Yifei Chen

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Who Designs for You?

Essay, 2017

This is an writing experiment between two designers; Yifei Chen and Tina Phan. The designers agreed on one topic that pertains to the design discipline and wanted to challenge each other’s perspective. This dialog of using artificial intelligence serves to inspire collaboration and discussion of our future as designers. This is about showing different perspectives that might have not been considered. While we agree that the point of it is not to take sides on whether AI is bad or designers are irreplaceable, we have different stances on how we approach artificial intelligence in the design realm of core values, of forms, and of rule-making. 

The article was selected and published by Towards Data Science Magazine on Medium platfrom.

Read Phan’s arguments here. 



该文章发布后,被 Towards Data Science 杂志选登在 Medium 网站。

点击这里,阅读 Tina Phan 的观点。

“ Will Artificial Intelligence Remove Designers
    from the Design Process? ”


In this era, it is an imminent danger that artificial Intelligence is taking over human jobs. Even designers, we are considered as one of the most creative occupations, are not excluded. Take a controversial new product The Gridas an example. The Grid with a tagline of “AI websites that design themselves” is an algorithm driven website builder, which can generate multiple choices of decent design automatically without any guidance. It is a microcosm of the endless emergence of computing machines and algorithms and also looks like the beginning that designers are expelled from the core of design to the edge. In that case, will designers be removed from the design process one day? What are the core values of human designers which cannot be replaced by artificial intelligence?

Core Values

The one thing that is crucial to design is personality. Through personalities, we identify ourselves, distinguish ourselves from other designers and invent our own design-making processes. As shapers of human experience, we bring our intuitions and senses into design and transform disorder into order. It’s hard for us to imagine artificial intelligence can replace lived experience we bring to the project. But how can we verify if artificial intelligence has latent personalities or not? According to the recent research, two Google engineersdeveloped an innovative methodology to test that if image recognition programs have the same personality. Using “inkblot” images created by the algorithm, they asked robots what they saw and recorded their thoughts on each image. The results turned out that different robots did have different responses which were interpreted as subconscious thoughts by researchers, but it was still not a direct result to assert that robots definitely have a personality.

But is personality really the determinant of being a good designer? In Phan’s writing, she argues design doesn’t necessarily need personality; she believes that “design has a foundation of patterns, algorithms, and principles that make the design of a project successful which artificial intelligence can generate.” For an ordinary design, her argument is tenable. But for an extraordinary design, breaking the frames and challenging the principles is more crucial.

AI is a metaphor for form

Artificial intelligence is the metaphor for form which refers to all of the visible elements in design and the way those elements are united, including but not limited to typography, design language and visual perception. Artificial intelligence can learn from classic design examples, basic design principles, and trendy design forms to make precise choices in form. But form cannot dominate everything. There is an analogy to this problem in music. Based on the dominant music forms and basic music theories, programmers developed a style-based music algorithm which can analyze and generate music automatically. However, artificial intelligence failed to even recognize non-mainstream music forms since there are various evaluation criteria which are hard to quantified. That is to say, formalizable rules cannot account for the fundamental aspects of music. And the same applies for design. The form can be evaluated by the well-defined standards, but ideas cannot.

At this point, Phan argues that “Using artificial intelligence as the form to communicate the idea, designers can come up with better solutions communicate the ideas.” However, the truth is if your initial Idea is crappy, technology alone cannot save it. In the design process, idea should always come first. “Idea is the prime mover of design, and form is directed by and must answer to the idea.” Ideas are the seeds planted by designers and form is how designers cultivate these seeds. The cultivating process can determine how it looks, but only by seeds can we define what the essence is.

The Rule Makers

Designers are rule makers. Only designers can define what design is. Artificial intelligence can imitate human to manipulate design language, voice and tone, pattern and component within the system, but the whole system is designed by human. Design systems rule everything around us and designer is the one determine what the system is, how it organizes and interacts. To answer the complicated communication problems and standardize their work, designers invented “a systematic approach to the design of a system” called Systems Design. It is used in many disciplines, especially in new fields like information theory, operations research and computer science. Artificial Intelligence is also included. Designers set the rules, give the machines their purpose and direct them to perform their magic.

At this point, Phan argues that designers may consider themselves the rule makers but artificial intelligence forces them to become better rule makers in clarifying the rules. It is true that designers can become more objective and clear through translating their design intentions, but the process of reflection does not necessarily have the involvement of artificial intelligence. Good designers should already understand the design principles and form their habits of self-examination when they conduct every design decisions. The power of designers is that they can make and break rules by themselves.

Design education in the future

Thanks to artificial intelligences, the boundary between creative and production work will be more unambiguous in the future. Repetitive tasks will be offloaded, which relieves designers of production tasks to focus on the creative and the fundamental. So our jobs will not be taken but upgraded. In that case, what changes will occur in the design education? As shapers of the future, it is time for us to speculate the new approach of teaching and learning.

For curriculum planning, the first thing that will be challenged is our current course. Will form-related courses like typography, design language and visual perceptions be reduced or even removed from the syllabus? Can these design principles and basic knowledges be programmed and activated? In addition, more courses will be developed for us to adapt to the mutualistic symbiosis between artificial intelligence and designers. One required course I can imagine is the guide course of using new automated systems, which includes learning how to design with AI and work with AI. At least, we should consider how designers can participate in the process of making algorithms. What’s more, artificial intelligence will motivate us to refocus on the importance of design thinking. Design thinking enables us observe and improve our thinking process, patterns and direction. In the following years, the critical issue will be transferred to how to establish the new system and strategy, how to respond and recover from new situation, how to create more meaningful and long lasting ways of communication.

So what kind of design school is suitable for the new generation? There is no certain answer to this question, but that’s why we keep digging, speculating and challenging. We are not only design students but also the shapers of new generation and innovators of new revolution. There is a world of possibilities waiting for us to explore.

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