Over the past weeks, I have begun to look at the design profession and design education in new ways. It is hard to argue with the idea that all design is future-based. Everything we design is destined for some point beyond now where the thing or space, the communication, or the service will exist. If it already existed, we wouldn’t need to design it. So design is all about the future. For most of the 20th century and the last 16 years, the lion’s share of our work as designers has focused primarily on very near-term, very narrow solutions: A better tool, a more efficient space, a more useful user interface or satisfying experience. In fact, the tighter the constraints, the narrower the problem statement and greater the opportunity to apply design thinking to resolve it in an elegant and hopefully aesthetically or emotionally pleasing way. Such challenges are especially gratifying for the seasoned professional as they have developed almost an intuitive eye toward framing these dilemmas from which novel and efficient solutions result. Hence, over the course of years or even decades, the designer amasses a sort of micro scale, big data assemblage of prior experiences that help him or her reframe problems and construct—alone or with a team—satisfactory methodologies and practices to solve them.
Coincidentally, this process of gaining experience is exactly the idea behind machine learning and artificial intelligence. But, since computers can amass knowledge from analyzing millions of experiences and judgments it is theoretically possible that an artificial intelligence could gain this “intuitive eye” to a degree far surpassing the capacity of an individual him-or-her designer.
That is the idea behind a brash (and annoyingly self-conscious) article from the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) entitled Automation Threatens To Make Graphic Designers Obsolete. Titles like this are a hook. Of course. Designers, deep down assume that they can never be replaced. They believe this because inherent to the core of artificial intelligence there is a lack of understanding, empathy or emotional verve, so far. We saw this earlier in 2016 when an AI chatbot went Nazi because a bunch of social media hooligans realized that Tay (the name of the Microsoft chatbot) was in learn mode. If you told “her” Nazi’s were cool, she believed you. It was proof, again, that junk in is junk out.
The AIGA author Rob Peart pointed to AutoDesk’s Dreamcatcher software that is capable of rapid prototyping surprisingly creative albeit roughly detailed prototypes. Peart features a quote from an Executive Creative Director for techno-ad-agency Sapient Nitro. “A designer’s role will evolve to that of directing, selecting, and fine tuning, rather than making. The craft will be in having vision and skill in selecting initial machine-made concepts and pushing them further, rather than making from scratch. Designers will become conductors, rather than musicians.”
I like the way we always position new technology in the best possible light. “You’re not going to lose your job. Your job is just going to change.” But tell that to the people who used to write commercial music, for example. The Internet has become a vast clearing house for every possible genre of music. It’s all available for a pittance of what it would have taken a musician to write, arrange and produce a custom piece of music. It’s called stock. There are stock photographs, stock logos, stock book templates, stock music, stock house plans, and the list goes on. All of these have caused a significant disruption to old methods of commerce, and some would say that these stock versions of everything lack the kind of polish and ingenuity that used to distinguish artistic endeavors. The artist’s who’s jobs they have obliterated refer to the work with a four-letter word.
Now, I confess I have used stock photography, and stock music, but I have also used a lot of custom photography and custom music as well. Still, I can’t imagine crossing the line to a stock logo or stock publication design. Perish the thought! Why? Because they look like four-letter-words; homogenized, templates, and the world does not need more blah. It’s likely that we also introduced these new forms of stock commerce in the best possible light, as great democratizing innovations that would enable everyone to afford music, or art or design. That anyone can make, create or borrow the things that professionals used to do.
As artificial intelligence becomes better at composing music, writing blogs and creating iterative designs (which it already does and will continue to improve), we should perhaps prepare for the day when we are no longer musicians or composers but rather simply listeners and watchers.
But let’s put that in the best possible light: Think of how much time we’ll have to think deep thoughts.