AI Tools Won’t Stop Growing—Are Designers Screwed?

As with most industries, design has seen both huge benefits and questions from AI’s impact. The tech is rapidly changing, but our relationship with and understanding of how it can impact our daily lives is evolving even quicker. Like any other industry, designers benefit significantly from the efficiency AI creates but question where it leaves them in the creative process. Should we be worried? In my opinion, the impact of AI on the design world will vary dramatically depending on the type of work.

Most design work encompasses two major buckets: conceptual design and production design.

Conceptual Design

Conceptual design is original design thinking, which requires practical and cognitive skills, such as critical thinking, cultural understanding, good design sensibilities, and intuition. It balances analytical and creative thinking to create something that communicates targeted, complicated, and nuanced ideas to a specific audience about a specific message, product, or service. Whether you’re designing a brand identity or a marketing campaign, this is not a binary process, and no two design solutions are ever arrived at in the same way.

Production design

Production design involves working with very prescriptive templates, directives, and a specific understanding of what needs to be done. Some examples are resizing a billboard to a social graphic, preparing design files for printers or developers, or laying out new text into a cut sheet using a template. This type of design is a more prescriptive process focused on execution with a very clear outcome.

While AI can play a role in both buckets, the human element of conceptual design is essential, and I don’t think there’s any way that conceptual design could ever switch completely to AI. Skilled human influence will always be essential in creating things for humans, and I don’t think that will change anytime soon. I say that for a few reasons.

  1. AI is only as good as the prompts it is fed. Those prompts need to come from someone who has good sensibilities, cultural awareness, and some technical understanding to guide the tool towards good output. They also need to have a clear picture of what they want and the vernacular to articulate it clearly.
  2. AI is limited. While AI can be helpful for generating ideas, it will never be as good as working with a creative person who can build, expand, and surprise with their thinking. I’ve seen a lot of situations in which Chat GPT will just answer my question with the same question.
  3. AI can’t draw on experience the way a human can. Although AI uses a lot of information and data to generate visuals, it doesn’t have the ability to synthesize totally unrelated or abstract things, like experiences, people, or cultures, into an output that is new and unexpected. Maybe someday AI will be able to replicate the 86 billion neurons in the human brain, but for now, it requires a lot of human direction to generate exceptional output.
  4. AI is biased. AI has been trained using past and available data, which means there’s an implicit bias with what it creates that perpetuates gender, racial, and socioeconomic stereotypes. Without a discerning human thinking critically about the output, creating unexpected, ownable, and progressive content will be hard.

Where do humans fit in?

Human staying power in idea-building is backed by how similar ideation has been through time despite technological advancements. When thinking back to how ideas came to life in the days of the Mad Men, it’s not all that different from how they come to life now. The tools are different, but at the end of the day, it’s usually a group of people in a room (or a zoom) leveraging insights, research, and, perhaps most importantly, their own human connections, life experiences, and sensibilities to drive ideation. Everyone reacts to ideas being workshopped, builds upon them, offers alternate perspectives, and ultimately builds something original, poignant, and lasting.

Production design is the area where AI will have the most impact. AI excels at anything prescriptive and repetitive. That doesn’t mean production designers will immediately become irrelevant; human intervention is still important and won’t completely disappear. That said, the reality is, when you look back at what architecture firms looked like before the advent of CAD, it’s clear that technology has reduced the size of the workforce, as companies are now able to do more with less. I think we are already seeing how AI is driving another wave of that for certain job functions that are more repetitive and have a very clear directive.

What’s the good news?

AI is enabling creativity in many ways by eliminating barriers associated with execution. For example, let’s say a designer has an amazing concept, but it requires incredibly complicated illustrations or very specific photos that would require an unattainable budget—the concept could be dead or watered down because of the limitations of executing it. With AI, concepts can be fully realized much quicker and cheaper, enabling creatives to bring more ideas to life. It levels the playing field for smaller shops and budgets to do big things.

AI efficiency will also enable designers to pressure test ideas and/or refine them much faster. Any creative will tell you that the first five, ten, and sometimes twenty ideas are bad. Part of the creative process is working through the obvious ones to get to the good stuff. Since AI enables a much faster execution workflow, getting twenty, fifty, or even a hundred ideas out is much quicker than it used to be.

The utility of AI in enabling human creativity through more efficient workflows will only grow as the technology continues to evolve and develop. But what does the future of AI look like in design? It’s a little hard to speculate with absolute certainty. The evolution of our culture, sentiment, and society will greatly influence how AI intersects with our lives.

While the adoption of AI in design isn’t slowing, it’s clear that we are entering a period where the visuals are becoming ubiquitous. We’re already seeing an “AI aesthetic” emerge, which was cool and new initially but is already starting to feel tired. Once a design aesthetic or visual treatment feels tired, it starts to feel cheap, overplayed, and unoriginal because it’s clear that there wasn’t a lot of time or money invested in it. While that won’t deter all businesses from using it heavily, it will limit their ability to stand out or feel like a well-crafted brand. It’s analogous to using stock photography. Using stock isn’t bad and can be really successful. But it takes someone with a discerning eye, a clear vision, and strong design surrounding the stock assets to make them work.

I’m excited about the impact AI is having on design and it will be really interesting to see how that impact changes and evolves as the technology does. Photoshop’s Generative Fill has already been a complete paradigm shift. When I think back to the days (maybe weeks?) of my life I could’ve gotten back painstakingly using the clone tool just to execute something I could already visualize in my head, I am very thankful that those days are over. I can’t wait to see how things will continue to develop and how quicker execution will lead to better ideas.

Disclaimer: the thumbnail image for this blog was created using artificial and human intelligence.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *