What the Heck is a Creative Technologist?
What the Heck is a Creative Technologist?
Mark Avnet, Creative Technologist, VCU Brandcenter
Back in the 90s, the first time “convergence” was brought up as an important idea, I was asked as a “new media expert” to write an article on its importance – and found just about as many definitions for the term as places I looked. When I was part of a panel of psychologists defining “media psychology,” again, we found that just about everyone using the term defined it differently. Same with “engagement.” These still remain relatively loosely described constructs, words or phrases that, to quote Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, “mean exactly what [we] choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
We’re at a similar point with the term “creative technology.” What exactly IS a creative technologist? What makes her different from a programmer or a flash animator? What makes him different from a copywriter, brand manager, or strategist who can use Dreamweaver? What’s the role of a creative technologist at an agency or in our industry?
I think about this a lot, and not just because I head up the Creative Technology track at VCU Brandcenter’s graduate program and continually refine and redefine our curriculum, but also because I consider myself a creative technologist. And, believe me, I’m different from my students and graduates, and we’re all different from other people who also consider themselves to be creative technologists. The confusion is exacerbated by the fact that the position called “creative technologist” is defined differently at places that use the name, and the role is filled at other agencies by other titles.
Here’s my take on it. CTs understand the business of advertising, marketing, and branding, take a creative, strategic and people-centric view of how to connect people and brands, and understand the kinds of mediating technologies that can best be used to make those engaging experiences where the connection happens.
They sketch with technology, just like a visual creative can sketch with a pencil. They’re steeped in strategy, so the things they come up with make sense – it’s not about technology just for the sake of technology. The experiences they design address real needs of people and brands.
Creative technologists share a creative and inquisitive view of the world. They’re on top of technology trends, aren’t afraid of coding (just as a modern visual designer isn’t afraid of Photoshop or Illustrator), and take both strategic and tactical approaches to creativity. They also understand that we’re in a business, and we’re solving business goals by addressing people’s needs as a priority.
Learn, Do, Teach
In addition, there’s a shared creative technology mind-set that I describe as “learn, do, teach.” Stay up-to-date on the latest in technology, in research, in business, in design, in advertising, in human behavior. Then do something with it – build something, try out a new API, prototype an idea, make something talk to something else, come up with a new business model. Then show others how this stuff works – evangelize, be a resource, help people move beyond what they already know (and learn from them while you’re doing that). Rinse, repeat.
These “T-shaped” thinkers come from many different disciplines, and they’re likely to consider all media and experiences as their venue – every medium is enabled by a technology (even print and speech), and the fewer artificial barriers we put up, the better. Choose the right medium or media, and remember that something doesn’t need electricity to be interactive.
We’ve had students enter the VCU Brandcenter Creative Technology track with strong design or copywriting skills, backgrounds in communications, business, consulting… some have come right out of undergrad programs, the music business, lighting design, even one who was an established art director at a big-name agency who wanted to deepen his toolkit. As creative technologists, they add their own individual superpowers to the computational media, UXd, IA, mobility, user participation, futurology, data cultivation, branding, concepting, business, and group expertise they develop in the program.
But Where do I Put Them?
At Brandcenter’s recent industry recruiting event, many of the conversations I had were along the lines of “we know we need creative technologists – but where do they fit in MY agency?”
In agencies that have moved to a flexible team model, CTs just belong to the team, adding their varied expertise to the group.
In agencies with a more siloed approach, first, please rethink that – technology can’t live down the hall anymore; it’s part of everything that everyone in the agency does. Second – CTs fit nicely in the strategic and creative functions, and as floating resources mostly affiliated with one function and that move where needed.
Gareth Kay (GSP) and Aki Spicer (Fallon), for example, are creative technologists in their secret identity of strategists. Richard Schatzberger (BBH) is a creative technologist without a mask. Paul Seward (The Martin Agency) is a creative technologist working from a deeper technology side. Dave Knox (P&G) approaches things from a brand standpoint. They, and all the other creative technologists with job titles including AD, CD, IA, UXd, CT, AE, CW, and all the other abbreviations share a deep general understanding of tech and how it can be used in the context of brand communication and experience design.
The job title itself is less important than being open to a hands-on and holistic view of technology as part of communication, as part of business, as part of the human experience, and therefore as part of culture.
Getting back to Lewis Carroll, “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” ”The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – – that’s all.”