Can design be unbiased? Possibly, with Talia Cotton’s infinite logo identity made using code

Pushing the capabilities of standard generative design, Talia Cotton passes design decisions over to a computer to make a truly impartial identity.

Date
11 April 2022

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“Not a single designer has ever – or will ever – have the ability to create a truly unbiased design,” states a recent release from Pentagram’s Talia Cotton. It is this seemingly insurmountable problem that the designer and coder has, however, made steps towards tackling with a recent project for Guilty by Association (GBA). As an arts organisation championing underrepresented artists, GBA needed an identity that could represent each of the artists without bias and a logo that could yield with honesty to each of them. Talia’s answer? Pass the drawing process to an algorithm. Taking the identity out of “the biased designer’s hands”, Talia created an infinitely generative design that looks hand-drawn despite having been produced by a computer.

The resulting identity can “honestly and infinitely represent another person,” Talia explains, “even if that person is unknown. Just as the [GBA] yields to the artists, the brand identity yields to the computer.” A first in both the coding and design world, the logo pushes beyond what is typically possible through generative design.

But what does all this mean? For the uninitiated, like me, Talia explains what we mean when we say generative: “When design is generative, a designer creates a set of essentially 'rules with wiggle room’ by which the design can be made.” For a logo, for example, these rules – or an algorithm – can include how legible it is and what the shape letterforms might take. But, where Talia’s work stands out and where things “get interesting”, the designer says, is “when you feed that algorithm – that set of rules – to a computer”, which allows you to see an infinite number of design possibilities beyond human capabilities in an instant, and design using each of them.

Back to the GBA identity. Talia’s combination of code and generative design means the GBA logo varies drastically in each iteration and, crucially, looks very different (read: better) than most generative logos. “Computer-drawn design tends to have an aesthetic,” says Talia. “It either looks blocky (because a rectangle is the easiest shape for a computer to draw) or it looks wonky (because it uses random as a factor) or it looks highly detailed and almost not logo-like (because code lends itself to... handling large numbers of things).” Where the GBA logo stands apart, is that it tries to overcome “blockiness” by using Bézier curves and a mathematical, manual process to properly translate letterforms into an algorithm. “Using code to make a logo that is equally strong and human has rarely, if ever, been done,” says Talia.

As for what this can offer the industry going forward, Talia states: “I believe while it is important to recognise and address design bias in all projects, the degree to which we try to overcome it will depend on the project. For a brand that caters to or represents a very small, very niche audience, for example, the designer might only need to account for that. GBA, on the other hand, represents all people everywhere, even those who are unknown.” The identity allows GBA to tackle the “laundry list of factors” contributing to a designer’s bias – “backgrounds, cultures, educations (or lack thereof), the tools they use… ” says Talia – and allow the artist to take centre stage instead. In fact, Talia is even working on a method whereby an artist can draw the GBA logo for it to be vectorised and fed into the algorithm as a new skeleton for letterforms; “It really is very cool,” the designer confirms.

For Talia, this is hopefully just the beginning of the use of code in design. “I would love people to adopt it going forward,” the designer tells us. “It’s so easy to rely on the visual outputs that code lends itself easily to, but we need to try harder to push beyond that. When we push, we move the design movement forward; discovering ways to overcome design bias is just the start.”

GalleryTalia Cotton/ Pentagram: GBA (Guilty by Association) (Copyright © Talia Cotton/ Pentagram, 2022)

Talia Cotton/ Pentagram: GBA (Guilty by Association) generator tool

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Talia Cotton/ Pentagram: GBA (Guilty by Association) (Copyright © Talia Cotton/ Pentagram, 2022)

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About the Author

Liz Gorny

Liz (she/they) joined It’s Nice That as news writer in December 2021. After graduating from the University of Bristol, they worked freelance, writing for independent publications such as Little White Lies, Indie magazine and design studio Evermade.

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