Cheryl Metzger / October 26, 2016

Designing Experience Brands: A Conversation with Wire Stone Creative Director, Brent Van Horne

Is creativity really just a math problem?

In “The Automation of Creativity: How man & AI will work together to improve the ad industry,” the world is introduced to the first artificial intelligence creative director. Dubbed “AI-CD ß,” the AI is given input from CPG giant Mondelez and uses its proprietary algorithms to develop the creative brief for its human partners’ interpretation. This is just the beginning. The documentary goes on to show how another algorithm was successfully trained to paint in the style of Rembrandt. In describing the project, Bas Korsten, executive creative director at JWT Amsterdam, describes the relationship with AI in revealingly human terms: “Teaching the algorithms how to think and act like Rembrandt was much like a father teaching his kid to ride a bike.”

This emerging bond between algorithms and artists may feel intimate, but there remains a palpable tension. It’s a tension familiar to many creative strategists—between the comfort of past data and the liberating possibility of uncertainty. Tasked with designing brands and customer experiences, creative strategists must constantly wrestle with what is known to be true and what truths are yet to be discovered. How do creatives strike the right balance between science and surprise?

To find out, I sat down with Wire Stone Chicago creative director, Brent Van Horne, to talk about design, brand strategy, and the disruptive shifts shaping them both.

“When I was younger, I was really into math,” he began. Known for being an incisive and creative mind, Brent surprised me by revealing that his first loves were for the rigor of engineering and the precision of mathematics. He started his academic life rooted in architectural engineering, taking coursework in calculus and analytical geometry. But, he realized, something was missing: “I got tired of right answers. The same order that I always appreciated, I suddenly grew weary of.” A year later, Brent would find himself studying storytelling, urban planning, creative writing, historic literature—the types of creative pursuits that tapped his natural instincts toward empathy and experience.

“I got tired of right answers.”

His is the kind of hybrid background perfectly suited to navigating the complex demands on brands today.

“Brands have always played a role in our lives, but now they feel closer to us than ever,” he explains. “Brands used to feel like an image. Now they’re very much the product and the experience, the essence of the thing itself.” Where brands used to be embodied by a figurehead—Walt Disney, Henry Ford—now a brand can be synonymous with the tool in your hand, or the functional service it provides. Increasingly, brands are both. Function and figureheads are often inextricably linked in the most iconic brands—think Elon Musk and Tesla, Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, Steve Jobs and Apple, or Bill Gates and Microsoft. These brands are also known for exceptional experiences.

Hybrids and human-driven brands

That’s not a coincidence. Combining both exceptional functionality and human-driven brand design blends rigor with imperfection, science with intuition, the mix at the heart of experience. So how can a creative design for a human-driven brand?

Brent offers three tips to keep in mind:

Uncover where your brand is most authentic
“You just can’t separate the customer experience from the brand itself...It’s outdated to define the brand and then define the experience.” He recommends looking for the brand in the experience itself—how the business is thriving or failing—and then using design honestly, both to enhance tangible strengths and to resolve acknowledged weaknesses.

“Look for the brand in the experience itself.”

Identify the macro-needs of your customer in the experience
When starting a project, “don’t simply fill in the blanks,” he cautions. Existing templates, like brand guidelines and mission statements, don’t allow for evolution or get at the heart of the user. Instead, he recommends starting with a prioritization exercise: “The brand has an idea of what it thinks the user wants. And users have an idea of what they think they want. But the successful path is for design to deliver against the actual needs of the user. It takes courage for brands to admit the two might not be aligned, but that’s where the opportunity is.”

“The successful path is for design to deliver against the actual needs of the user. It takes courage for brands to admit the two might not be aligned, but that’s where the opportunity is.”

Take design inspiration from interpersonal interactions
Interpersonal relationships are human in their imperfections, their surprises, their moments of tension. Those moments are what generate emotion and connection. When designing interactions between users and the brand, don’t overlook the impact of creating similar moments of mystery, surprise, transparency, or even provocation. Brent recommends striking a balance between controlling the experience and allowing for experimentation, explaining “That’s how our world works; it can’t be ordered perfectly. It’s our job to understand that. And when we allow a little bit of chaos to sneak in, the result is an experience between consumer and brand that feels human.”

“That’s how our world works; it can’t be ordered perfectly. It’s our job to understand that.”

As brands become more embedded into our tangible experience, creatives who can strike the right balance between control and curation, data and design, or function and feeling will be the ones best poised to deliver great customer experience.

Cheryl Metzger is director of strategy for Wire Stone’s Chicago office, where she leads consulting in customer experience strategy, digital marketing, and communications design.