Branding the invisible: how Wolff Olins created a human face for Alibaba’s artificial intelligence

Wolff Olins designed the look of the ET Brain for Alibaba

As real life gets closer to the science from our fiction, the task of creating the human and creative elements is knocking on some agency's doors.

Wolff Olins is an agency that has done just that - creating the human face to Alibaba’s ET Brain, its AI product launched at the Winter Olympics earlier this year.

According to Emma Barratt, creative director at Wolff Olins, the agency has always wanted to work with Alibaba, as they are pushing disruption.

AI is a crucial part of the next wave of digital disruption, and tech is becoming ever more integrated into the world around us, which means brands will need identities that are more intelligent and built for this world. It’s a totally different way of thinking and existing, which is a super exciting challenge for creatives. Branding the invisible means we must go beyond being purely expressive: we have to create intelligent identities that can respond to people in smart ways,” she says.

According to Barratt, the key for this project was finding a way to brand the invisible without words as it had to be understood globally.

“To help build trust into the technology, we felt the user needs to always understand what ET Brain was doing and why,” she explains, “I drew on my background in animation to humanise the logo, turning the dot at its core into a kind of soul, giving it facial-like expressions and movements to convey emotions that are universally understood. We wanted people to relate to ET Brain like an intelligent, reliable and approachable person - somebody they might want to spend time with and trust.”

Wolff Olins wasn’t starting from scratch on the idea, however, as an old logo was the basis of the design, which Barratt described at “quite mechanical and cold”, so a more sophisticated and user friendly approach was needed.

The key ask was gestures that people could trust, globally, such as waiting, listening, thinking and speaking. Ultimately, people needed to understand how ET Brain arrives at its conclusions,” explains Barratt.

While the basis of the project was set, the project as still a venture into the unknown. “The challenge with making AI visual is that you’re branding the invisible! None of the standard visual identity rules apply - you’re relying on sounds, voice, and behaviours as much as (possibly more than) the mark itself. You also need to think about where it lives and bring that personality across when ET Brain is an avatar, a presenter, a voice, an interface, and a 4ft character! Get it wrong across any of them and you can destroy trust very quickly,” she says.

Another challenge, she argues is actually moving AI away from the science fiction that we’re all fond of linking it to. “ET Brain has a 12-year partnership with the Olympics and the aim is to take the technology global. Pyeongchang was only the first step. AI, for many, is already a part of everyday life, and this will only increase. We need to ease this transition for any human - consumers as much as businesses. The narrative needs to move away from Skynet and Black Mirror into something more positive.”

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