Visual Metaphors for Generative AI

Trends / Technology
Andriy Onufriyenko
Rebecca Rom-Frank
Sep 27, 2023
As Getty Images launches its own AI image generator in partnership with NVIDIA, how can brands and the media visualize the concept of generative AI itself?
Last year, we identified the need for more grounded, human‑centered visual representations of AI, a departure from the robots and abstract waves of data that have been popular in the past. But that was last year. In 2023, the exponential progress and availability of generative AI technology has completely shifted the conversation, as generative text and image tools allow us to see this emerging technology at work before our very eyes. The aesthetics created by and in reaction to these tools are still unfolding—the well‑known meme of the Pope in a puffy coat, the uncanny Harry Potter x Balenciaga video, and the fake Drake songs are likely just the beginning of a slew of relatively harmless (for now) examples of popular "synthetic media"1. In the meantime, choosing visuals that represent this new evolution of AI requires a nuanced understanding of current cultural conversations, consumer sentiment, and aesthetics.
Show human presence and control over AI tools
From international calls to pause AI research2 to the full‑blown work stoppages in the US film and television industries3, public opinion about the place of AI in business and in society is decidedly controversial. Our own global consumer survey shows that from summer 2022 (42%) to summer 2023 (49%), people grew increasingly nervous about AI, as concerns about potential job losses and misinformation ramped up. Even so, most global consumers (82%) are still excited about the possibility that generative AI could help them be more productive, considering the potential of tools which streamline processes such as digital search, virtual assistance, and design.

When choosing visual concepts to represent generative AI, it's important to communicate the idea that these tools are ultimately in our hands—and that we as a society can choose how and why we use them. Especially as new themes such as creativity, transformation, and autonomy are introduced into the visual representations of AI in general, consider visualizing a human presence or control within AI concepts. Authentic photography and video showing humans using apps or digital tools works, although this idea can also be expressed metaphorically, by showing a human or analog tool such as a paintbrush in control of producing or transforming “digital” outputs.
The shift to a tertiary color palette signifies new technologies
We've written about the recent color palette shift in popular technology visuals, from Minority Report blues and greens to the purples and magentas of recent "bisexual lighting" trends in film and TV. However, even with this color shift in place, most images that brands are using to represent AI in 2023 are still very dark: many show black backgrounds, nighttime settings, or eerie server rooms. These dark visual choices convey to the viewer that there is now more mystery, uncertainty, and unknowns surrounding AI. While this is all technically true, brands that are integrating AI into their business models can consider whether they are doing so responsibly, and, if that is the case, project a more optimistic vision.

When choosing visuals related to generative AI and its new uses, consider moving away from the dark sci‑fi aesthetic of The Matrix and towards bright and fresh tertiary color palettes: think magenta, teal, lime, violet, yellow‑orange.4 This palette, which has become synonymous with emerging technology thanks to various Web3 projects5, accurately signals that we are entering a new era of technological development. And while we don't know the outcomes yet, these colors at least suggest that it could be exciting.
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