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The Cognitive Diary

One year ago this week I started my journey at IBM.

My first impression was I made one of the biggest mistakes of my life but I made a promise to Steph and myself to give it a year. Moving to a new job hurts — I needed time to sort things out and give myself time to adjust.

I left Ogilvy with a number of goals in mind for what I wanted to do next with my career; get much deeper into real technology, explore the balance of brand with experience, and really make stuff, not just marketing and artifacts.

Across the board I didn’t feel I was hitting the mark. I felt I was letting myself down and I needed an opportunity to really dive into something that was outside of my comfort level. Whenever I am stressed out, confused, frustrated — my reaction is to put pen to paper. Maybe that is my Dad coming through, but I find that hard work usually pays dividends, maybe not directly in a way you see, but it does.

My next project was a fire-drill to “clean up an experience” for an IBM Watson prototype.

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“Everything is becoming science fiction. From the margins of an almost invisible literature has sprung the intact reality of the 20th century.”

-J.G Ballard

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I spent the holidays this year overwhelming my family with Watson is, but if you aren’t familiar — Watson is “creating a new partnership between people and computers that enhances, scales and accelerates human expertise.” It’s not all winning Jeopardy or chatting with Bob Dylan.

Watson is cognitive computing.

Cognitive computing is machine learning.

Machine learning is artificial intelligence.

My inner 8–year–old–nerd just freaked out. I’ve been obsessed with science fiction from an early age — maybe it was my unique timing in the world. Close Encounters of the Third Kind left an indelible impression on my childhood mind — my mom tells me I would watch on loop. E.T. was every kid’s best friend, Star Wars, and NASA — I remember watching Challenger on TV, as does every kid my age. But the astronaut/science bit never panned out for me — advanced math thing threw a wrench in my plans. But now, here I am at 34 getting the opportunity to use colors and pixels — essentially crayons and pencils — to help shape A.I.

The team I got to work with impressed me; everyone has their unique skill set and respected one another, they bust their collective asses, and in turn we produced something that proved a proof of concept and developed Watson skills in a new way. It was even featured in a fast.co article. In layman’s terms, we made a computer watch a couple thousand videos of the best minds in our current world and use them to give perspectives on complex questions like “What is the impact of war on creativity?”

Got me — hook, line, and sinker.

The thing about these projects are they’re scary, intimidating, and fun — it’s uncharted territory. These are the infantile stages of consumers interacting with A.I., at scale. The patterns and visualizations we develop will become the shorthand and building blocks for what we evolve to as users.


There is an inherent pessimism to Watson and similar A.I. integrations — but they are really a crystalline reflection of ourselves. Watson is us. Tay is us. The platforms are only as good as what it gets — the cloud version of you are what you eat. It starts to get very complex — and really interesting — when you start to think about the implications of morality and societal beliefs. 

Tay didn’t technically fail — it perfectly reflected the depths of twitter and our digital mores — our Freudian subconscious in 140 characters. It ingested the nonsense it interacted with and used that as knowledge baseline to begin interacting with humans — but instead of questioning why as humans our initial response is to teach it hatred — we pass it off as a failure. I’m not keen to reflect on why that happened, that is well beyond the scope of one blog post — but it reinforces the idea of proving context.

Animated gif of Watson

There is a visual state of proving that we must to show users; how and why Watson got somewhere. Watson can complete tasks in milliseconds but right now there is a sense of anxiety about how a user got to point — we have to show them that we got to X because of Y.

That can be solved a number of ways but they are only temporary. Users are adopting patterns so quickly that we quickly trash that and move to something more intuitive quickly. Users will graduate to appreciating that what they are seeing is personalized and there for an inherent reason — overtime the pessimism will turn into appreciation of convenience.

The other challenge I’ve been thinking on has been designing Watson interactions for non-linear experiences. This hasn’t been an exact project that has come up but more conversations and discussion and maybe a direct reflection of playing way too Division on Xbox — sorry Steph. I had a rich conversation on Slack the other day with one of my colleagues about where do we go beyond when we move beyond screens — as designers and experience architects. 

I was being a bit flippant when I suggested that the notion of UI design beyond screens is B.S. but, in reality, turns into something more akin to classic product design and game design. A balance of classic physical product design and studies in non-linear storytelling than anything remotely close to my current definition of UI design. We will be designing initially for the proving steps again — ingestion, reaction, ambient clues, and notional guides will be our building blocks until users begin the quick adoption of these patterns.

And where we go from there will be just as challenging and exciting as the past year has turned out to be. I’m eager to see where Watson leads us to. I know we are only getting started and it will only improve as teams integrate the ability to align data and experiences in powerful ways. Thanks Watson for making the past year turn into one of the best — shit — there are robots at the office…ROBOTS!

Thanks Steph for being a sounding board and being slightly interested in things that are outside your purview. Thanks to all my incredibly talented coworkers & friends; the iX team, you guys and gals are drastically better at this than I am. WatsonACTS, your brains intimidate the hell out of me, but my go-kart skills are constantly improving. Finally, IBM for letting an art school goon like me in the door, never thought I’d be punching with the giants.

Cheers to another year.

These opinions are my own and do not reflect that of my employers.


Confessions of a bad advertising man: a year in review from a brand designer in mad ad world.

Happy ewe year —  year of the goat

It’s the end of the year and like everyone, I allow myself to get a bit more retrospective than usual — every shower is spent wandering through the past year’s lessons, the dark at night invites a longer meander through your subconscious — and a few notions have percolated to the top.

Most of my worklife is spent working for the ad shop of all ad shops — Ogilvy. I work in a rather unique circumstance where I get the opportunity to work on more brand focused creative — logos, identities, brand standards — rather that the traditional advertising work. I still work on a fair amount of advertising, but it’s allowed me to pursue what I am actually good at and has given me the opportunity to work with some of the dropdead most talented design thinkers I’ve met. It has also given me a unique perspective on the idea of the brand voice/experience — I’m allowed to survey the intersection where branding identities and advertising collaborate. The holiday break has allowed me to take a look at this with a refreshed pair of eyes.

Personally, I’m seeing a dramatic shift in how the audience interacts with the brands — this is not a new idea, it has been kicked around for a long time, but it really stood out to me this year. And I say audience, instead of consumer, because I see that as part of the shift. Traditionally, advertising and brands communicate we’re done on a one-way street. Brands talked with consumers through a series of missives — above-the-line (mass-media) and below-the-line (direct mail, e-mail, banners, landing pages, etc.) advertising. Some places are more integrated through the applications, but for the most part, I still see this as a major misstep — the separation doesn’t make sense any more — it makes your brand voice feel disparate and desperate.

The audience is now the king — interacting with brands on their terms, and for the most part, hunting down the information they need. Every step, and every notion is a brand moment. Now — that lowly “below-the-line” landing page — once dismissed and outsourced — is now your most-effective brand voice moment. Every landing page is now your home page — it needs to present your brand as a first impression moment. And that page needs to be intelligent, it needs to know where that viewers came from, changing the content to be relevant to that viewer, and it needs to reflect your brands tone and manner through aesthetics and coding.


Animated devices

Yep, that’s right — I said it, it has to be coded in a way to reflect your brand — cue the segway! Websites are no longer the last in line of brand application. I would argue, that the same fervor and passion that is applied to nuance a brand voice, and a logotype’s kerning, should be applied to how your brand feels through interaction. Your website is now your brand’s first face-to-face with the audience, and it should look, feel, and act like your brand in every instance — it is your salesperson of the year, every year. I know identity guidelines include a digital section, that is every expanding, but they need to go beyond the traditional structures of header typeface, body text and button styles. I think there is a chance to introduce more of a github idea to brand guidelines.

The basic tenets of all web design are the same, but the variation that current web standards allow for are staggering. How your site is responsively built, fluid, layout shift, column drop and the simple addition of transitions change how your site feels aesthetically — something clean and simple may convey a sense elegance, something structured and rigid can convey a sense of integrity and strength. Does it make sense to have a luxury brand with a super structured and rigid site or maybe something that feels more open and fluid? These are questions that we need to ask ourselves in the new branding world. We spend time creating brand mnemonics, maybe we should partner with our developers to create brand code snippets — brand specific CSS transitions, some brand specific jquery, a way to create a unique brand experience online. Maybe it makes more sense to start testing your logo on your website, Instagram, and Facebook accounts first? The classic, will it fax test, is now your starting point — does this logo read as an thumbnail/icon?

I think that is our challenge as brand designers and brand stewards. How do we help create better brands as the world evolves. The classic applications of business cards, advertising, and marketing materials are obviously still tantamount — but our first interaction has shifted from these moments to our brand audience googling us, visiting our webpage, checking out our instagram feed, How do we create a more branded experience that is “mobile-first”? How do we shift from the traditional brand/ad model to a more integrated approach that is spoken about — but more often never carried through in application? I was just asked what my new year’s resolution is — it’s trying to help brands create stronger first impressions through better digital interaction.

These opinions are my own and do not reflect that of my employers.


HarriganWorks has a new fully responsive site, a new identity, and the same ol' scrappy attitude.

We pulled out all the stops: we designed a new identity, a new site, and developed the site on a file based CMS called Kirby. I really fell in love with Kirby during the development process. Super intuitive, easy to customize, and way easier to maintain than wordpress. You can even write posts and text in markdown, which I am still learning, but seems pretty intuitive.

The new identity features a fun little H & W mark that would not be complete without a little lightning bolt. Some new business cards and collateral have been thrown up as well.

The site has a simplified portfolio experience with the work bucketed out into 5 simple categories. No more poking around by client or tag…it’s all about the creative. We’ve whittled down the blog to a lean, mean, typo making machine. We’ve even thrown in a couple of fun little easter eggs.

We’re cranking away on launching a new Etsy store as well. We’ll be starting out with a few giclee prints and working our way up to some super rad silkscreens. All-in-all pretty exciting stuff.

Poke around and take a look at our new work. Thanks for checking out our new site.

Eggshell with Romalian type. Put a lightning bolt on it. Now you can ignore us on all your devices. Big things have small beginnings.