Ever since the appearance of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL, the idea of computers that could think for themselves has been a little disconcerting for most of us. But this is a new time. Artificial intelligence (AI) is here, and no killer androids are in sight (yet). Instead, we’ve got an all new, more mundane, yet equally scary set of fears: losing our jobs to computers and robots.
The reality of artificial intelligence for the design industry (which has always been at the forefront of progress by embracing and adopting new technologies) is that it might not be so much a danger to be feared, but a catalyst for a paradigm shift. Change is coming whether we want it or not, so the best strategy may be to embrace these new tools and hang on for the ride.
Automation of jobs
But what about artificial intelligence and the job market? I know what you’re thinking: “Stop waxing philosophical and tell me if my job is going to disappear!” The truth is that even experts aren’t sure about this, but there are a few things we do know.
A recent estimate thinks that about 38 percent of the current job market will be at risk due to automation by the 2030s. Water, sewer and waste management jobs are at the top of the list, followed by transportation and storage jobs, and then manufacturing jobs. Retail workers are right behind them, along with administrative jobs. Even some kinds of legal and medical jobs—like those that involve routine parsing of records and forms—have also joined the endangered job species list.
Automation in the design industry
What about designers, then? So far, they appear to be at relatively low risk. A designer’s job typically includes creating and processing unstructured information. And because they need to be able to relate to others, designers are expected to have not only creative skills but social skills.
Even so, Fast Co. Design points out that much of design is formulaic enough to feed to a computer. It’s not special sauce or pixie dust that creates appealing websites, but design principles such as the golden ratio, Fibonacci’s spiral, the rule of three and sacred geometry. If human designers can apply those principles, so can computers.
There are many rote tasks designers perform, such as working with grids and pre-set rules across devices, that could easily be automated. But freeing up time by taking these tasks out of the hands of designers could also be a win. No one misses physically going to the library for research and sifting through paper books and articles, do they?
The Grid, a website builder that uses AI to generate sites without the input of a designer, has been touted both as a labor-saving device for designers and a hostile takeover of the design profession. If apps like The Grid are used by design studios, the basics of web design could be automated based on client parameters and goals. Then, designers could take over for fine tuning and UX tasks.
Tools like Autodesk Dreamcatcher are even more impressive. By applying algorithms to any set of parameters, the app produces numerous iterations of a design, allowing designers to choose the best one, or top few for recombination.
As technology analyst Rob Girling points out, most modern design jobs are defined by social and creative intelligence, skills that demand creative problem-solving, empathy, negotiation, persuasion and problem framing.
Artificial intelligence may affect the workforce by challenging more non-designers to develop their social and creative intelligence in order to stay employable. Designers may need to do more to differentiate themselves and will probably seek out more niche-specific and deeply skilled specializations or gain more broad-based skills that transfer to many roles.
How designers can work with artificial intelligence
The designers of the near future will be even more creative, acting as curators assisted by technology. This means that they will provide high-level direction to their AI partners, including goals, constraints and the specific problems that need to be solved. Theoretically, this would free up their time for more creative tasks.
While artificial intelligence evolves, it will especially require the curator’s collaboration and feedback in order to grow and learn. Designers will also have the opportunity to structure algorithms in service to their own creative work—an awesome chance to change the face of the profession forever.
In the end, AI will enable designers to create forms that would be impossible for a lone human to construct. It will make their work better by suggesting incremental improvements based on a profound understanding of their inspirations and influences and the ability to A/B test ad nauseam. Artificial intelligence will be an indispensable tool.
Generative technologies along with VR/AR have already changed other industries such as architecture and video game design in significant ways—but not ways that have meant job loss for creatives. Instead, a new era of technologically-enhanced creativity has begun.
The strange creations of AI designers
Meanwhile, even though it seems clear that artificial intelligence isn’t close to taking over design jobs, that’s not stopping data scientists from trying out AI designers on creative tasks. The result is a sometimes painful, sometimes outright goofy world.
In one case, a Japanese creative director at an ad agency was pitted against an AI in a contest to create a better ad for Clorets (really). While the human’s ad won the popular vote by a thin margin (54 percent), the industry vote went to the AI’s ad.
An algorithm was also used to design 7 million one-of-a-kind labels for Nutella jars in Italy as part of a special marketing campaign. It was wildly successful, prompting Italians to create more than 10,000 videos, and selling out all 7 million jars in one month.
Still, the artistry of AI isn’t always on point. An AI wrote a bizarre short sci-fi film that went on to be even weirder by starring David Hasselhoff. Watch it if you dare. Or if your place needs a new coat of paint, why not try one of the shades created by an AI? Sting Gray isn’t bad, but stay away from Farty Red, Bull Cream and Rose Colon.
Beyond the weird and the whaaaat?, AI designers have created art that is truly beautiful—sometimes well enough to fool humans. Google Deep Dream generates stunning color-saturated images that help it learn. In fact, now that they’re going up for auction, Google’s AI might be making more money from its art than many a struggling artist.
The future is an opportunity
We’ve already seen the economy change so much, so it’s important to examine our work and identify parts that might be automated by up and coming technologies. But don’t worry about those aspects of it. Instead, focus on adding value through creativity, adaptation to the unexpected and human insight.
Seen in this light, artificial intelligence is a positive catalyst for the future of design—and I really think it will be. The technology is ours to mine and refine, just like the HAL computer was for its users. Before he turned to life of murderous cybercrime, HAL was the reason his crew was able to make the voyage into the deep reaches of the solar system, and his failure was technically his programmers’ too.
Likewise, now is not the time for designers to shy away from their tradition of embracing new technology. Just as we always have, we should see it as a tool that will make our work better, freeing us up by eliminating tedious tasks, assisting us toward one-of-a-kind creative pieces that are high-concept and emotional. As long as we can learn to adapt to and work with new technology, it can only help us retain our usefulness in any field.