Launched late last year, ET Brain (“ET” being short for “Evolutionary Technology”) is the artificial intelligence platform of Alibaba Cloud, part of the giant Alibaba Group, that offers cloud computing services and solutions. ET Brain is an intelligent, adaptive technology platform for practical applications that rely on data processing, machine learning, and real-time processing, and it’s being positioned as a solution for different industries: ET Aviation Brain, ET Sports Brain, ET City Brain, etc., where its abilities can adapt to different needs. As a partner of the Winter Olympics, Alibaba Cloud took the opportunity to introduce ET Brain to a larger audience, with an identity and visual language designed by Wolff Olins.
Whilst far eastern markets have embraced automation, the West tends to fear AI and robotics, perhaps because of extreme media portrayals and increasing concern over control.
Alibaba Cloud took a fresh approach to this challenge. It thinks of ET Brain as a partner rather than a tool.
Our task was to create a visual, audio and behavioural language that would feel natural, friendly and human, whilst still feeling future-facing and exciting. We called this ‘Evolutionary Technology’ - a technology that understands us, evolves with us and is for everybody.
The principle feature of the mark was the central dot, referencing how data might enter and leave the system. We also needed to convey the technology’s reliance on the power of the Alibaba cloud infrastructure. We gave it an amorphous, dynamic background to represent this, and act as a world it can live within. This design language helps create a conceptual understanding of the technology in an accessible and friendly way.
From the start, it was clear ET Brain was more than a static visual mark. For people to be able to build affinity with what could otherwise be a ‘cold’ computing technology, it needed to feel like a living system - an intelligent, conscious entity, capable of emotion.
Using motion as the starting point, we focused on a core set of behaviours and built out subtle animations. These would give a sense of what the technology was doing, but also how it might be feeling.
This is a rather difficult “entity” to design an identity for — it’s not an identity for a restaurant or a company selling shoes or even a telco — as there are few points of reference or comparison for anyone involved (from client, to designer, to audience). This is similar to IBM Watson’s identity in that it has to give voice and personality to an ambiguous thinking brain making decisions while trying to make it marketable at time where there aren’t that many mass-market artificial intelligence platforms to compare against.
The ET Brain mark is quite nice, transforming a simple dot into a sort of eye — or if you wanted to get metaphorically deep, a sort of soul — that lives within this implied, three-dimensional shape. It’s kind of hard to explain but I feel like it works surprisingly well in making the logo operate somewhere between the Minority Report user interfaces and WALL-E’s EVE, which may be too much praise but it gets to the point of the weird balance that graphic representations of AI must strike: techie enough but not too techie where we fear the robots will rise and emotional enough but not too emotional where we fear of falling in love with something like Her’s “Samantha”. But enough with the movie references. This was a frickin’ hard logo to design and this is a great solution. The wordmark is perhaps too literally techie in its monospace approach but it’s cool enough.
The static applications are nice, all tinted with blue and purple gradients and tied together by the monospace font. Nothing groundbreaking or amazing but nicely done. The logo, as an endorser in those ads, is quite convincing too.
Beyond digital, ET Brain needed a representation in the physical world. It’s a common cultural expectation that technology products have a mascot, manifest in lines of merchandise, costumed characters at trade shows and even animated entertainment.
The central dot, as the key tool of expression, could be anthropomorphised into a face. The rest of the figure reflected the multi-faceted personality and application of the technology.
Of all the twists and turns this identity could take, I didn’t expect a mascot but this Mini ET character is quite charming, unexpected, and an interesting physical representation of the logo. Its stubby legs and giant head are pretty cute but I could also see it turning evil and killing you in your sleep.
Overall, this is an interesting, dynamic, and attractive solution for a challenge that in a few years will be as common as designing identities for a a restaurant or a company selling shoes or even a telco.