Programmatic Creative and the Future of Design


Programmatic creative, today, refers to the automated combination of creative assets into advertisements based on context.

People often hear the term and think of something out of The Matrix using Photoshop. It’s not that sinister. 

It’s an evolution of programmatic buying. Currently, set creative assets such as banner ads are timed to coincide with a customer’s purchase. The new programmatic creative technology takes this idea one step further and builds the banner ads themselves.

Programmatic creative example from Celtra

Programmatic creative example, via Celtra

The aim, of course, is to customize advertisements on the fly based on data (location, weather, browser, age, language, etc.) and discover high-performing trends. Avoiding human error from guesswork, gut feelings and Mad Men assumptions is a bonus. Similar to multivariate testing, where strong performing variations are served more often as the system “learns” what is more effective, programmatic helps take the guesswork out of things by continuously optimizing based on new data.

However, what began as a method to increase the transactional efficiency of media buying is leading the way toward the next evolution of marketing, beyond digital display ads, where everything is personalized and optimized for everyone. Remember Minority Report, where the Gap store asks Tom Cruise how he likes his last purchase? That’s not too far-fetched when you consider it.


Customized ads greet Tom Cruise in the film Minority Report, from Twentieth Century Fox

Designers might look at this trend with defensive disgust. Automated design? Algorithmic creativity? Blasphemy! And some would agree, or at least raise a word of caution. The argument from creative folks is that their ideas become a shredded, disjointed mess with programmatic and a lack of vision and “big ideas” will ultimately make the process fail. But I don’t see it this way at all. I don’t see programmatic creativity as a threat, but a new and interesting way of thinking about design.

A Different Mindset

Programmatic creative, as I see it, is a design medium of possibility, rather than constraint. Literally. A designer must think in terms of possible scenarios and probable combinations of ideas and contexts and design with them in mind. As an aside, some have defined creativity itself as the ability to combine ideas in new ways. The more ideas and reference points you have, and the more combinatorial you can think, the more ideas you can produce. Programmatic creative works in a similar way.

Combination of clothing

Another way to think about it is designing a wardrobe. Each piece must stand on its own, but be designed in a way to coordinate with other items.

Programmatic creative, therefore, operates not unlike our own brains. The technology finds new configurations for the ideas and uncovers more popular ones, just like our minds do when we create. But like any good designer, programmatic creative needs to have a lot of good ideas to start with.

Breathe easy, friend. SkyNet can't design your marketing campaign from the ground up and mercilessly market to all hu-mons—yet. The output of a programmatic creative now, a piece of advertising, is a sum of the various parts. To be effective, the parts of a banner ad must be easily reconfigurable and modular while remaining impactful. Imagery mixed with taglines, videos with sound, it all needs to work together. This is where I see creative types becoming probability designers, with the ability to think abstractly and design in different combinations.

Another way of thinking about this whole programmatic creative thing it is a tightly designed room (see one billion photos on Pinterest for reference). Yes, Feng Shui gurus will argue there is a right way to design a room. Energy flow aside, if you move the carefully curated paintings, the furniture, the accent pieces and everything else in the room, you may have a space more to your liking. And it still falls more or less in line with the designer’s original intent of a given mood or message. The sacrifice is a less idealized final product in favor of a more personalized one.

Well designed interior home

If the side table moved, the clock taken down and the lamps replaced by slightly more modern pieces, the appearance of the room remains more or less intact.

The Future of Design

The future of designers might then be more similar to makers of complex Lego blocks than complete ads or websites. Stunning, beautifully designed modules or blocks could be combined by other people (or machines) in various ways. We would become, in a sense, agents of how our brain functions, feeding new ideas into “the machine” and adding the always-important factors of intent and choice into the mix.

It goes without saying there will always be a place for subjective, expressive art. But design is far more objective than most people make it out to be. That's not to say there isn’t heart and emotion and care in it. But design has intent. It has a goal. It can beautiful, yes, but its prime use is to communicate clearly, empower and, let’s face it, sell. 

Programmatic creative offers the possibility of making the design process more effective in achieving its goal. Any design process involves guesswork about what people will respond to. Sometimes a little, sometimes a whole lot. Why not guess faster with programmatic methods?

The future of programmatic creative beyond digital advertising is a ways off. But even now, with personalization on the rise, designers are moving toward a new way of thinking. Customized experiences and tailored communication will only continue to become more sophisticated. The designers who embrace technology and tools like programmatic creativity are going to be the ones who survive. 

Or, life imitates The Matrix and the computers take over the world as we know it. If that happens, we’ll have much bigger problems to deal with.

Banner image courtesy of David Lofink under the Creative Commons license.