on technology lacks originality, authenticity, and meaning, begging the question, "Was the project even worth it?" Whereas a strong, sound, enticing idea can invite the customer into your world where technology can then enhance their experience even more. If true connections and worthwhile customer relations are what you are after, then starting with an idea based on truisms and beliefs that matter to them is the only way forward.
Jason Strong — Executive Creative Director