Is the creative industry equipped to work with emerging technologies?
Although the majority of creatives are keen to learn about new technologies (and clients demand they do), the lack of skills across the industry is alarmingly low. So, how do you and your team get started?
The Creative Skills Report, by It’s Nice That in partnership with Adobe, is a reflection of the skills, needs and opinions of our industry. Gaining our insight by surveying a long list of studios, agencies and brands, we expand on one of the emerging themes we discovered. For even more insight into the creative skills currently vital to our industry, and what our teams may need in future, you can download the full Creative Skills Report here.
In the creative industry, companies are often highly familiar with the search for elusive, never-thought-of-before ideas. Away from traditional creative outcomes, emerging technologies offer a rare opportunity to access these unimaginable ideas, to bring them to life, or even push the concept further.
On paper it seems logical for a creative company to invest time into developing future-facing skills, whether it’s VR and AR, AI and robotics, 3D modelling and printing, or even the so-called Internet of Things. It appears to be a smart business move too, as when surveying creatives from over 60 of Europe’s leading creative studios, agencies and brands, 54 per cent believe that a workable knowledge of emerging technologies would be the most helpful thing for attracting new clients. However, and possibly alarmingly, nearly half (47 per cent) of our respondents admitted to not feeling equipped to work with any emerging technologies whatsoever.
What became increasingly clear in our survey is a skills gap. A want and need to learn more about emerging technologies is there, but creative companies lean on specialist outsources rather than investing in developing these skills in-house. Plus, if this is a skill clients are increasingly looking for (or let’s be honest, expecting) and few can actually do it, will we be able to utilise these technologies to their full potential – and to our full potential? Should we even be a little worried? Or are emerging technologies always going to be something we don’t fully understand because that’s their very nature?
For those already working in the field, it comes as no surprise that creatives in other disciplines do not feel equipped. As pointed out by Depop’s product designer Chrystal King in our report, it’s not possible, as the industry isn’t set up to support the learning required: “A lot of the time the courses you’d expect to take don’t yet exist or aren’t accessible – and it shows, especially when you look at the landscape of the tech community,” she says. I’ve worked alongside many amazing designers, technologists and engineers, the majority of whom have either been self-taught like myself, or have gone through non-traditional education like bootcamps.” (You can read more of Chrystal’s thoughts in our report here.)
Equally unsurprised is Liam Walsh, creative technology director at Nexus Studios. When asking Liam whether we should be concerned about the lack of skills in this area, he sums up his feelings perfectly by saying: “Everybody feels like that, it never stops. So don’t worry: if you’re working in emerging tech, you’ll always feel unequipped to work with some of the technologies.”
Building from Chrystal’s point too, Liam agrees that it’s an area of the industry which requires continual learning – it always has been. “When I was studying interactive media at Bournemouth, I remember thinking that we aren’t learning enough about programming for the webinar Flash, because that was the new, hot thing back then.” It also makes sense that few feel confident with emerging technologies because they require consistent attention, but it doesn’t have to be so daunting either. “You just have to carry forward the tools, processes and ways of learning that you acquired from working with previous technologies. There isn’t a shortcut,” adds Liam, “It takes a while for the grammar and vocabulary to be established – but that quickly becomes second nature if the technology catches on.”
“Don’t worry: if you’re working in emerging tech, you’ll always feel unequipped.”Liam Walsh
But while there is no shortcut, senior leadership within creative teams should be investing time due to digital technologies increasing importance. Put matter-of-factly by Liam: “I think digital skills are increasingly important in the creative industries because they’re becoming increasingly important in the world.” After all, our industry is built on the concept of “reaching and connecting with people,” as the technology director suggests and, “in the real world, people are increasingly doing this through digital means.”
Therefore, the weight on a senior leader’s shoulders is to assess this, and put it into action by placing opportunities where teams are “learning to learn”. By going through the motions of understanding software and its possible executions, it will allow teams to evaluate the option of utilising new technologies, “Not just so that you, as a creative or communicator can create in this new medium, but also so that you understand the constraints and pitfalls better than your clients do when, or if, they come knocking at the door wondering if they should use it,” points out Liam. In fact: “It’s as important to know when not to use a piece of new technology as it is to know what it can do.” In the experience and point of view of Nexus Studios, this approach allows the studio to “skilfully surf the novelty waves and hype cycles of any new technology; it’s something I’ve always done so I do think it’s important. If I ever stopped learning I’d be far less effective at my job.”
But where to start? Well, there are also areas of future-facing digital skills which our survey’s respondents were keen to learn more than others, which may provide a possible entry point. For instance, when asked which of the listed emerging technologies (VR and AR, AI and robotics, 3D modelling and printing, the internet of things), it was Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality that respondents felt would be the most valuable. Although it “can be dismissed as a fad,” as Liam points out, in recent years we have witnessed the rising success (and in some cases obsession) of AR, especially when “you consider Snapchat and Instagram as AR platforms, it’s actually huge,” he adds. “It’s not just Pokemon GO!”
“No one would be willingly trapped in a helmet of capitalism.”Liam Walsh
The current situation of home working and social distancing due to Covid-19 may have swayed our respondents too, as Liam further explains: “As we move into increasingly virtual communications, it’s hugely important that we have ways of augmenting and understanding or contextualising the world around us.” Yet AR’s close component, VR, is more double-sided in its usefulness for wider practises. As Liam points out, this stems from it largely demanding so much from the user, making it more difficult to utilise in a commercially creative context. “You’re asking the user to give up their entire world and give away two fundamental senses – their sight and hearing.”
As a result the level of quality within VR needs to arguably be higher than other digitally focused visual simulations. “The world you are placing them in needs to be better than the one they are leaving behind,” as Liam puts it. From this perspective, VR doesn’t quite work in a commercial context – “No one would be willingly trapped in a helmet of capitalism” – and so the technology director suggests a more impactful use is when used artistically. An example of this at Nexus Studios is how the team utilise VR’s capabilities for storyboarding, actually for the exact reason previously discussed as an issue, “it gives you a sense of absolute focus and immersion,” says Liam. “It’s way better than just sticking your headphones on and hoping nobody bothers you! We’ll have directors and animators in VR, sketching in 3D where there are no physical constraints – it’s just your imagination.”
If you or your team are looking to get started with new technologies, Liam suggests first looking at tools social media platforms provide in these areas to dip your toe in. With AR, the director suggests trying Snap’s lens studio or Facebook’s Spark AR, both for being “really excellent” but also for the rate at which they are expanding. “Both keep evolving at a rapid pace and quickly import established grammars and patterns found in the outer wilds of more experimental AR work.” To top it off, they don’t let you dive in too deep at an early stage either, so it won’t feel like you’re drowning in the impossible. “The constraints they provide both keep new users from getting stuck and are also a really good way to ignite innovation.”
“It’s as important to know when not to use a piece of new technology as it is to know what it can do.”Liam Walsh
When you’re a little more adept, these will also act as a good ground to jump to more advanced game engines, such as Unity and Unreal. “This will serve you well for working in VR – which isn’t dead, but is still quite niche,” and the skills learned could also act as “a good starting point for the burgeoning web scene or other creative coding frameworks such as processing, open frameworks, or cinder.”
Finding an entry point in AI, however, is a little harder. One possible place to start is RunwayML, which is similar to the offerings of Snap and Facebook, and already has “lots of the established grammars and patterns of machine learning for artistic works already available to you.” Apple too has a programme, CreateML, which Liam describes as “very user-friendly” while also being cognitively accessible so that users can “get started training your own model without some of the complexity of setting up a Unix environment or remote server.”
Most of all, however, creatives shouldn’t be daunted by the prospect of new technologies but more excited to meet the welcoming community currently working within them. If open to the challenge, the prospect of failing and the opportunity to learn, there are several places to turn for advice, and “none of the communities or tools expect a computer science background in order to get started.” Even in Liam’s case as a creative technology director, it’s the kindness of others and their learnings which has driven his own learning. “I know I’ve benefitted from the generosity of people in the scene who have created tools and projects and given them away for free, or taken the time to answer questions on forums or other social channels,” Liam says. “Honestly, it is (at least for technology sectors) a very welcoming and diverse space.”
About the Author
Lucy joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In October 2016 she became a staff writer on the editorial team and in January 2019 was made It’s Nice That’s deputy editor. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about new and upcoming creative projects or editorial ideas for the site.