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 thinks about how designers and intelligent machines might co-exist.

The jury is still out when it comes to AI’s impact on our future career prospects. Debates have raged aplenty. I’m not sure how I feel at this fledgling stage in the – admittedly impressive – technology’s evolution. Replications of specific art styles, from naïve drawings to detailed oil paintings have been held up as terrifying harbingers of mass redundancy for us mere mortals, with our pens, brushes and devices. Do we burn the bots while we still can, or assimilate them into our toolkit, much like we have with Adobe products and the like?

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

When someone says Artificial Intelligence, what image comes to mind? Perhaps the vague white robot head in a downpour of code that I’m picturing just now suggests I’m a part of the problem. In the battle to avert the speculated march towards a creative industry apocalypse at the hands of an algorithm, my over-exposure to Google images speaks volumes. Any AI or technology-related image search invariably produces a series of affordable, generic stock images. It’s easy to see how these dystopian scenes are replicated. In November 2022 there have been 9 billion Google searches each day. Meanwhile 10.1% of Google searches are for images. Every time we return to such vastly accessed pools for inspiration and ideas, are we not limping from one borrowed vision to the next, and is this not feeding those fears of mass redundancy?

By Ben Tallon

While collective visions of the rise of the machines should be avoided we should still caution working with AI and retaining our humanity and creativity as it improves. If with every online action we take, AI grows more intuitive, then we are raising an infant. It may not be sentient, but it’s getting closer all the time, and there are troublesome implications for our employment if we don’t lead with our humanity and creativity, because it will grow up to be better than us at a fraction of the cost and time.

Is tech leading us towards creative homogeny?

Friend and Studio DBD founder Dave Sedgwick also teaches graphic design. Recently he told me he saw a student Google “how to have an idea.” Meanwhile during my own occasional guest lecturing sessions, I feel dismayed upon walking into a studio space to find the entire room hunched over laptops and over half of them using Pinterest.

I spoke at length with executive creative director of Jones Knowles Richie, Sean Thomas who really gets to the heart of the matter.

He says, “What I’ve noticed is, a lot of the younger guys who were brought up before there were libraries in the studios, for example; they’d all go to the same three blogs to get their inspiration and ideas.

“Now for an agency who tells prospective clients they believe in making their brand unique and charismatic, that results in a lot of mood-boards that look quite interchangeable. I ask my designers what the quirk is, what makes it unique? Placing the type and making it dynamic isn’t enough.

“One thing that drives me mad is when you see a designer working on, let’s say a magazine cover, and they go onto a website full of cool magazine covers… all you’ll see is work that’s already been done.

“I do think there’s a danger of technology making everything the same, restricting creativity. Will we all create our websites on Squarespace? Will we all work with the same three or four fonts, the same pastel colour tones? We are an industry that is about creativity, and that process is dangerously close to automation. You can only avoid that if you are pulling ideas and inspiration from interesting and diverse places. The moment you’re just pulling it from online blogs; well technology can totally do that.”

Avoiding “stovepipe societies”

There’s nothing wrong with any form of technology, or process in isolation, but the Pinterest starting point alarmed me. The room was froze and the art school energy was lost. The course leaders would try to echo Sean Thomas’ sentiments and the students would groan, or look stumped when challenged to get offline and explore.

In my own case, writing the manuscript for The Creative Condition has taken me right out of the visual communication field. I’ve spent time speaking to firefighters, judokas, neuroscientists, Olympic gold medal winners, and ex-prisoners. The valuable lesson taught to us by, arguably, the most famous polymath in human history, Leonardo Da Vinci, is the necessity of taking inspiration and ideas from the entire web of life in order to create pioneering work. He is of course credited with both designing the helicopter, and also painted the Mona Lisa. Imagine trying to fit all that on a LinkedIn profile.

As an illustrator, there may come a time when the simpler aspects of my work – let’s say my black ink drawings of found objects, are cheaper, quicker, and easier to acquire through AI technology. Maybe that’s already here. But can AI provide the narrative, or the subversive black comedy I feed the work with? Can it replicate the incidental nuances of the work and determine what works and what doesn’t? Can it come back to the designer and ask for the logo to look ‘more business like?’

For context, AI can certainly illustrate a sinister clown in a style all-but indistinguishable from my own, but could it provide whichever troubling aspect of my psyche spawned the Urban Clown series? One image of which depicts a laughing couple exiting Tesco Metro, heading towards a pram now occupied by horrible little incarnation of a much-maligned children’s entertainer, resembling something between Chucky and Pennywise? If it can, then it amounts only to replication, so I, like all of us, must continue to work those mental muscles in order to stay one step ahead and retain our value and livelihoods.

We’re undoubtedly at a crossroads. If we get complacent and put trends, safety, and delivering the expected before the creativity that has long since been our defining asset as designers – making it easy for the AI – then before we know it, we’ll be the latest industry ravaged by automation. But if we challenge what I’ve heard described as “stovepipe societies” in which we exist in compartmentalised industry echo chambers, and dig into those rich, textured, unique layers that make us individuals, human, and creative, then I have faith we can remain essential to a progressive society. That way, AI, as incredible as it is, can become an asset and the gateway to a new world of possibilities.

You can listen to an audio version of this article in full below.

Ben Tallon is exploring “the nature, behaviour and psychology of creativity” as part of The Creative Condition. This is a current podcast and a book is set to follow in late 2023. 

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