Learn how Thunderfoot’s Tiffany Licata came up with an intuitive visual language to represent complex AI concepts.
At its core, graphic design is about creating an intuitive experience — designers communicate by taking us on a visual journey. Graphics should be comprehensive. But they must also be striking and clear. Each detail must serve a purpose. Excellent graphics instantly connect the customer with the message while creating a delectable visual experience.
Tiffany Licata is Thunderfoot’s resident design magician. She has designed for clients across multiple industries including medical device manufacturers, financial service providers, and an international intergovernmental organization.
In 2019, Tiffany was presented with one of her most challenging puzzles to date: conveying concepts in artificial intelligence security software. The client was Calypso, a company that works to make the often complex and intractable operations of AI transparent, secure, and bias-free.
Tiffany researched the AI technology underlying each of Calypso’s services, and began to create a unique language. To represent the concept of AI bias, she drew a diagonal line on her whiteboard. For encrypted data packets, she drew a circle. And so on. She then combined these basic symbols in a modular way to represent more complex AI services.
During the project, Tiffany created a distinct graphic for each Calypso software product. Her designs enabled AI experts to understand what a product does simply by glancing at the graphic.
I interviewed Tiffany about her work for Calypso. I wanted to know: how did she translate an abstract topic into an original visual language? And how did she add her own artistic flair to the project?
Tacking a New Design Challenge
NP: I’d like to ask a few questions about the Calypso project. Mainly, we’re interested in how you used these abstract, technical concepts to build a concrete visual language. My first question is: what were your initial goals for the Calypso commission?
TL: When Calypso came to Thunderfoot, they were looking for a way to explain exactly what they did, how they did it, and how it was unique.
Calypso makes AI security software. When you first hear the term, it sounds like an extension of cybersecurity. But it’s entirely different. So that was what we set out to show — that Calypso uniquely works with artificial intelligence. We also wanted to make sure that these complex technical processes can be visually communicated. These were the two big challenges at hand.
NP: I can see how that might be a difficult task. How did you begin to approach it?
TL: Constructing a whole visual language is not standard practice. Occasionally, designers might need to pare down a complex idea into symbols, but it’s not common for symbols to become a significant part of the brand language. But this was the approach we decided was right for the client.
We decided that Calypso needed this type of treatment because AI security jargon can be too complicated. You never want to rely on paragraphs of technical jargon to explain exactly what you do. Calypso’s customers needed to be able to look at an image that instantly connects the dots.
First, I started by doing a deep dive into what Calypso does. I read everything on their website multiple times, and I did original research on AI security. I had to learn exactly what an AI system is, what a neutral network is, and the processes that are involved. Then, I selected common components shared across different AI security systems, and I visualized how they would look as symbols.
It’s pretty modular. You can use any of the symbols by themselves, or you can combine them to create different meanings, to make something more complex.
NP: So, what were the most difficult aspects of developing this language?
TL: Well, the first roadblock was the amount of research required. At Thunderfoot, we work with a lot of technical clients, so a tech commission is not unusual for our design team. But this was a very particular case. I had to do more in-depth research than usual.
But once I had the concepts, putting the pieces together was the real challenge. Designing the basic symbols was simple enough, but I had to find interesting ways of combining them to create something more.
Let’s say you have an “X”, which represents an input signal, a little sigma shape that represents a network, and a square that represents a decision. The challenge is to arrange them in such a way that it means something cohesive when you look at it. Otherwise it’s just a bunch of X’s, O’s, and squares.
An Intuitive Way to Communicate AI Concepts
NP: The first thing that struck me on the Calypso website was how beautiful these symbols are. There is definitely an aesthetic technique to all this. What role did your personal aesthetic play in this project? What role does art play in your graphic design at large?
TL: Generally, after practicing design for so long, you have an intuition about what works aesthetically. For any project, I have my sense of what looks good and what doesn’t — what makes an impact, and what doesn’t.
Design has to communicate, so it all comes down to why you’re reaching out, and who your audience is. Personally, I’m inclined to like abstraction. I enjoy being able to telegraph things in the simplest of graphic forms.
Even though abstraction is a personal preference, I also think it’s important for any designer to know how to be abstract. It’s important to know how to keep things simple. A logo, for example, could be as small as 30 pixels, but it should still encapsulate your message. It’s the challenge that’s part of branding and design, and it’s one that I enjoy.
NP: Before we leave, is there anything that you think people should know about this project that we haven’t covered yet?
TL: People should know that the project was really a pleasure to work on. Based on what we’ve talked about, the project probably sounds daunting. Which it was! But tackling the challenge was also extremely rewarding.
AI storytelling is something the industry hasn’t figured out yet: when people think of cybersecurity graphics, they think of locks, monitors with skull and crossbones, or hackers in hoodies. Meanwhile, AI is dramatically changing the security landscape, and decision-makers need to know what these products can do.
We came up with an innovative and forward thinking approach to making AI understandable. We took some real risks by creating an abstract but intuitive visual language. I think we pushed the envelope on what smart design can do.