Working alongside the robot – what the future has in store for designers

Working alongside the robot – what the future has in store for designers

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Working alongside the robot – what the future has in store for designers

It is easy to be pessimistic: AI is coming for our jobs, it seems, and even the old wisdom that a computer will never challenge human creativity rings increasingly hollow: Just look at the illustration it paints, the poem it writes, the music it composes, the code it ships, and – yes - the designs it creates.

It is not perfect yet, but the path is clear: AI already excels in some areas, and it's getting better across the board at ever faster speeds. In fact, its levels of image recognition, reading comprehension and language understanding have already surpassed human levels.

History is full of examples of how introducing new technology has displaced jobs. Think about the early Industrial Revolution, where, famously, automation in the weaving industry led to widespread job loss and, ultimately, the Luddite riots.

However, history is also full of examples of new job creation and the augmentation of existing jobs based on technological innovation. You and I, for the time being at least, still have something to do at the office, right? It is radically different than the jobs we would have performed a hundred years ago, but it's still a job, and we do it every day. Or, as David Holz, CEO of Midjourney, recently said in an interview:

What does it mean when computers are better at visual imagination than 99 percent of humans? That doesn’t mean we will stop imagining. Cars are faster than humans, but that doesn’t mean we stopped walking. When we’re moving huge amounts of stuff over huge distances, we need engines, whether that’s airplanes or boats or cars. And we see this technology as an engine for the imagination.

With that in mind, I can see this going in a few different directions:

  • AI will make designers obsolete (our Luddite moment might be near!)
  • AI will increase our existing design productivity
  • AI will shift what it means to be a designer, ultimately creating a new job for us to do

I will be honest: The first option is not attractive to me to examine (though it might be fun to imagine how we would prototype our way to the best barricade of all time). It is way more interesting to look at the pathways that make us better at what we do and the avenues that show us how our jobs could evolve in the future.

AI will increase our existing design productivity

One of the most fascinating current applications of AI is GitHub's Co-Pilot. This program sits in your IDE and autocompletes the code you write. For a software engineer, it is similar to pair programming, where two developers team up to tackle a tricky problem together.

And I think herein lies the key: Thinking of AI as a specialized teammate that comes in and helps you out, takes over specific tasks for you, or challenges your existing results.

Let's look at an example. In a typical design project, you would start by researching and examining best practices before coming up with a first concept. Your research Assistant AI, Julia, is more than happy to search for this data, collect it, and synthesize it.

At a later stage, you need to decide the design direction for the UI. This often consists of creating many variations of a key layout. A prime task for Junior UI Design AI "Peter" to tackle. After recruiting them into your Figma file, they will get to work, churning out variations based on your initial work and prompts. Your role will be that of an Art Director - choosing which path to pursue and which to abandon.

This sounds fancy, but the idea is actually not that new. Alvin Goldman already described these types of "episdemic agents" in 1999. We have not seen an explosion of AI agents, mainly because we did not have the technology in place (or, as Tom Stafford notes in the piece above, they have been integrated into our products more subtly). Still, I like thinking of them as explicit "team members," and this is something that has not materialized yet). But the building blocks are here now. And productization along those lines will follow.

As Noah Smith notes, Anthropic (an AI research firm) has already found out in one of their studies that humans working alongside an AI are more productive than the AI or a human alone. Using what he calls a "sandwich workflow"—where the human prompts an AI, the AI produces results, and then the human refines what has been delivered—seems to be a common way of working from now on.

The result will be that a lot of the legwork of design is taken out. This has the potential to create more space and time for careful reasoning—work that gets better through more effective input and proper challenges. But more realistically, and with the knowledge of how labor-saving devices in the past did not slow life down and afforded us more time for reflection, a simple reduction in time and costs needed to produce the same results as today will take place.

AI will shift what it means to be a designer

For designers, this could ultimately mean a devaluation of their current work. Yes, you can try to profit from commoditization by focusing on price competition and mass output. But it will be very cutthroat and competitive, like with all other commodity goods.

Or you can try to reject it and focus purely on the craft itself, only selectively applying the help of AI whenever it is helpful as a tool. "Handmade design" still has the potential to be relevant and command a premium for brands and users who value tradition and craft.

Most importantly, as noted by Even Pushak in the context of writing, many designers would certainly prefer to still have a hand in actual creation: To apply their own problem-solving skills and visual creativity.

Because the other route is becoming a guide. Helping not only users (the AI will be very good at this) but also the AI to find focus, the right tone, and the most fitting visual expression. Designers will act as filters or curators, shielding users from the excess of an endless pool of options and permutations.

Ultimately, it is hard to predict how the job will evolve. But it is pretty clear that a shift is coming, and we better start thinking hard about how to navigate it. We all should look for the openings this creates to be ready and profit from what is to come.