Design In An Age of Artificial Intelligence

It’s a wild time to be a designer.

In the past year, an AI replaced a design agency (Albert), an AI-powered app made headlines with its ability to turn your boring photos into artistic masterpieces (Prisma), and an AI platform was created to turn your ugly doodles into professional drawings (Autodraw).

Many have thought low wage jobs like burger flipping would be the first to be automated, but it’s becoming apparent that white collar jobs are just as likely to be replaced.

These innovations signal a new existential challenge to the creative industry. But rather than panicking, designers should consider how they could become more empowered with the rise of AI-assisted design.

Prisma App

Generative Design Before AI

The idea of generative, assisted design is actually not that new. We can look back more than 50 years ago — before AI existed — to the artist Sol LeWitt who used generative techniques to produce art. LeWitt, who specialized in contemporary painting and sculpture, believed that ideas themselves could be works of art.

Similar to an architect drawing a blueprint for a building and then letting a construction crew execute on it, he believed an artist should be able to conceive of an idea and then delegate its production to others. LeWitt was deliberately vague with his instructions for his works so that the artifact was not completely controlled by him. This fundamentally challenged long-held beliefs about authorship and the authority of the artist when producing work.

Sol LeWitt

Evolving Methods of Design

Fast forward to today and we can see that we’re having very similar conversations. What is the role of the designer when algorithms are the ones producing the design work? What exactly will designers do when AI becomes creative?

If you consider what makes a designer successful today, it’s the ability to pick up dozens of tools and skills, and be able to balance all of the design specialties including visual design, interaction design, motion, strategy, and user testing. Designers today still spend most of their time producing, leaving the strategic thinking to product managers, business analysts, and strategists. But as we move forward into the age of AI, designers will be offloading many of the rote tasks of design production to computers so they can focus on higher level design thinking.

We’re already seeing platforms start enable this shift. For example, The Grid makes AI websites that actually design themselves. The Grid starts off by asking what you’d like to accomplish with your website, then it generates a personalized site based on a combination of your color choices, image choices, and style preferences.

Once a baseline site has been created, you can use slider controls to finesse the design and adjust inputs such as color and font pairings.

The Grid

So far the Grid hasn’t been able to deliver on all of its promises, but it has shown that we are approaching a new era of how we create digital products.

As machines become more capable, we’ll see the role of the designer shift from creator to curator. For example, if a designer could define the logic of content, aesthetics, and typography for a platform, then an AI could come up with thousands of designs iterations. This will massively amplify designers’ ability to explore, experiment, and refine over short periods. AI systems can process information 24/7 and at a level of detail that no human can match, so it would behoove designers to let the machines do the heavy lifting while they fine-tune the details.

Creative Algorithms

Companies like Netflix are already using algorithms to design entire compositions on their own. For example, Netflix uses an AI to crop movie characters for posters and apply a stylized movie title unique to users’ interests, language, and location. It then A/B tests the effectiveness of each design on its millions of users in order to evolve and optimize its content.

Netflix’s automated movie poster generator

We all know the idiom, “don’t judge a book by its cover,” and we’ve all been guilty of it at some point. With movies and shows, this is especially relevant. Netflix has discovered how much images influence people’s decision to watch particular shows.

In order to learn which images perform best globally, Netflix uses a “similarity index” which applies slight changes to color, title treatment, and cropping of images. This saves valuable time for designers and allows them to test the effectiveness of design at a scale that has never been seen.


Designing More Than UIs

The issue of whether designers should code has been a hot topic for years. But the debate is now shifting from how something should be designed to what should be designed at all. As the ability for humans and machines to collaborate increases, designers will need to focus on designing algorithms rather than the interfaces themselves.

In this new paradigm, designers will define the logic and patterns that produces content, enabling the platform to then compile designs on its own. Designers from every industry will be empowered by these algorithmic approaches.

The architecture industry has been using AI-driven parametric design for years. Architects such as Zaha Hadid and MAD Architects have become world-renown because of their ability to control the logic of software that can create thousands of variations of a design based on inputs like sun exposure, views, or pedestrian movement.

As these design methods become more widely available to all types of industries, designers will be able to push into new territories of exploration — designers’ creativity will be amplified.

Crumpled, folded, rounded “wow” buildings will become increasingly commonplace — but they’ll no longer be designed by the stars. The only true stars will be the guys who design the parametric software.
-Karrie Jacobs
Zaha Hadid Architects

“How Do I Stay Relevant as a Designer?”

With new demands come new opportunities for designers to adapt and grow. As machines start to do more production work, designers will need to need to have knowledge in fields such as statistics, data analytics, and cognitive science and focus more of their attention on product definition and experience design. Critics will try to convince us that AI will steal all our design jobs, but the reality is that when humans and computers work together, amazing things can be accomplished that neither side could accomplish on their own.


Maeve Hosea, How Brands are Using AI to Create Better Customer Experiences

Yury Petrov, Algorithm Driven Design

Patrick Hebron, Machine Learning for Designers

Martin Ford, Rise of the Robots

Thanks for reading! If you’d like to continue the conversation, leave me a comment or message me on Twitter @blakehudelson.
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