Adrian Shaugh­nessy dis­cusses how au­to­mated pro­cesses may threaten the role of the de­signer

Adrian Shaugh­nessy dis­cusses how au­to­mated pro­cesses could threaten the role of the de­signer

Computer Arts - - Contents - Could a ma­chine do your job? Tweet your thoughts to @Com­put­erArts us­ing #De­signMat­ters

The au­toma­tion of de­sign is un­der­way. So­cial me­dia has al­ready usurped many of a de­signer’s pre­vi­ous roles

Dur­ing my time as a graphic de­signer, I’ve ex­pe­ri­enced nearly every­thing – short of phys­i­cal vi­o­lence – that work­ing life can throw at you: re­ces­sions, le­gal dis­putes, de­fault­ing clients, and of course, the thrill that comes with com­plet­ing a suc­cess­ful pro­ject.

But two events – both of which turned the prac­tice of graphic de­sign on its head – stand out as life chang­ing. The first was the ar­rival of the Macin­tosh com­puter. For all prac­tis­ing de­sign­ers at the time, com­put­er­i­sa­tion ne­ces­si­tated an ex­ten­sive re­think of the craft: no more me­chan­i­cal art­work, no more paste-up, no more type­set­ters, no more ex­pen­sive re­touch­ers, and many of the tasks pre­vi­ously done by re­pro houses were taken over by de­sign­ers sit­ting in front of com­puter screens. It was the be­gin­ning of a new age of dig­i­tal sel­f­re­liance and a pe­riod of mas­sive re­ori­en­ta­tion.

The se­cond event was the ar­rival of the in­ter­net. Here was a new way of think­ing about, and mak­ing de­sign: sud­denly, de­sign­ers no longer had com­plete con­trol over how their work was re­ceived. The in­abil­ity to con­trol browser use, screen ra­tios and fonts had a de­ci­sive im­pact and old rules such as the num­ber of char­ac­ters per line length rule be­came re­dun­dant. Even the users them­selves could mess with the ap­pear­ance in ways un­think­able to de­sign­ers trained in print de­sign, where lay­outs were fixed once they left the de­signer’s hand.

Th­ese two events threat­ened to shrink the role of the de­signer, but the op­po­site happened. There are now more graphic de­sign­ers and stu­dents than ever be­fore. De­sign is a global in­dus­try em­bed­ded in, and in­sep­a­ra­ble from, busi­ness and cul­ture. For many, graphic de­sign is as much a life­style choice as a ca­reer choice. We do it be­cause we love it.


If de­sign and de­sign­ers can be said to have ben­e­fited from th­ese two shocks in the long run, there are con­cerns that the craft and the pro­fes­sion might not sur­vive quite so well. Is de­sign about to meet its Uber mo­ment? Is AI about to take on the role of the de­signer? Is the surge to­wards a fully au­to­mated world with­out work about to en­gulf de­sign?

It might seem that au­tomat­ing the de­sign process is im­pos­si­ble. You might as­sume that the creative imag­i­na­tion is the least likely arena to be taken over by ma­chines, that bots are for rou­tine pro­duc­tion, not con­cep­tual think­ing. In re­al­ity, the process is al­ready un­der­way. So­cial me­dia has usurped many of the roles pre­vi­ously done by de­sign­ers. You can start a busi­ness with a Face­book page (or as one ex­pert calls them “Face­book pages … the new small-busi­ness home­page”). For many, ac­cess to a Twit­ter or In­sta­gram ac­count is all the de­sign they need.

The au­toma­tion of count­less realms of ev­ery­day life is al­ready at an ad­vanced level: en­tire fac­to­ries are op­er­ated by ro­bots; le­gal con­tracts and stock mar­ket trad­ing are rou­tinely done by bots; au­to­mated ware­houses, ATMs, and user op­er­ated su­per­mar­ket tills mean fewer jobs in in­dus­tries once re­garded as high vol­ume em­ploy­ers; driver­less ve­hi­cles sig­nal the end for the mil­lions of peo­ple who drive for a liv­ing. Why should de­sign be any dif­fer­ent?

In the book, In­vent­ing the Fu­ture (Post­cap­i­tal­ism and a World With­out Work), Nick Sr­nicek and Alex Wil­liams state that: “any­thing from 47 to 80 per cent of jobs are likely to be au­tomat­able in the next two decades.” They also note that the “roboti­ci­sa­tion of ser­vices is now gath­er­ing steam, with over 150,000 pro­fes­sional ser­vice ro­bots sold in the past 15 years. Un­der par­tic­u­lar threat have been rou­tine jobs – jobs that can be cod­i­fied into a se­ries of steps.”

Surely this lets de­sign off the hook? We can’t ex­pect ma­chines to make the ir­ra­tional, grav­i­ty­de­fy­ing leaps of imag­i­na­tion that de­sign­ers make, can we? What about the de­signer’s abil­ity to cap­i­talise on ac­ci­dents and un­fore­seen co­in­ci­dences? Surely this sort of cog­ni­tion is be­yond the bot?

Not so. We live un­der the dic­tum that any­thing that can be au­to­mated will be au­to­mated. And nowhere in the de­sign world is this idea more ad­vanced than in web de­sign. In a post ti­tled Why Web De­sign is Dead, on the web­site UX Magazine, de­signer Ser­gio Nou­vel notes: “Most of the con­tent you see on the web to­day is run by some frame­work or ser­vice – Word­Press, Blog­ger, Dru­pal, you name it. Frame­works pro­vide you a foun­da­tion and short­cuts so you spend less time strug­gling with the cre­ation of a web­site, and more time cre­at­ing con­tent. As a con­se­quence of the ubiq­uity of th­ese frame­works, a world of free and paid tem­plates lets you start with a pro­fes­sion­al­look­ing de­sign in min­utes. Why hire a web de­signer if you can achieve a fairly ac­cept­able de­sign for a frac­tion of the cost us­ing a tem­plate?”


The Grid, a San Francisco and Berlin-based start-up, was the first to an­nounce that it has cre­ated a web­site builder that uses ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence. It en­ables users to up­load im­ages and text or make use of its li­brary of colour com­bi­na­tions and im­ages, and then, us­ing AI, it per­forms all the key de­sign func­tions: po­si­tion­ing of im­ages, place­ment of text, selecting colours and sculpt­ing a unique, cus­tomised web­site. The Grid says it doesn’t use tem­plates, but ‘lay­out sys­tems’, which it claims of­fers greater flex­i­bil­ity.

With The Grid, if you don’t like what you see, you hit the Re­design but­ton and in sec­onds a dif­fer­ent lay­out ap­pears. The Grid’s pro­mo­tional video gives the im­pres­sion of ef­fort­less, nearly in­stant suc­cess. It’s a se­duc­tive pitch. But not ev­ery­one is im­pressed.

Var­i­ous we­bi­nars of­fer a less con­vinc­ing glimpse into The Grid’s AI ap­proach to web de­sign. Watch­ing th­ese crit­i­cal take­downs, I was re­minded of the early days of DTP de­sign – gap-toothed ty­pog­ra­phy and bitmapped im­ages. But the painful DTP birthing phase didn’t last long. De­sign­ers mas­tered the soft­ware, the soft­ware im­proved, and so did com­put­ing power. You wouldn’t lose money bet­ting on AI web­sites be­com­ing much bet­ter in the fu­ture.

It’s easy to see why clients would be at­tracted to this grit-free process. There’s no more time spent lis­ten­ing to pesky de­sign­ers de­fend­ing their de­sign de­ci­sions, no more wait­ing around for new de­signs to ar­rive. And here’s the clincher: no more re­design fees. In­stead, clients in­habit a fra­grant world of end­less it­er­a­tion and seem­ingly lim­it­less choice.

The Grid is not alone in its quest. In Septem­ber 2016, the web­site Tech Crunch re­ported that Canva, a de­sign plat­form for web and mo­bile, had an­nounced a new in­fu­sion of $15 mil­lion in fund­ing and a dou­bling of its val­u­a­tion in 12 months. This added cap­i­tal was re­ported to have brought Canva’s val­u­a­tion up to a whop­ping $345 mil­lion.

What makes Canva so at­trac­tive to the guys with the money is the fact that it can be used by non­de­sign­ers. Canva claims it only takes 23 sec­onds to be­come a pro­fi­cient user of its soft­ware. Ten mil­lion peo­ple are al­legedly us­ing it to de­sign busi­ness cards, posters, pre­sen­ta­tions, and graph­ics for so­cial me­dia.

Look­ing at the for­mu­laic de­sign fea­tured on the site, it’s hard to take se­ri­ously claims that ‘any­one can be­come a de­signer’ with Canva. It’s easy to laugh at some of the work th­ese sites post as ex­am­ples – most of it looks as if it has been de­signed by some­one on au­topi­lot. But will we be mock­ing in five years’ time? When we look at what is hap­pen­ing in AI, it seems fool­ish to dis­miss at­tempts to au­to­mate de­sign.


When I talk to de­sign­ers about the like­li­hood of AI tak­ing over the tasks of de­sign­ers, I’m met with scep­ti­cism. But this strikes me as short-sighted. In a de­tailed ac­count of Google’s work in AI, pub­lished in the New York Times Magazine, the jour­nal­ist Gideon Lewis-Kraus writes about the com­pany’s use of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence to trans­form Google Trans­late. Any­one who has used the trans­la­tion ser­vice will know that its re­sults are hit and miss, al­ways re­quire cor­rec­tion, and are rarely id­iomat­i­cally cor­rect.

All that is chang­ing. In its new AI-driven ver­sion, Google Trans­late is pro­duc­ing as­ton­ish­ing re­sults. De­vel­oped by the Google Brain team, ‘ar­ti­fi­cial neu­ral net­works’ (much like those in our skulls) are of­fer­ing an al­ter­na­tive to tra­di­tional com­puter pro­gram­ming and rep­re­sent a move to­wards self-learn­ing ma­chines. Us­ing th­ese net­works, ro­bots can then ac­quaint them­selves with the world via trial and er­ror in the same way that chil­dren do, giv­ing ma­chines “some­thing like hu­man flex­i­bil­ity.”

Lewis-Kraus re­minds us of Alan Tur­ing’s fa­mous test for an ar­ti­fi­cial gen­eral in­tel­li­gence: “A com­puter that could, over the course of five min­utes of text ex­change, suc­cess­fully de­ceive a real hu­man in­ter­locu­tor. Once a ma­chine can trans­late flu­ently be­tween two nat­u­ral lan­guages, the foun­da­tion has been laid for a ma­chine that might one day ‘un­der­stand’ hu­man lan­guage well enough to en­gage in plau­si­ble con­ver­sa­tion.”

If Google’s new trans­la­tion ser­vice is close to ful­fill­ing Tur­ing’s cri­te­rion, then it’s not much of a stretch to imag­ine AI tack­ling more so­phis­ti­cated de­sign prob­lems than shift­ing el­e­ments around on a web­page. Most of the ev­ery­day de­sign we en­counter can be bro­ken down into a sim­ple set of prin­ci­ples that can be cod­i­fied, and it seems highly prob­a­ble that a ma­chine can learn the rules of ty­pog­ra­phy, the golden ra­tio and the rule of three. And it’s no gam­ble to as­sume that cost-culling busi­nesses will latch onto the money sav­ing ben­e­fits of AI de­sign.

What should de­sign­ers do? AI driven de­sign al­ready has the po­ten­tial to re­move some, or most of the pro­duc­tion based tasks that de­sign­ers do. Need 100 web ban­ners for a global ad cam­paign, all with dif­fer­ent in­for­ma­tion and nu­mer­ous dif­fer­ent lan­guages? No prob­lem. Ro­bots ca­pable of han­dling such rou­tine tasks will re­sult in fewer de­sign pro­duc­tion peo­ple.

But will the sharp end of de­sign be af­fected? Even­tu­ally, yes, and just as hu­man be­ings have learned to do since the in­tro­duc­tion of in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion, we must adapt. It’s my be­lief that de­sign­ers are well equipped to do this. Teach­ing flex­i­bil­ity and a will­ing­ness to learn may be the big­gest chal­lenge fac­ing the world’s de­sign schools.

Of course, this doesn’t only ap­ply to de­sign. In the in­for­ma­tion age, we may be look­ing at a world with­out paid work. This takes us into the po­lit­i­cal realm, and sub­jects that gov­ern­ments are avoid­ing. It poses ques­tions such as adopt­ing a ba­sic in­come, and the re­learn­ing that will be needed when the postin­dus­trial world is re­placed by one of un­lim­ited leisure. Th­ese top­ics are dis­cussed in academia and fu­ture-gaz­ing think tanks, but we all need to be think­ing about them sooner rather than later.

Half­way through writ­ing this, I had a sud­den, sober­ing glimpse into a ma­chine-driven world. My five-year-old iMac died. The screen went black, none of the usual reme­dies helped and it was Christ­mas, so there was no chance of emer­gency re­pairs. It was a personal mini-dis­as­ter. But this is what hap­pens to ma­chines: they break. Per­haps their fal­li­bil­ity is the only thing be­tween us and an AI fu­ture.

Most of the ev­ery­day de­sign we en­counter can be bro­ken down into a set of prin­ci­ples that can be cod­i­fied

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