Designers can find their place in an AI future

As part of a new series reflecting on what it means to be creative, illustrator and author Ben Tallon reflects on how designers and intelligent machines could coexist.

When it comes to the impact of AI on our future career prospects, the jury is still out. Debates have raged in abundance. I’m not sure how I feel at this young stage in the – admittedly impressive – development of the technology. Imitations of certain styles of art, from naïve drawings to detailed oil paintings, were held up to us mere mortals with our pens, brushes, and implements as frightening harbingers of mass layoffs. Do we burn the bots while we still can, or do we integrate them into our toolkit, similar to what we’ve done with Adobe products and the like?

Of course, I’m not here to answer that question, but I confess to being a little uneasy. On one hand, video never killed the radio star. On the other hand, Blockbuster Video is gone.

When someone says artificial intelligence, what image comes to mind? Perhaps the vaguely white robotic head in a code rain I’m imagining suggests I’m part of the problem. In the fight to use an algorithm to avert the speculated march toward a creative industry apocalypse, my overexposure to Google images speaks volumes. Any AI or technology-related image search invariably produces a set of affordable, generic stock images. It’s easy to see how these dystopian scenes are replicated. In November 2022, there were 9 billion Google searches every day. 10.1% of Google searches are now related to images. Aren’t we limping from one borrowed vision to the next every time we return to such widely accessible pools in search of inspiration and ideas, feeding those fears of mass layoffs?

By Ben Tallon

While collective visions of the rise of machines should be avoided, we should still shy away from working with AI and retaining our humanity and creativity as it improves. If AI becomes more intuitive with every online action, then we’re raising a child. It may not be sentient, but it’s getting closer and there are awkward implications for our employment if we don’t go ahead with our humanity and creativity, for it gets better as we grow up at a fraction of the cost and time.

Does technology lead us to creative homogeneity?

Dave Sedgwick, founder of Friend and Studio DBD, also teaches graphic design. He recently told me he saw a student Google “how to come up with an idea”. Meanwhile, during my own occasional guest lectures, I’m dismayed to walk into a studio space to find the entire room hunched over laptops, and over half of them use Pinterest.

I spoke at length with Jones Knowles Richie’s Executive Creative Director, Sean Thomas, who really gets to the heart of the matter.

He says: “It struck me that a lot of the younger guys grew up before there were libraries in the studios, for example; They all went to the same three blogs to get their inspiration and ideas.

“For an agency that tells potential clients they believe in making their brand unique and charismatic, that leads to a lot of mood boards that look pretty interchangeable. I ask my designers what is the idiosyncrasy, what makes it unique? It’s not enough to place the type and make it dynamic.

“One thing that drives me nuts is when you see a designer working on, say, a magazine cover and they go to a website full of cool magazine covers…all you’re going to see is work that has already been done.

“I think there is a risk that technology will make everything the same and limit creativity. Will we build all of our websites on Squarespace? Will we all work with the same three or four fonts, the same pastel colors? We’re an industry that’s all about creativity, and that process is dangerously close to being automated. You can only avoid this if you draw ideas and inspiration from interesting and varied places. The moment you just pull it from online blogs; Well, technology absolutely can do that.”

Avoidance of “stovepipe companies”

There’s nothing wrong with any form of technology or isolated process, but Pinterest’s starting point got me alarmed. The room was frozen and the energy of the art school was lost. Instructors tried to echo Sean Thomas’ point of view, and students groaned or looked at a loss when asked to go offline and explore.

In my own case, writing the manuscript for The Creative Condition took me straight out of the realm of visual communication. I’ve spent a lot of time talking to firefighters, judokas, neuroscientists, Olympic gold medalists, and ex-convicts. The valuable lesson taught to us by arguably the most famous polymath in human history, Leonardo Da Vinci, is the need to draw inspiration and ideas from across the web of life to pioneer. He is, of course, credited with both designing the helicopter and painting the Mona Lisa. Imagine trying to integrate all of that into a LinkedIn profile.

As an illustrator, there may come a time when the simpler aspects of my work — say, my black ink drawings of found objects — are made cheaper, faster, and easier to acquire thanks to AI technology. Maybe that’s already here. But can AI deliver the narrative or subversive dark comedy I feed the work? Can it replicate the random nuances of the work and determine what works and what doesn’t? Can they reach out to the designer and ask that the logo be made to look more “business”?

For context, AI can certainly illustrate a sinister clown in a style little different from my own, but could it provide the unsettling aspect of my psyche that spawned the Urban Clown series? A picture of this shows a laughing couple exiting the Tesco Metro and heading towards a pram now occupied by an awful little incarnation of a much-maligned child entertainer resembling something between Chucky and Pennywise? When it’s possible, it just boils down to replication, so like all of us, I need to keep flexing those mental muscles to stay ahead of the curve and preserve our worth and livelihood.

We are undoubtedly at a crossroads. If we get complacent and put trends, safety, and the expected before the creativity that has long been our greatest asset as designers—and make it easy for AI—then before we know it, we’ll be devastated by the latest industry—automation . But if we challenge what I’ve described as “stovepipe societies,” where we exist in sealed industry echo chambers, and dig into those rich, textured, unique layers that make us individuals, human beings, and creativity, then I have faith in us can remain indispensable for a progressive society. In this way, incredible as AI may be, it can become an asset and a gateway to a new world of possibilities.

Ben Tallon explores “the nature, behavior, and psychology of creativity” as part of The Creative Condition. This is a recent podcast and a book is due out in late 2023.

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