Design Doping: My Obsession with AI as the Ultimate Brainstorming Partner
By Matthew Santone
Three years ago, in the wake of giving numerous talks on ‘Actual Design for Real AI’, I sat down and tried to write this very article but failed to get the words out of my head.
As global principal designer at argo, I was beginning to feel a shift in my role from simply pushing pixels to becoming an orchestrator of design. Having spent the prior four years designing first-of-their kind AI orchestration tooling for developers, I knew that it wouldn’t be long for machine learning to find its way into designer tools — AI as our ultimate brainstorm partner. “Clippy, but for real this time” is how I described it in my talks.
You know what came next of course. The past 6 months have been a blur, as generative tools have exploded onto the scene—and improved in their abilities almost daily. I’ve been experimenting with every tool and Google Colab notebook I can get my hands on to see what I can get out of these systems. What are their limitations? How deep is this rabbit hole? It is one of the few times in my career where a shift in technology has kept me up at night. Let me tell you, I have yet to lose any sleep over the metaverse.
My journey started with cats, obviously. “A hyper realistic schrodinger’s cat in a box that is both alive and dead,” to be exact. Then on to octopuses, jewelry, haute couture, back to cats, movie posters, glassware, potter, and drag queens. I even started to replicate the early 2000s indie sleaze party scene, but with cats. You get the picture. Every result accompanied with a hit of dopamine on this Instagram of my imagination.
I then started making creations for everyone around me, including artists, fashion designers, jewelry designers, folk artists, copywriters, and even a sommelier. “You have to see this,” I would say, sometimes shoving an AI impersonation of their craft in their face. The responses have been shock, anger, curiosity, excitement, and even a few sales.
I think what surprised me the most is that I began to find myself consulting these tools in my day-to-day workflow. It was powerful. It was fun.
One of the most exciting aspects of generative AI is its ability to help designers see beyond the limits of our imagination. By lowering the friction of experimentation and letting the AI generate a multitude of options, designers can arrive at ideas that would normally be unconsciously blocked; the unspoken rules of our internal bias of “what’s good.” A designer stuck on a certain aesthetic or functional requirement might be able to use generative AI to explore a wider range of options and arrive at a solution they would never have thought of on their own. This ability to see beyond the limits of our imagination is a powerful tool that can help designers push the boundaries of what is possible. I have already been forced to relearn and expand my vernacular in how I describe the ideas in my head.
It’s like the infinite monkey theorem as a service, providing endless possibilities for designers to explore.
As design increasingly becomes a collaborative effort between humans and machines, the role of the designer is evolving. No longer are designers simply responsible for pushing pixels around; they must now also take on the role of design orchestrator, coordinating the efforts of both human and machine collaborators to create the best possible outcome.
The potential for generative AI to enable designers to work on a larger scale and tackle more complex problems is exciting.
Will this technology alter the world as we know it? Change the way we think about aesthetics and beauty? Democratize design? Take my job? Destroy all of humanity?
Anyone claiming to know the 2–3 year impact of these emerging capabilities is bullshitting you and more than likely have never even opened one of these tools. Their words are as consequential as piss in the wind.
As Roy Amara said, “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” And let’s be honest with ourselves — AI is no stranger to overhype and long cold winters.
So what’s next?
Near-term, as the complexity and abstraction build, where we participate and how we participate as designers will change. New tooling and UI will allow me to refine parts of the whole output instead of starting over each time. It becomes a process of curation and conversation: “more like this, add this, remove that, remix this.”
Long-term, increasing complexity will be the most interesting vector. There comes a tipping point in which we as designers, as human beings, will no longer be able to grasp the complexity of the AI system we are collaborating with. The abstraction layers begin to pile up to build more and more sophisticated outputs. Today we imagine an image into existence. Tomorrow we imagine an app into existence. Putting an entire army of AI squirrels to work to produce the result. At some point we won’t be able to orchestrate it all.
It becomes a give-and-take of control in exchange for increased abilities. The ability to work on a larger scale and tackle more complex problems is exciting. But it will come with tradeoffs in control and understanding.
I believe it becomes fundamental to not make the future state an argument about efficiency. The process of design has already become too efficient. And rewarding AI purely on the metric of efficiency will arrive at results devoid of humanity, for better and for worse.
But back to today. The process of collaboration is already increasing between myself and the machine. The gap between output as inspiration and competent system builder is no small gap to bridge and one I am excited to participate in.
Now is not the time to stand idling and pontificate. Now is the time to participate in the development and use of AI in design, whether you are for it, against it, or somewhere in between. It’s important to actively participate and help steer and shape the future.
So start experimenting with the tools today. Get on Discord and see what people are already creating. Start by copying what you see. Then begin to find your own voice. Don’t filter yourself. Don’t try and anticipate what might or might not work. Play and see what happens.
Ready or not, here AI come.
And thanks to AI, I was able to finally get these words out of my head and on to this paper.
Matthew Santone is a seasoned designer, strategist, and innovator with a keen eye for visualizing the future. He joined the argo team when the firm was in its infancy and played a crucial role in building and growing the practice from the ground up. With a passion for designing cognitive systems and the tools for creating them, Matthew has a long list of accomplishments, including over thirty patents for various technologies such as cognitive design GUIs, nested folder control, style selector bars, mobile-first authoring tools and systems for authoring, distributing, viewing, and saving card-based JSON packages. Most recently, he has dedicated himself to a revolutionary effort in democratizing AI through a breakthrough toolset that will change the way AI is authored, trained, and managed.