Rigour & Romance: Raw Materials on AI and the Problem of Sameness.

We spoke with Jennifer Allen, Pablo Marques and John Roescher the founders of Raw Materials on how necessary it is to put the work in and remain "unusual" in todays creative world.

So Raw Materials is an unusual design company. What does that mean?


John: The core philosophy at Raw Materials is the idea that unusual wins. 


Things that are unusual have the ability to be better than the things that they're compared to — whether it be what someone has done before, what competitors are doing now, or what's expected. 


Doing things in a usual way will lead to usual outcomes. This is the inverse of what people are after: exploring new ways to do things, hiring new people, new teams, employing new methods, and enjoying new ways of looking at the world. 


This is how you create something that is better, and for something to be better it has to be different.


Pablo: This whole idea of “the same but better” is paradoxical, if it is better, it is not the same, it is different, something changed to make it better, and something was done in a different way. We are here to work with people to help them find that different way.

In your opinion has this always been this way? Is this new? How is it different to operate a business that thinks this way?


Jennifer: I will use my professional experience to help us think about this.


Early on, in a new environment enabled by new technology, there's very organic and easy creativity because everything is still undefined.


But as it becomes more competitive, it becomes less imaginative. I spent years amidst client needs, creative passions, and agency business at the forefront of innovation - doing new things with mobile, e-commerce, and social media. 


I was at RGA for a long time, working with clients like Nike, who demanded we only do things that hadn’t been done before. Then, Design Thinking was hot when I worked in pure innovation consulting, developing pipelines to help companies conceive new products and services.


But as we start settling in this new normal of a world highly embedded with technology at the core of every aspect of our lives, maybe that excitement in some people has dissipated, and so has that sense of wonder. It has also become harder to be creative.


I have played many roles in this journey, such as account management and business operations, being the connective tissue between three key drivers: client needs, passionate creative teams, and the agency business itself. 


I have seen the deterioration of those dynamics and how much friction there can be between them that interferes with doing great work. So much can be wasted - not just time and money, but everyone’s dreams - the clients, the teams, everyone involved.


Raw Materials removes unnecessary constraints so we can purely back creativity. My dream with Raw Materials is to reinvent what a creative business can be operationally — 100% supporting creativity. Sounds easy but is very difficult.


Pablo: For both us and for our partners and our people. It is always about getting to great work, which is the way to great results. Creativity leads there. And our clients prosper, and we prosper, and our people prosper, and folks in society get to have better things to consume and/or interact with. It is a win for everyone. 


John: As Jennifer said, it may be hard. But the hard way pays off.

“Guess what, creativity is about disrupting patterns.”


Why’s that? Why do think this is happening?


Pablo: We all have different ideas of why that happened. But designing for the screen is a very new form of design only about 3 decades old. 


And the demand for it suddenly exploded with the advent of society becoming a system that is mediated by screens.


I think the demand for talent and for folks about to create this type of work has become so big that we have cut corners on helping create a talent base that can rise to the challenge. 


The first folks to do it were all very creative people, going into unknown spaces with open minds and finding amazing solutions, creating new paradigms such as the creation of all these new interfaces for operational systems and every other application.


But there weren't that many of these people, and we had to bring up new talent very fast to deal with this demand, and in an effort to educate, i believe what we did was to enshrine the best we could, what we believe were the ways to get to good work into some very rigid dogma. “This is how it is done, learn it, repeat it”. We have been teaching people processes rather than helping them understand how to leverage their creativity and use their curiosity. The whole way design is approached in this space has become very formulaic. 


We have also embraced a lot of engineering ideas of how things need to be built and allowed that to define how things need to be designed. That has not helped. Now a lot of design departments feel more like assembly lines for the joining of old ideas. We even gave it a cool name, Patterns. Guess what, creativity is about disrupting patterns.


Jennifer: The whole thing with methodologies, it is tiring. It is important to know them and see what others have tried and what has worked and what hasn't worked. Not everything can be solved with “agile”. We are a product shop not a process shop. We focus on what kind of product we want to make and we tailor-make our methodology on how to get it done. We dip into our creativity and our knowledge of other methodologies to create bespoke processes for each project. We deploy the idea of being creative against all the things we are working on solving. The way we work is one of those things.


John: There was just an abundance of factors that drove so much growth that everyone can just kind of got behind that, which meant that everyone's strategy became optimization at scale, leading to sameness. 


So, on the one hand, we’ve been in a place where an inertia has developed towards sameness.  On the other hand, we're looking at a future where machines are so solid and robust and fast and perhaps intelligent in themselves that there is almost like a headwind that makes it easy to achieve great average results, taking perhaps creativity out of the hands of people that it should be in the hands of, and enabling other people as well. 


What this results in is that it is increasingly important that businesses choose to be leaders and brands need to be thinking about being unusual more than ever. 


The more things that get made the harder it will be to be unique — to provide unique value. This is the time for creativity and unusual thinking. More than ever before.


Pablo: Folks think being creative and being different can be risky. The real risk is not trying.

Do you think we're in a time where clients need to think unusually? Do you think there is more of a demand to be unusual than the norm?


John: The need to be different is a constant. But in most cases, it’s the ability to be different that is under attack. It's been harder the last ten years, and I think this is most true in product development and innovation, but also in branding and advertising.


Pablo: People confound the benefits of familiarity with their own tendency to fear to attempt the different. But once something different is created and proved successful, they all rush in to copy it. And sometimes that which was right for someone else isn't going to be right for you.


Jennifer: Cue in the Hamburger menus. Ha. But honestly, creativity is such an endless source of ideas and ways to solve a specific problem it seems folks sometimes fail to see the opportunity that lies in sameness.


John: YES. And I think it's perhaps particularly true in the design of digital experiences and digital product space.

“ ...in most cases, it’s the ability to be different that is under attack.”

7 - Eleven

So, who is the dream client? What does the ideal project look like?


John: When we talk about creativity — The goal is to be effective, to solve a problem.


Our thoughts on an ideal partner are simple. It is someone with a problem to solve.


The less they are down the road to knowing exactly what is the solution to their problem the more helpful and impactful we can be. Don’t get me wrong there are all levels and different altitudes for problems, but the more we are allowed to think in a first principles way, the more creative we can really be and thus achieve better results.


That said, we’re not just a consultancy. We go all the way and build that thing. 


Pablo: To John’s point, there is an opportunity for greatness in every challenge. But there are some conditions that if we can set them right will make the way there simpler and more effective. One of them is being able to truly understand what the problem is. A simple example of that is when a client comes to you and says, we need a new website. Well that is a challenge and as such it can be creatively solved and we can certainly do some great work there.


But if we better understand why you believe you need a new website in the first place, if we are able to work on the very first principles and engage with the higher challenge you are trying to tackle, we can be way more effective in helping. Maybe there is something better than a website for that. And anytime that happens it has led to better results.


Again, not to say we can’t just tackle the website and use our tools to make it as great as it can be. We thrive in doing that too. There is opportunity for greatness in any action.


Some of these things sound like a consultancy way of thinking? Are you a consultancy?


Pablo: Hmmm. Well, we build things. Ha. We don’t leave you with a 120-page deck scratching your head on how to pull all of those ideas off.

John: Sometimes, there is this idea that anyone can create a solution, right? Some companies actually specialize in that and say: “Hey, we're a facilitator; we're going to come in and do a workshop so that anyone in the team can come up with that solution.” 


But as an agency, a studio — a true creative company — we need to be more than just a facilitator. We come in as agents of change; we offer an external perspective but also incredible talent at all levels of the scale. We have great strategists but also great animators, great designers, great engineers.


We offer two things, our way of thinking and our talent. And as such the impact we can have at a business is not only in the external thinking but also in the making and executing of that thinking at the highest level.


Jennifer: Our talent motto is to find the best people in the world and help them do the best work of their lives. And that goes across the board. I think most consultancies, to Pablo's point, end up somewhere up the chain. We go all the way.


Tell us about Rigour and Romance. And What’s your take on creativity?


Pablo: Creativity is one of those things folks are constantly trying to pin down to a simple explanation, but honestly, I like thinking of applied creativity. It’s more helpful, and I won't change my answer on that one every day. Ha.


I believe everyone is inherently creative, you know, every human being. But I think the difference between professionally applied creativity and inherent creativity is consistency. 


If you're professionally creative, you need to consistently deliver creative ideas and thinking; you need to be comfortable being constantly presented with a white sheet and building something new. That requires training and a different relationship with your ability to create.


It means to be in a constant search to break patterns and think as originally as possible. It is being able to look at a familiar thing in a different way, being able to break things down —  a search for the truth. It’s about being able to offer a different perspective and being able to do that consistently.


Rigour and Romance on the other hand is our way of thinking about a framework for applied creativity and what makes it great. John often says great creative work needs to be “novel and appropriate”. 


So, we are rigorous in understanding the issues we are dealing with, and we strive for effective work. We do research, we interview folks, we are scientific in the search for information, we like reading and interpreting data. But that is all in the function of a better understanding of the task at hand so we can then be liberated to be creative, to be romantic.

Effectiveness is always our end goal, the final value of what we make, and that’s why we get hired. Creativity is how we get there; it is our tool to deliver effectiveness. 


Rigor is our relentless search for effectiveness. Romance is beauty in its many forms.  


Rigor and Romance are the two sides of this thinking working together. Great creative work, and great design are always a result of both.


Jennifer: You can think about “romance” as being the pure delight of creativity, what most of us associate with creativity - what is not as easy to see directly but can be understood in a great idea - is the context and reason for the idea, the “rigour”. These are not two separate things that get merged together, but rather the two necessary components to great work, and great creativity. 


John: We look to be both smart and culturally connected. Left brain, right brain. Bring together the novel and the appropriate. 

“The genie can't be put back in the bottle.”

Let’s talk AI and creativity. Is it a threat? How will it change.


John: There's a lot of benefit in Generative AI — for one, it’s going to make it easier for people to create things, and I think that's good just in itself. But there'll be a side effect to that. That same problem of sameness. Large Language Models are essentially averaging machines, after all, just in very complex and sophisticated ways with an almost infinite number of knobs and dials and things determining that. 


So, the fact that it is an averaging machine makes me think everything will become a bit iterative. So I’d reiterate to creatives to not get caught not knowing the tools, but also don't get caught becoming the tool and or letting the tool become you. 


Jennifer: It's kind of hard not to be existential about something like Artificial Intelligence. Fear and a feeling of helplessness is a rational human response when you understand the power of a new technology like A.I. So I think it takes courage and bravery and confidence to recognize the power of A.I. and say, I want it to be better, and more valuable. But the good news is that we probably will; we created it, and we’re all focussed on making sure that this runaway train comes into the station. 


Pablo: The genie can't be put back in the bottle. And it unleashes creativity to a whole other layer of society that isn't necessarily involved in making things creatively. People are now better able to make stuff and test ideas, which will push everyone else to be more creative as a result. Being different, and having different references, having new ideas, will all just become more valuable. I’m here for it. 


Thanks Raw Materials! 




Raw Materials

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