What does AI mean to designers

Nowadays everyone talks about AI and how it will dramatically change our life. Taxi drivers are replaced by the driverless vehicles, doctors are replaced by surgical robots, so will designers be replaced by the robot as well?

To answer this question, I think we have to understand the strengths and weaknesses of AI in terms of design, and how to utilize their strengths and make up for their weaknesses.

Design = Input process + Output process, where should designers play the roles?

First let’s think about our design as a iterative process of getting some objective data and then generating solutions through cognitive reasoning. Machines and humans both have its advantages and disadvantages in this input and output process. The AI technology is to empower machines to help humans better solve problems, to automate some tedious and repetitive tasks following a certain structure/flow with a course of decision point and action. However, human beings still have the advantages in tasks with complex perception and manipulation, creative intelligence, and social intelligence.

Input process — AI to operate with designers providing direction

Designers always look for objective data to inform and support their design decisions. Input process is all about where and how to get the data. How to get these user data efficiently? This is where I think machines should play the roles in data aggregation and data mining. Every interaction within your product and every customer is the source of the data. Due to its large volume and velocity, allowing AI to access the data is very cost effective and responsive. Human beings are limited when processing new information, sometimes we rely on our biased, preferences, habits and principles to filter out the date through our own lens. Machines has its power and efficiency in processing and analyzing data in a more objective manner through preconfigured parameters. However, this doesn’t mean that designers can leave the machines alone. We have to provide the directions, set up the goals, parameters and constraints to let the AI knows where and how to get the data that can properly serve our needs.

Output process — Designers to lead creative process in cognitive reasoning

To a narrow perspective, reaching a conclusion/making a decision is also part of output process. A solution is composed of many small decision-making points connecting with each other and finally leading to a conclusion. That’s how the design is generated. When it comes to how, I think human beings is more competitive than machines. Because we are good at reasoning — to draw inference relevant to the solution of the particular take or situation. It is one of the hardest problems confronting AI as shown in previous research. The machines can help us gather as much information as needed but they can’t provide insights to create a new way of thinking, to inform the design, to illuminate and expand our minds in understanding a problem. Machine is still the machine no matter how intelligent it is. AI is not able to summarize a reasoned argument as to why a particular decision is made and a thing happens.

What AI may replace designers is the actual design productions. Designers may not need to spend several hours making the pixel-perfect graphics, filling the color and typing the text. We can focus on defining the goals, rules to configure the design and let the computer generate millions of variations of a design quickly and easily based on those metrics we set up.

Limitation of AI

Will AI replace designers? The answer is NO. AI may never advance enough to explore all the features of an object/thing. A reliable AI system is built on enough data with true understanding of the problems and thousands of testings. Often times, we do not just rely on computer simulation to test our unknown scenarios but with actual empirical data to fill the gaps in understanding a problem. Fundamentally, how to operate machines is controlled by our humans. So that AI can’t always fill in the gaps in our lack of understanding for how things work. It’s still a human-led creative process unless the AI is smart enough to adapt its operative model/framework to the new context and new users requirement with the capability of cognitive reasoning.

How do designers seize the opportunity in AI world?

The design thinking will be thriving more than ever as that’s the key of solving the problem, that’s how a desirable/sustainable product will continue its success and differentiate from the others. The barriers to learning and mastering the craft will be lower and designers can spend more time identifying and refining the problems through creative process. With all the advanced design tools and help of AI, we can easily bring our ideas into life without spending time learning the softwares. Imagine it could be as easy as generating the design while describing it with some key words. We can hand more generalized design tasks to AI-infused computers. For example tweaking the visuals/layout on the website, generating different design template, dynamically configuring design based on users preference and context.

With the emergence of AI, the design is not just about finding and providing the solution to what users is currently encountering but also predicting what they will be needing with the inference drawn from a large amount of data. That’s how to enable your design to read your customers minds. Designers will place more emphasis on serving users emotional needs not just functional needs. For example, how to adjust the design based on user stress levels so that they feel touching, how to design a structure of your conversational UI to make it engaging and relevant to users. Skills like persuasion, social understanding, motivating, and empathy will become differentiators as the AI takes over our other tasks.

AI can provide designers a solid foundation of personal data and has the potential for suggesting ideas and areas of improvement, helping use see a problem from different perspectives through different frameworks. All these can amplify our creativity as individuals and across professions. It means design will go beyond digital media and our interface is not just the screens. AR and VR is becoming the next frontier of opportunity for designers. We are facing the challenges to think a new way of interacting with people in virtual environment, building a shared experience. The future design will be more cross-disciplinary including disciplines such as architecture, interior design, object design, and fashion.

Recommended readings

AI and the future of design: What skills do we need to compete against the machines?

AI and the future of design: What will the designer of 2025 look like?

The rise of AI makes emotional intelligence more important