The art of advertising

Dentsu's Beeker Northam reports from MoMA's new exhibition on the role of design and communications and asks what the ad industry can learn from these exhibits.

MoMA exhibit: Suwappu by Dentsu London
MoMA exhibit: Suwappu by Dentsu London

The gestation of Talk To Me, a design exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, was (to me) a unique one. Paola Antonelli, the innovative archangel of the exhibition world and curator of the show, believes that we should "treat museums as the R&D departments of society". Her unique approach to curation saw her team spend 18 months researching, connecting and sharing the results of their activities on the Talk To Me blog before putting the findings together as an exhibition.

I went to the show's opening in June, as Dentsu London had three works featured: a toy concept called Suwappu and two films about the future of communications and advertising in cities. Campaign asked me to write about the exhibition's significance for advertising and ad people.

Which is a good question. At Dentsu, we spend a lot of time talking with people (clients, our own people, journalists) about how art, design and commerce, inventively combined, make for the best communications. Good business and good culture are intertwined and it seems naive not to harness both, rather than seek sanctuary in the old complaint that "we're not making art, we're doing sales".

We do, in fact, want to make art at Dentsu, as well as great design and culturally good stuff. Because when that's done in the right way, with the right connection with commercial forces, the benefits are exponentially powerful: building sales and brand.

The Talk To Me exhibition contains more than 194 works and runs until November 2011. Its premise is: "Design and the communication between people and objects." And design, in the contemporary, exploded-media sense, is one of the most exciting and underexploited areas in advertising today. Design is a bigger, better word and future than "digital" ever was or will be, when it's understood in the way that MoMA has articulated it here.

The basic relevance of design to advertising is clear and goes back to the very beginning of advertising history. But its accepted meaning is weirdly fettered and facile today. The understanding still, in agencies, of the term design is graphic design. The people who make the concepts look nice, since the art directors swapped craft skills in favour of conceptual ones.

The ones who use Macs properly, and who talk about being conceptual but usually aren't. And, lately, digital designers, who although their computer skills intimidate people more, do more or less the same thing. All of which works well for a certain kind of work.

But there is a richer meaning of design that exists elsewhere, which Talk To Me espouses: the design of product, media, interaction, experience, communications, software, services and technology, now that these things converge. And the understanding that this practice is fundamental to shaping the future, in the biggest possible sense, as well as the future of our industry.

Agencies have got quite good at the digital motto "doing is as/more important than saying", but not at redefining their offering to reflect that properly (and to allow for the less black-and-white option that "saying" is still important). The design represented at MoMA is design at its most exciting: a huge range of craftsmanship, material understanding, conceptual thinking and innovation across all media.

Two of my best memories of the evening are signs of the transcendent appeal of this kind of work: Jason Silva explaining to Heather Graham the concept of augmented reality and Suwappu, and Martha Stewart gazing at Berg's Immaterials project.

Any of the following exhibits could have (and maybe should have) not only been conceived of but produced by an ad agency in answer to a client brief or as a proprietary platform.

Beeker Northam is the executive strategy director at Dentsu London.

Prayer Companion

Interaction Research Studio, Goldsmiths, University of London, 2010

A small, unobtrusive screen that lives in the New York monastery of the Poor Clare Sisters, the Prayer Companion scrolls a ticker tape of the world's complaints and issues to help direct the nuns' meditations. They call it Goldie.

The device itself is technically simple, notable for its subtlety and politeness and acting as a constant companion, pulling in live feeds from the news and entries from individuals all over the world from the We Feel Fine project (which aggregates anyone who uses "I feel ..." in a sentence online).

The nuns told Bill Gaver of Goldsmiths that Goldie "has been invaluable in keeping (our) prayers pertinent".

Here And There

Berg, 2009

Here and There is a horizonless perspective of Manhattan in the form of two maps: one looking uptown from Cooper Union; one downtown from 35th Street and Third Avenue. As the eye follows the map from bottom up, the 3D landscape transforms from man's eye (in the city) to bird's eye (plan view), folding up to provide a magical double view of the city.

The maps are inspired by gaming technology, satellites and the notion from Jack Schulze that "the ability to be in a city and to see through it is a superpower, and it's how maps should work".

They were made using 3D modelling software to render an accurate but magical new version of New York and its buildings (and pre-dated Christopher Nolan's version in Inception).

Media Surfaces

Dentsu London, Berg, 2010

We made two online films last year about the growing number of what we called Media Surfaces in our cities. Part of Dentsu London's Making Future Magic philosophy is a belief that as makers of communications and advertising, we can build a brighter alternative to the Minority Report, doom-laden vision that's most commonly levelled at the industry.

These two films looked to explore the possibilities for brands and companies to use emerging and old media surfaces, screens and objects in polite, magical, playful and sometimes helpful ways.

In the first film, Incidental Media, Twitter updates quietly inhabit the news-ticker interface on a family television; the receipt for a cup of coffee is enhanced by the latest Guardian news headlines; and a Uniqlo shop window is animated with digital colour-bots with computer vision, moving and playing with passers-by. Ubiquitous, but unobtrusive, the surfaces seek to provide latent, charming opportunities for communication and play in a context-sensitive way - but only if people choose to pay attention.

The second film, The Journey, takes a look at the same theme for train travel. Departure boards, paper train tickets and train signage communicate info that is celebratory and refreshing: bits of history, train and departure data, and the flow of traffic as trains, rather than passengers, see it.

Avatar Machine

Marc Owens, 2008

Avatar Machine is wearable equipment - a helmet, padded tunic and gloves, with an attached camera extending behind you - that simulates a third-person gaming experience. Marc Owens found that some users started behaving as avatars, taking giant steps and swinging their mighty arms. But the best part is the footage generated by the camera, filming the avatar from behind as he makes his way, in an extraordinary aesthetic mashing of reality and gaming.


SENSEable City Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2011

Backtalk is one of a number of projects from MIT recently, addressing the consequences and implications of globalisation (Source Maps is another such example).

It looks at the life of our electronic waste, mapping batteries, sensors, circuit boards and other electrical components and their journey through the world after leaving our hands. The globalisation and commoditisation of waste means that tracing waste's journey is an increasingly complex matter, which makes the internet a great way of looking at this and, in turn, an apparently mundane topic a fascinating one.

Backtalk tags discarded electronic devices with a small camera, accelerometers and location sensors, giving them a second life as spimes travelling through the world, reporting on their progress as they go.

Your old phone battery is likely to give you a tour guide of the world unimaginable for any other reason.


MegaHouse Corporation and Bandai, 2010

The gorgeous Mojibakeru toy figures start as Japanese characters from the kanji alphabet, and morph (like Transformers) into the animals each character represents. For instance, inu (?), kanji for "dog", goes from black-and-white character to a Dalmatian, complete with movable tail. Mojibakeru is a learning tool and demonstration of the link between symbol and object.


Dentsu London, 2011

Suwappu (Japanese for "swap") is a series of eight toy characters - including Deer, Badger, Fox and Tuna - whose top and bottom halves can be swapped and re-assembled into hybrid characters.

The features painted on the characters act as markers that are deciphered through custom software in the Suwappu app.

Viewing the toys through the app reveals an augmented reality world where Deer, Fox and friends speak and act, based on personality cues triggered by the head, in surroundings determined by the legs.

Suwappu represents a new kind of recently possible convergence: between physical merchandise, content platform (allowing for episodic, online storytelling), social media and media platform (where other brands can live), software and advertising.


Kacie Kinzer, Interactive Telecommunications Program, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, 2009

As you enter the lobby of Talk To Me and make your way around the exhibition, you encounter various Tweenbots pottering around, possibly in need of picking up or redirecting.

This is the way New Yorkers first met them, out in the open in Washington Square Park, where the interaction designer Kacie Kinzer set the first Tweenbot, Sam, free to make his own adventure. The resulting (secretly recorded) film was a lovely picture of New Yorkers puzzled, charmed and concerned by, and for, the little cardboard robot, helping him on his way when he fell over or seemed to get lost.

The Tweenbots depended on the kindness of strangers, making them a fascinating exploration into artificial intelligence, artificial empathy and robotics.

Kinzer expected that Sam would be crushed, lost or thrown away, but the New Yorkers outdid themselves in kindness and robot aid, making sure he always arrived safely at his destination. "Every time the robot got caught under a park bench, ground futilely against a curb, or became trapped in a pothole, some passer-by would always rescue it and send it toward its goal," Kinzer says.

The Lost Tribes Of New York City

Andy London and Carolyn London, London Squared, 2009

One of the best public groups on Flickr is Matt Jones' "Hello Little Fella", a collection of found faces in everyday objects: light switches, faucets, cracks in the pavement.

This is a beautiful stop-motion film along a similar theme, animating objects with natural faces on the streets of Manhattan: a public telephone, manhole cover, newspaper boxes and luggage become the faces speaking with voices taken from the film-makers' interviews with city dwellers and tourists.

Bat Billboard

Chris Woebken and Natalie Jeremijenko, Environmental Health Clinic, Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, New York, 2008

An interactive billboard dispelling the myths that plague a misunderstood species, providing a house for bats and aiming for a better relationship between bats and people.

Rather than being menaces or pests and getting caught in people's hair, bats apparently play an important role in their ecosystems, pollinating plants and helping with insect control.

The inside of the billboard is a specially designed home in which cosmopolitan bats can hibernate, protecting them against various threats to their wellbeing, including white-nose syndrome. They are monitored there by voice-recognition software that maps and analyses their calls against broader bat data, the results of which are displayed on the billboard screen.