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What Happened When A Design Agency Made A Twitter Bot Its Creative Director

Hugo is a 10-inch robot who reads tweets out loud. For a glorious 24 hours, he was boss.

It’s not uncommon for design agencies to have a creative director barking orders at the design bullpen all day. Edmonton’s Paper Leaf has one too, but theirs is unique. Meet Hugo, a 10-inch-tall, soft foam robot who, earlier this month, was set to the task of bossing around Paper Leaf’s designers, all day long.

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Paper Leaf is an eight-person digital design firm that primarily designs websites, applications, and brands. The company also dabbles in experimental mashups of design and technology on so-called “Build Days” — single days when the designers temporarily jettisons client work to focus on internal projects that tickle their fancy.

The idea for Hugo came out of such a Build Day. “When we were brainstorming for our previous Build Day, we threw around a million ideas–but we kept coming back to one,” says Paper Leaf principal Jeff Archibald (also an occasional Co.Design contributor). “We thought it would be fun to work with the Twitter API and try to make something physical that was Internet-powered, just to see if we could. We eventually settled on a tweeting robot.”

That means Hugo doesn’t have much of a mind of his own. He’s not much more than a Raspberry Pi, a WiFi dongle, a battery, and a speaker in a foamcore chassis. But when he’s turned on, he can vocalize tweets marked with the #hugorobot hashtag, thanks to a Python script. On December 2, Paper Leaf turned Hugo on, and promoted him to the role of their social creative director for the day. How’d it work out?

“The best and worst part about a social experiment like this is that Hugo is really just a vessel–the Internet decides what he’s going to be like,” Archibald says. “So it was super interesting to see how people watching the livestream and tweeting #hugorobot started to use the whole campaign. The whole ‘social creative direction’ thing took a backseat to a million other ideas and tweets.” Those ideas include bringing Hugo a scotch, crowdfunding him some arms, and scratching his back. The Twitterverse also told Paper Leaf’s designers to dive into their beanbag chairs and take a selfie with him.

“People took it in every direction you could think of,” Archibald says. Including the inevitable trolling. It wasn’t long before the communities at 4Chan and 9Gag discovered Hugo, and inevitably started blasting out profane, offensive, and racist tweets aimed at the innocuous little robot. Paper Leaf anticipated this, and programmed Hugo to blacklist tweets that included a list of no-no words, but it was tough going, for a while. “Let’s just say they really put Hugo’s blacklist to the test,” Archibald says.

At his peak, Hugo was the No.1 trending term on Twitter Canada, and people were tweeting at him at a rate of 400 tweets per hour. And while Hugo didn’t exactly help Paper Leaf get any work done that day, Archibald says he thinks the project was a success. “We got to dive further into the Twitter API; got to do some custom-scripting; got to design actual 3-D elements and work with hardware; and more,” he says. “We’d never had the opportunity to do work like this before–we knew we could, but we got to prove it to ourselves. I personally hope Hugo gets people’s brains working a bit, too, to generate ideas around how social campaigns can be run, how social can be mashed up with design and technology, and more.”

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