Unleashing Unproductivity: The AI Paradox of Boundless Experimentation

July 14, 2023
17 min read
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Exploring the influence of AI on creativity, the effects on the ideation process, and the risk for creative paralysis in the era of boundless experimentation.


Most of the so-called “creative artificial intelligence” today rely on a text-based interface and Large Language Models (LLMs) focusing on specific areas like copywriting and visualization productivity with impressive results. Although many other areas in many different industries could dramatically benefit from adopting AI automation, it is fair to interpret the “creative AI” term as the generalization for text-based interfaces and LLMs. Like every new technology with increasing adoption, the landscape is incredibly noisy. And like every technology with big potential and expectations, it’s tough to grasp the real impact of this rapid adoption.

Think about cars for a moment. What were the impacts of cars besides the obvious one of allowing people to conveniently travel between points A and B? Many things changed dramatically from cities to roads and regulations, including less obvious things. In this last category, hardly anyone mentions the demise of hats. Among other reasons, the popularization of cars sealed the fate of hats. Before the mid-1960s, most people in the West wouldn’t go outside without some sort of hat. But the modernization of the Western lifestyle and the adoption of cars as the dominant mode of transportation completely transformed fashion, directly contributing to the obsolescence of the hat. My point is that every technology we adopt, while fulfilling its intended purpose, also inadvertently brings about unforeseen ramifications, some more relevant than others.

Like AI, creativity is another topic that is hard to define. Like every term that permeates a broad range of activities, it automatically turns to nothing. Creativity is an innate ability of humans to solve problems. And it is intimately (and unsurprisingly) related to artistic expression. It is also inseparable from inventions and utility. More important than defining it is understanding the underlying thought processes associated with creative thinking independently of its application.

The growing influence of generative AI in the creative industries

Integrating generative AI in creative fields, especially visual arts, brings opportunities and challenges. The promise of AI to create exceptional human-like designs in a matter of seconds is indeed a compelling case, and we’ve seen incredible examples and demos of visual creations with generative AI. Especially on the visualization front, some interesting cases and production pipelines are starting to appear. The improved speed in certain design tasks with the adoption of generative AI is mindblowing.

Undoubtedly, AI is already reshaping our work, influencing creative ideation or simplifying coding and data analysis. Imagining this influence will inevitably expand in the next few years is easy. It can also free time from repetitive tasks, allowing creatives and strategists to concentrate on strategy and creativity.

However, this ease comes with its drawbacks. While job losses might be a notable concern in the future, a more insidious outcome might be the shift from ideation to prompt iteration and testing. The change in how visual designers and artists interact and create instead, increasingly engaged in iterating and testing descriptive prompts, and diverting attention away from the initial stages of ideation may have more profound impacts than we can imagine.

Consequently, the creative process becomes repetitive and less inventive as designers devote excessive time to writing prompts and hastily jumping to given conclusions. The focus shifts from nurturing innovative ideas and developing a creative approach to investing more energy in filtering, curating, and tweaking outputs from generative AI. This phenomenon creates the paradox of boundless experimentation, wherein the automation intended to boost productivity and possibilities ultimately slows the overall ideation process and decreases output originality and creativity.

If you are familiar with working with creative agencies, think about the impact that the drastic increase in available data had on strategists in the past decade and their excessive reliance on trend reports masking real knowledge, experience, and understanding. This excessive information availability drove strategic thinking to a state of paralysis, where mediocre one-fits-all insights and predictable conclusions are supported by a poor understanding and interpretation of data collection and real-world life challenges people face, obscuring real opportunities. 

Exploring the benefits and potential drawbacks of integrating AI in advertising

Undoubtedly, as generative AI technology evolves, it is rapidly becoming an integral part of the creative pipeline in different fields. Not a week goes by that we are not surprised by a new exciting tool or application based on generative AI that enhances, simplifies, or automates certain tasks. Agencies have all the incentives to adopt these technologies as much as possible; the promises of scalability and speed are just too good.

However, adopting generative AI in creative fields without constraints risks perpetuating a cycle of endless tinkering and analysis, hindering the timely realization of truly innovative ideas. In essence, the allure of increased output through automation clashes with the need for greater attention and time investment, resulting in creative paralysis. This situation echoes the sentiment expressed by economist Robert Solow in 1987, who observed that despite the prevalence of computers, their impact on productivity remained absent from statistical measures, analogous to the absence of intellectual ideas in the context of generative AI's potential consequences.

There’s a false belief that creativity and innovative thinking will thrive by eliminating constraints. In the article "Why Constraints Are Good for Innovation," the authors reviewed 145 empirical studies on the effects of constraints on creativity and innovation. They found that individuals, teams, and organizations benefit from a healthy dose of constraints — not too little, not too much. According to the article, when there are no constraints on the creative process, complacency sets in, and people follow what psychologists call the path of least resistance – they go for the most intuitive idea that comes to mind rather than investing in developing better ideas.

When generating results becomes too easy, production constraints are removed, and there’s no limit to how much experimentation we can do, what happens to the creative process when it is extended to infinity? When do we expect our prompts to reveal perfect answers?

Only time will tell. But it is easy to imagine the domino effect and that the work will become longer, slower, and more predictable if crafting ideas rely too much on generative tools and full automation, putting excessive time into writing meticulous prompts and jumping to easy conclusions, and less time working on crafting ideas.

I called this process the Paradox of Boundless Experimentation.

The creative process takes time to define. It is a delicate balance between discovery and familiarity. This balance relies on deep experimentation and reflection. It is a two-way process. In today’s age of generative artificial intelligence (AI), it can feel like there’s no limit to how much experimentation we can do. We must recognize and address this paradox between boundless experimentation - where unlimited options lead us down unproductivity and possibly less creativity, at least artistically speaking, if not appropriately balanced.

The Promises and Potential of AI Automation in Creativity

Exploring the Potential of AI Automation in Scaling Creativity

It is tempting to conclude that the creative product of ideas is the product itself. But not so fast. Decoupling the creative process from the creative product is a common assumption and a mistake that leads to the idea that automation can substitute the intellectual process of having ideas. One of the most important design principles is the concept of reduction. Reduction takes a careful balance of reflection to remove things that are not necessary, having as a common goal to achieve the irreducible while still maintaining the desired characteristics of the idea, its intended use, and particular expression. Yes, the reduction can be automated, but perhaps the principle of reduction and the reasons that culminated into the process itself would be very hard to automate.

So the assumption goes like this: generative AI has opened up a world of possibilities for creatives, allowing them to scale their output without sacrificing time. By automating tasks such as copywriting, image editing, and design layout, generative AI can free up more time for creativity and experimentation – which is essential when producing innovative work. The technology also allows teams to quickly produce multiple variations on an idea or concept with minimal effort, which is great for testing different approaches before committing to one final version.

Navigating the Challenges of Generative AI for Creativity

In theory, creative teams and agencies leveraging generative AI can inevitably expect unprecedented scalability and productivity. In principle, by automating certain aspects of the creative process, visual creatives, and writers can spend more time conceptualizing their work rather than getting bogged down with repetitive tasks.

The part AI enthusiasts usually ignore is that a larger volume of possibilities, which leads to more experimentation, with multiple variations with minimal effort, before committing to one final version, is a very naive proposition that will drive us into a phenomenon called analysis paralysis. Analysis paralysis is an inability to make a decision due to overthinking a problem, producing endless wrangling over the upsides and downsides of each option, and an inability to select one. This causes detracting from the functional purpose of an idea to create value and differentiation.

Another challenge is the ability to fine-tune a high volume of ideas. Complex briefings for clients and brands that operate in multiple markets require cultural nuance and sensibility. 

Embracing the potential of AI as a tool for inspiration and idea generation

In principle, according to most AI enthusiasts, presenting a vast array of possibilities encourages creators to think outside the box and push the boundaries of their work. In practice, though, when a vast array of possibilities is virtually endless, infinite possibilities may hinder the decision-making balance and the delicate creative act of experimentation and filtration.

At the same time, it is important to recognize that adopting generative AI appropriately has potential positive impacts. However, no one knows what that means at this stage.

Part of solving this puzzle revolves around play and discovery, exploring AI's possibilities, and finding new ways to incorporate it into the creative process.

The Paradox of Boundless Experimentation

The allure of endless possibilities and its impact on decision-making

Creatives are constantly looking to explore different ways to bring their ideas to life. And part of this creative potential of bringing ideas to life comes from experimentation and play. Like an investigation, curiosity is an essential part of the process. There are undoubtedly amazing examples and creative uses of the so-called creative AI. Although the application of generative AI for execution is more defined and obvious, understanding the real impact of adopting these new technologies in the early stages of crafting ideas is a challenge.

Here, it is important to discern between what the concept, or the early stages of crafting ideas, and execution means. Ideas are created and tested in the early stages of creating a product; that’s the concept phase. The execution phase is about visually or physically bringing those ideas to life; this is the output. It is perhaps not possible to dissociate them completely since they support each other at the individual level, but that’s how many pipelines currently work. If you are a brand or client wanting to produce a campaign or a product, that’s how the work happens very often: ideas and then execution. AI automation brings this process so close together that perhaps it is indiscernible to define the thought process for its decisions.

Given the unpredictable results, the allure of endless possibilities and its impact on decision-making from a creative point of view is a point to consider. In The Shallows, the author Nicholas Carr explores the idea of how the internet, with its fragmented nature and high frequency, pushing our minds in many directions, contributed to an alteration of brain function into a state of perpetual shallow attention hurting people’s capacity of concentration, contemplation, and reflection.

By blending ideation and execution through the stroke of a prompt, we may erode or compromise our ability to deliberately influence the creative process. It's important to recognize that the creative process is fundamentally a decision-making process, and one must actively exercise this ability to become a skilled decision-maker.

The risk of analysis paralysis and prolonged creative processes

The Paradox of Choice is a similar phenomenon to that of having too many choices, creates a state of paralysis, and undermines our decision power with increasing difficulty in choosing only one option.

Is the paradox of excessive options also a factor that will influence the creative process in the future? Accepting the idea of a vast array of creative possibilities as the root of creative thinking presents a need for a greater understanding of how ideas happen. It encourages creators to adopt a position of curation rather than creation.

In simple terms: if you know your idea and what you’re doing and have a clear plan of where to go, then the available tools are your friend in bringing them to life efficiently and surprisingly. If you don’t know where to go, or if you don’t have a clear vision of the idea and concepts, then adopting the current tools will probably affect your work negatively. Unless you want to test these AI tools and apply them creatively as an experiment and investigation, it will probably slow down and not necessarily improve your output.

Addressing the challenges of maintaining focus and direction in the face of excessive experimentation

In the past few months, I experienced the impact of a slowdown in performance within the teams I was working with in two pitches; in both cases, the teams tried to integrate generative AI into their work.

On the first exploration, we had to create a visual identity and a simple design system for a campaign that would run in multiple channels, from out-of-home to social. The outputs from the generative AI could have been better. On this occasion, the team attempted to create tailored mood boards and quick visualizations as a starting point. Although there were some interesting ones, it took a lot of work to translate them into actual mockups that were consistent with the ideas or that looked good and were representative of the brand. To fine-tune the outputs from text-based models takes time, leading to uninspiring, mediocre, and somehow irrelevant results to the creative proposal we came up with.

Aesthetically it was good and impressive, given how fast it was generated. Still, it didn’t offer a relevant or useful inspiring angle to propel the project in a better direction. It was just so-so. A normal mood board that is humanly handpicked, filtered, and curated with the desired objective is much more powerful and meaningful when trying to solve problems or with a specific creative intention in mind. It can also help you widen and then narrow down on certain aspects a lot better instead of jumping into the offered solutions.

On the second occasion, we had to create a visualization of a popup store following certain characteristics that were developed based on the initial idea. After a few iterations, although we landed on a good solution, adjusting the parameters was difficult and lengthy. If we had used a traditional approach, such as illustration, we would land on a solution that was more appropriate for the project and more accurate in a shorter time.

That’s not to say the technology will not improve or the solutions won’t adapt to assist different aspects and stages of the creative process. But some applications may not produce the desired effect. Automating outputs and removing frictions and constraints may not be as productive or inspiring and will not increase productivity or creativity.

Overcoming the Potential Pitfalls

Setting clear objectives and guidelines for AI integration

Our understanding and perception of these tools will change over time as continuous learning shapes how we use and integrate them into our ideation and creative production pipelines. As with any new technology that has the potential to reshape the way we work and make things, with curiosity and exploration, test, trial, and error, time will dictate how we will adapt. With that in mind, we need to identify opportunities where it makes sense to test and deploy these tools.

Advertising agencies have the tendency and the incentive to become early adopters and to embrace upcoming trends in full force to gain a competitive advantage. Every year, the industry is pushed into a corner where it places itself into boxes of hope, looking for the opportunity to drive the business and find monetary return first, without recognizing the viability of these new businesses.

To adopt AI and get clients on board, we must set clear objectives and analyze the potential risks and opportunities. No one owns creativity or should define how the creative work should be done. The magic of an exciting idea and its potential makes it so exciting, powerful, and even dangerous. Ideas can change the world, whether a life-changing invention or a new way of seeing things.

Automation or partial automation might be inevitable, but does it improve the work? Does it assist us in arriving at unique ideas through unconventional thinking? Does the use of these generative tools feedback loop into our thinking, and if so, how? If we are relentless about our creative standards, focusing on putting in the work and devoting the energy required for crafting amazing ideas and objectives, we may have a clearer idea of how to utilize, implement and take advantage of current and future tools and trends.

Cultivating a balance between AI-driven experimentation and focused ideation

We need to find a balance between focused ideation, our most precious resource, and AI-driven experimentation. The Paradox of Boundless Experimentation is one of the possible ramifications. Perhaps the intent to win by automation and increased efficiency and scalability might backfire, potentially leading to adverse effects on creativity and its outcomes without the proper safeguards. Scalability without careful consideration might impact the creative process.

Even though these are hypothetical scenarios, it's crucial to consider how we redefine the role of creatives amidst these changes. This evolving dynamic, where the creative transitions into a collaborative role alongside AI, poses intriguing questions. How can we ensure that AI technology serves as a creative enhancer, amplifying human creativity rather than a potential replacement? This thoughtful navigation is key to striking a balance and synergy between focused human ideation and AI-driven experimentation.

Leveraging AI as a catalyst for innovation while preserving authenticity

In our quest to integrate AI into our creative processes, it's critical to understand that AI's results reflect its training data. This means the outputs are inevitably grounded in what already exists rather than offering unprecedented novelty. Thus, despite AI's sophisticated algorithms, its ability to generate original ideas may be limited. Probability is at the heart of AI functioning, and while it may generate unexpected results, it doesn't always guarantee originality.

This is where the role of the creative person comes to the forefront. Creatives need to wield their unconventional thinking as a guiding force to continue to push the boundaries of innovation. While AI can be an excellent tool for augmenting our creative capacities, it should not replace the human ability to think outside the box and venture beyond the known parameters. The unique perspective and emotional intelligence humans bring ensure that creativity remains fresh and authentic, even when enhanced by AI. Emphasizing this balance is critical in leveraging AI as a catalyst for innovation while preserving the authenticity fundamental to impactful creativity.


Recognizing the potential and pitfalls of generative AI in creativity

It is important to recognize the positives: the introduction of generative AI in advertising presents us with both a thrilling frontier of possibilities and a set of unique challenges. On the one hand, AI can augment our creative output for agencies and creatives, offering speed, scalability, and the power to explore a vast landscape of creative options.

On the other hand, it's crucial to consider the consequences of adopting these technologies and their effect on our creative capabilities and work. It is also important to remember that AI's capacity for true originality may be constrained by its reliance on existing data. It's a tool, not a magic wand, and using it effectively requires us to remain cognizant of its potential pitfalls, such as overreliance, the risk of diminishing authenticity, and the potential stifling of our creative potential.

Embracing AI as a valuable tool while maintaining human creativity and judgment

AI's role in the creative process should be viewed as an enhancement rather than a replacement for human creativity and judgment. As powerful as AI tools can be, they do not possess the human mind's emotional intelligence, nuanced understanding, and real-world experience. Our ability to challenge conventions, delve into the unknown, and bring fresh, emotionally resonant perspectives and nuance that connects with real people to our work sets us apart. Therefore, embracing AI as a valuable tool should go hand in hand with a renewed commitment to nurturing and valuing human creativity. For that matter, a sharp, focused mind and deep awareness are necessary.

Striking a balance between innovation, efficiency, and preserving originality

The path forward lies in achieving a delicate equilibrium. As we leverage AI as a catalyst for innovation and efficiency, the creative business must also vigilantly preserve and cultivate the essence of originality at the heart of impactful creativity. This calls for a nuanced approach to using AI, one that respects the capabilities of the technology while acknowledging its limitations and, more importantly, the results in ourselves in doing so. The goal should be to blend the technological advancements that generative AI offers with the spark of authentic human creativity to deliver the most innovative, engaging, and original outcomes.

Ultimately, how well we navigate this balancing act will shape the future of creativity in the AI age. It’s an exciting journey that we are just beginning, promising to redefine the contours of creativity as we know it. The key is to approach it with a spirit of exploration, openness, and a deep respect for the enduring power of human imagination.

© Raul Arantes 2023
Creative Director