It was only a few years ago that many designers were worried that AI and machine learning were coming to take away their jobs. If you’re still feeling a bit panicky about it, a handful of groundbreaking new projects prove that new technology is here to help us, not replace us. 

To zoom out just a bit, the impact of AI isn’t just felt by the creative industry. Today, robots are reporting the news in national publications, computer-generated songs are setting Spotify ablaze, and paintings by AI-machines are giving international art fairs a run for their money. The definition of creative roles is being dramatically upended.

As impossible as a potential “obsolescence” of designers might have seemed, a logo maker called Looka has generated 5.5 million custom AI-generated logos—and did it so successfully that it has now graduated to branding entire assets.

Huge agencies have also long embraced AI in brand work. In 2017, Ogilvy Italia created Nutella Unica using “dozens of patterns, thousands of color combinations, and one special algorithm” to create seven million jars of Nutella with different versions of the brand’s graphic identity. Each jar, likened (rather boldly) to “a piece of art,” was stamped with a unique code that can be authenticated by collectors. They sold out within a month. 

AI isn’t actually that scary, designers

Pentagram partner Natasha Jen used a custom algorithm to control the most striking design element of the 2019 Senior Library of the School of Visual Arts book, a compendium of the work of the graduating classes from SVA’s BFA in design and advertising courses. Jen organized the 204 artworks along the color spectrum via an algorithm “that produced a summarized color breakdown” based on the hue, saturation, and color (HSL) of each work. These colors were then assigned a numerical code on the HSL scale, which were sequenced through a linear color spectrum to create the book.

Senior Library of the School of Visual Arts book used a custom algorithm to organize the work of graduating students by color.
Natasha Jen, SVA book, 2019.

Outside of its commercial applications, AI has also been used by designers to tackle broader social and political issues. Puerto Rican design studio Muuaaa tapped into AI in its Soft Identity Makers project, which examined the idea of national identity in our current global socio-political landscape.

Aiming to create a fluid, flexible system capable of representing the liquid state of nationalities today, the project generated almost half a million fictional national identities. “We understood that to create a ‘national’ identity that everyone can relate to, we had to develop a machine capable of processing the desires and associations of each user,” says Miguel Miranda-Montes, Muuaaa co-founder and chief design officer.

Users could select five “identity markers” from a range of 45 images designed by the studio covering themes such as climates, flavors, attitudes, and styles. The algorithm would then process the selection to generate a unique national identity for each user. “We were creating between 300-500 identities daily at the London Design Biennale, something that would have been humanly impossible.” 

A flag designed for Muuaaa's Soft Identity Makers art installation which uses an algorithm that generates a unique national identity for each user.
Muuaa, Soft Identity Makers.

Turns out AI isn’t so futuristic—it’s been around for years

Indeed, the avalanche of AI not only promises to mechanize manual tasks, but also to make informed cognitive decisions. On a day-to-day basis, however, AI is typically used by designers in programs with presets for determining the margin width or selecting colors, typefaces, and layouts—it’s so mundane we probably forget it’s even happening. It goes without saying that it takes a living, breathing, creative person to use these basic capabilities towards more brilliant ends. The notion of designers being entirely removed from the design process by algorithm-based tools still feels distant, if not impossible.

When The Grid platform launched, it promised that an AI bot named Molly would create “websites that design themselves.” Molly was described as “quirky, but will never ghost you, never charge more, never miss a deadline, never cower to your demands for a bigger logo,” read the borderline-misogynist strapline. But Molly’s rudimentary abilities for generating color palettes and auto-cropping images naturally resulted in cookie-cutter websites that are frustratingly difficult to customize, and were met with scathing reviews, just as the numerous AI-generated logo design tools were.

Adelia Lim's art project Promotional [Mis]information. A collection of cheaply produced materials that aim to reveal the imitative, uninteresting, and repetitive nature of templates.
Adelia Lim, Promotional [Mis]information postcards

Platforms like these, coupled with the rise of crowdsourcing gig economy platforms like Fiverr, can make it seem like the world is bent on reducing design to little more than an easily replicable commodity, and producing work that lacks thoughtfulness or conceptual rigor. As designer, curator and author Silvio Lorusso, puts it, “The designer as an intellectual is increasingly becoming a fiction. For each designer that acquires the status of a Thinker, there’s an army of others inhabiting a purgatory of InDesign and Photoshop semi-automation, lack of professional recognition, $50 logos, and $200 websites.”

The idea of a world where design exists sans-designer preoccupied Adelia Lim in her project Promotional [Mis]information. She created a collection of cheaply produced materials that aim to reveal the imitative, uninteresting, and repetitive nature of templates. “I started collecting and examining flyer templates, stock imagery, logo generators—basically anything that had that predetermined quality. I started to question the role of the graphic designer when templates come into play, and if the graphic designer is still even necessary in a scenario like that,” says Lim. Generic (and satirical) placeholder text floats on the flyers, reflecting a marketplace in which naive clients reduce design to a simple, cheap commodity.

Why (good) designers are never going to be obsolete

At a time when everything that can be automated is automated, and logos, layouts, and websites can be created by neural networks gorging on data, what sense of control does the designer retain over the creative process? Although these intelligent tools can cope with tedious tasks and take charge of the form-giving process, the designer still needs to define and chisel the experiences and sensations the design is expected to deliver. “The designer will evolve to become the starter, editor, and controller of a project. As a starter they will be responsible for establishing the initial setup, while defining the design problem,” says Muuaaa. “As an editor, they will be compiling, splicing, mixing, sampling, and selecting the machine-made concepts; and finally as the controller, they will evaluate, catalogue, and create the criteria for the design output.” 

Great design is as much about properly framing a problem as it is about finding the solution—and as yet, machines are incapable of working in such humanistic ways. “The core responsibility of the designer still remains all that it is today,” says Adelia Lim. “It’s to exercise empathy, to be constantly aware of and consider those who will be affected by our work; to allow research—not just technology or data—to lead the decision-making process; and lastly, to recognize that as designers we are humans first, and have the ability to make sound decisions even without the help of a machine.”

It seems that the looming cloud of fear around AI is lifting. A 2018 Adobe study reported that most creatives aren’t worried about these technologies taking over their jobs because they believe creativity is profoundly human. “Today [designers] realize that AI is in much of the technology they’re already using, and it’s making things more intuitive than previously perceived,” says Chris Duffey, senior manager of AI strategic development at Adobe. Andreas Pfeiffer, the lead author of the report adds, “While machines and technologies like AI can enhance human creativity and manage tedious tasks, they cannot replace a human’s creative spark.”

But to excel in a world where designers are armed with algorithmic assistants, they need to evolve. “Everyone will need to become a pirate. We’ll require the capacity to not only break the rules, but to rewrite them,” says Muuaa. “The advice I would like to give to today’s professionals, young and old alike, is what I always tell myself: re-enter the industry over and over,” says Lorusso. “Try to find a balance between skepticism and enthusiasm. Don’t become a grumpy reactionary, but also don’t be paralyzed by techno-stupor. Try to be like an infant: in awe of new things and always ready to break them apart to understand how they work.”

This article was produced in partnership with AIGA Eye on Design.