How artificial intelligence will take work away from design studios – and what you can do about it

The emotional impact of artificial intelligence was explored in Spike Jonze's 2013 film Her. But what will it mean for our jobs?

Artificially intelligent online tools like The Grid will replace a lot of bread-and-butter web design jobs, says Tom Church of FullScream. How does the digital design industry adapt and fight back?

Online design tools featuring artificial intelligence have started to compete against us, with profound implications. Coupled with a growing workforce, online designers face a great tide of competition unseen since the eighties. It's time to look up and climb to higher ground.

Singularity – computer consciousness – has not yet been achieved, but computers are able to make their own decisions with smart outcomes. And this reality is entering the design industry.

This matters because computers expand competition exponentially not incrementally. What does this mean? One extra designer in the marketplace creates competition up to the level of work one person can do.

Thirty projects per month, for instance, would be an incredible feat of design productivity and effort. Yet even so it's an incremental change – that designer can't do more than thirty projects per month. If two designers come into the marketplace we can expect them to take 60 projects per month. Three designers, 90. Four designers, 120. And so on. It's incremental – the design market becomes more competitive slowly.

Computers are different. A computer is restricted only by its computing power and this doubles every 18 months – Moore's Law – meaning the price also halves. A computer with artificial intelligence could let's say, as a very conservative estimate, do 1,000 projects per month. As computing power doubles the following year a computer can do 2,000 projects. The year after 4,000, then 8,000, then 16,000, 32,000... And importantly, it's still one computer at the same cost.

Artificial intelligence creates exponential growth in competition. Unless designers are prepared before it happens they will be caught off guard.

It sounds mad, doesn't it? Creative jobs are meant to be the safest against such a threat. Computers can't compete against the ingenuity and complex abstract thoughts of a human mind, can they?

On The Grid

When it comes to art, good luck to the computer. But design is different because it's for clients with specific briefs and wants. Take a look at, the first artificially intelligent website-design tool, in the video below.

Upload photographs that capture the mood and feeling of your brand and The Grid matches them. The Grid tries to understand your website design needs through algorithms and the results are promising. Tell it you want an eCommerce store, blog and testimonials and a unique website is put together with fonts and colours based on uploaded photographs and more. 

The Grid makes decisions for you and changes as you throw more stuff at it. It takes the decision making out of website design and at the time of writing almost 20,000 people have pre-paid to use The Grid before it's even launched. I feel like it's the final strike against the DIY website designer after Wordpress, Weebly, Themeforest... well, almost the final strike. There's one other significant threat coming.

As creative designers, we're a resourceful bunch and there'll always be clients and briefs that robots can't execute. Fantastic. Yet if it's not artificial intelligence that threatens us in the future it's sheer market forces

By 2020 there will be an estimated 3.5 billion more people connected to the web. Currently there's 1.8 billion. That's a total of 5.3 billion, almost triple. B?hance is about to get busy. These new web users are mostly from developing economies who are being connected by Google and Facebook balloon projects providing free 1mbps internet access to all.

This means two things: One, there's going to be many more designers competing online, but also two, there'll be more businesses putting their briefs online for you to pitch for.

Platforms such as 99Designs will grow. There'll be plenty more people willing to work for the hope of winning – and resigned to losing most of the time – and the culture of mass production will permeate through into the design world creating a fight to the bottom: lower and lower prices.

How can designers adapt?

Artificial intelligence threatens to automate our work and the number of people joining the market is set to triple in five years dropping prices to nil.

I see three main options (but I'm open to suggestions – share them in the comments below):

1) Join the AI party

Change your skillset and learn to code. Develop your own The Grid and become a platform enabling consumers to design things for themselves.

FullScream, the creative design agency I'm a director of, has started to do this. We worked with Ontic Design to develop 3D-printed silver and gold bracelets that consumers can design for themselves. You can go onto the website, choose the design and create a piece of art that's coloured onto a glass plate sliding onto the bracelet.

It's one of the world's first print-on-demand jewellery companies and the products are beautiful.

2) Go up-market

Privately owned luxury brands have authenticity at their core. Handmade must mean handmade. Target high-end brands with high pricing and focus purely on the quality of your work and they will choose you over a robot or outsourced labour.

Despite cheap labour abroad and the machination of production, every industry has a little niche for bespoke high quality goods: fashion, cars, watches, wallpaper... There's always someone who wants the real deal. We work with Roberto Cavalli and Swarovski who brief us with such objectives.

3) Diversify

Diversify your design skills to survive. Digital design which has strong structure-based frameworks will be the first to succumb to AI's computer might: website design, digital publishing, app design... We're even seeing AI being applied to TV show openings. Diversify towards work that requires human empathy – the one weakness of computers – and creative storytelling to survive. Fashion films shine a light here.

We've been through this before...

In case these changes to design sound familiar to you, you're right, they are. Before Adobe released its creative suite in 2003 digital artists had to programme their own effects, filters and templates. Motion graphics stem from the demoscene of the eighties where groups of hackers would crack software then put a little graphical intro at the beginning to show it was cracked. These graphics led to groups of mostly males – FullScream included – competing to see who could make the best graphics using the limited computing power available; these were called Demos.

The underground movement eventually died out as the constant doubling of computing power meant there was no point in writing efficient code. And when Adobe started bringing out its software, oh boy, did people moan. Can you imagine it, people complaining about the advent of Illustrator, Photoshop and After Effects? People wouldn't have to learn to code anymore – the core skill then of digital creativity – and so bland artwork that all looks the same was feared.

But what happened instead? A huge explosion in the quality, quantity and diversity of design. Millions more people were given the toolset to make their ideas reality. It created a new industry and tens of thousands of new jobs.

The same will happen with the AI revolution. An industry will be created around developing AI applications and digital designers will have to re-learn how to code. The movement will also spawn pseudo-AI digital art with the decisions made being a combination of computer and human thoughts.

For example, a computer program could analyse the millions of photos on Instagram and understand what trends and styles of imagery are gaining traction. It could choose colours, filters and effects that have the most interaction within target markets. A draft picture could be created and then you, humble human designer, could use it as a starting point for your own work.

Artificial intelligence and an increased global labour market are coming. Their impacts will be exponential. Unless you want to join the race to the bottom through industrialising your work – which is a perfectly understandable business plan – you either have to join the party and design AI applications yourself, go high-end and perfect your traditional craft, or diversify and learn new skills. Either way history has shown it's not the end but the birth of a new era. Perhaps coding will return as the core digital design skill as it was in the eighties but there will be new possibilities. 

Thankfully you're in an industry that practices idea generation day in and day out. If anyone can create themselves out of a mess it's us. 

I'm excited, are you?

Read more of Tom Church's writing at The Copyright Dilemma and on his blog, Screams.

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