Design Automation: Where Do We Draw The Line?

We’ve written before about a future where our services are no longer necessary — a future where design thinking is so universally embraced that we are rendered obsolete. What we haven’t written about is a different potential obsolescence: a future where the machines have taken over.

To be clear, we don’t mean a future where robot overlords demand total obedience on punishment of death— that is a dystopian concern best left for another day. We’re talking about a more subtle machine takeover. What would a world where automation is behind every design decision look like? If we’re being honest with ourselves, a version of that future is already at the door. 

Just about anyone can “build” a website in under an hour, with no technical skills or prior experience, thanks to programs like SquareSpace, WordPress and their kin. Logo generators are as ubiquitous as they are varied. Content personalization and most forms of research analytics are basically de rigeur already.

And now, with AI powered web design tools like The Grid harnessing machine learning to create infinite, custom-tuneable options, the future of the designer seems more than a little imperiled.

In a piece for UX Mag, Sergio Nouvel states, “Most of the content that you see on the web today is run by some framework or service — WordPress, Blogger, Drupal, you name it. Frameworks provide you a foundation and shortcuts so you spend less time struggling with the creation of a web site, and more time creating content.”

Nouvel sees this as a good thing. “When something can be successfully automated,” he continues, “it means that its practices and standards are established enough as not to need much human input.” He argues that we’ve reached a point in the evolution of web design where the need for a designer to make layout and theme decisions is gone.

And Kai Brunner, in a piece for TechCrunch, makes a similar claim about design standards and the opportunities for automation:

“Maybe it is not us who create an aesthetic, but instead evolution has conditioned us to mimic nature’s patterns: symmetry, ratios, shapes and colors. If this is true, then through defined parameters, AI could learn these patterns and, as a designer would, explore design possibilities until user responses confirm a satisfying resting point.”

Brunner is imagining a future where design automation is taken to its most extreme, including user testing. “Anything that can be automated, will be automated,” he adds, noting that AI will be a key driver in this effort.

For Brunner, this is a future that liberates designers from the nitty-gritty tasks, enabling them to do more meaningful work. “Automation frees time for the heuristic facets of design to evolve toward crafting experiences for deeper social connectedness, more efficient collaboration and broader creativity.”

It’s not just in web design that we see this trend emerging. Yes, SquareSpace, The Grid, WordPress and many, many more have simplified web design for the masses, but the web isn’t the only place experiencing automation.

Jon Bruner writes about how all forms of design are being re-shaped by the process of automation. “[C]omputers are about to go from mere drafting tables to full partners in the design process. They’ll automate the tedious cycle of trial and error, and leave designers to guide aesthetics and experience.” He also quotes Jeff Kowalski’s take on design processes, “Design right now… is pretty much the first thing that worked, as opposed to the best one that could be found.”

This is an interesting way of framing the move towards automation — if it’s not the best, but simply the first, there is a sound argument for improving the processes we use. But if we automate our frameworks, and then build everything using those frameworks, is it really, as Bruner would have us believe, the crafting of aesthetics and experience that we’ll be freed up to do?

Perhaps the easiest way to examine this is by looking at the newest, most-AI enabled kid on the block: The Grid. Created by a superstar team, including a Google alumnus and the designer behind Medium, and launched amid a flurry of crowdfunding that proved there is an appetite for design automation, The Grid boasts that it’s an easier, better way to create a website. It’s replete with customizations, all powered by algorithms that enable countless—possibly infinite—iterations.

It claims to offer what all websites aim to offer, but too often miss: an enjoyable web experience. Only it claims to provide it at a fraction of the cost and effort normally required. If it works the way it’s supposed to, the AI-powered automation at the heart of the The Grid makes a compelling case for a simpler web.

“The Grid’s layout engine has alleviated a significant portion of the design labor,” says Brunner, “but the main ingredient of the outcome is still human: enjoyment and emotion.” But what does it mean to craft the human outcomes of enjoyment and emotion without human involvement? Does it not require human thought, human effort? Will The Grid and others like it be the web equivalent to Soylent?

In his piece reviewing The Grid for Forbes, Anthony Wing Kosner notes that there are elements of the human-designed web we cannot automate — and theorizes that the experience will be the lesser for it.

“There is a possibly pernicious aspect to this content automation, however. Part of the pleasure of looking at Tumblr, for instance, is trying to imagine the person who has posted this very particular content. What if that “person” is an algorithm?”

If that person is no longer a person, what does it say about the way we interact and connect with our users? We may be creating seamless, agreeable experiences, but is agreeable all we’re aiming for? Are we truly understanding one another if no humans are involved in responding? Or are we just endlessly reciting pre-written scripts into the void?

There are distinct advantages to the automation of design. A certain amount of democratization comes with easily accessed design. As Bruner notes, “In the past, sophisticated designs were only available to big companies with a lot of resources; now, they’re accessible to small-scale entrepreneurs and people who don’t necessarily have design or technical expertise."

And as Nouvel highlights, much of the heavy lifting for standards that ease use and give our users a seamless experience have been set. “Checkout forms, shopping carts, and login pages should all behave in a similar way. Trying to get creative at this point will probably be pointless or even harmful,” he notes. But what we miss out on — the human element — is not a small piece or one to be quickly dismissed.

Kosner also points out that while these tools — SquareSpace, The Grid, the many, many logo generators — may seem to be making the designer’s work easier, that isn’t always the case. “For all of the simplification of the tools, the complexity of the web environment continues to grow like kudzu. Desktop, laptop, tablet, phone, watch and eventually 4K TV — the number of target screens is dizzying.”

In theory, The Grid can optimize for any screen. But what happens when the screens go away entirely and a new interface experience pops up? How does a VR experience change the dynamics of what is being designed for? A hologram? A contact lens? Designers, quite clearly, are a long way away from disposable.

Where automation will make an impact is in time-saving — running smaller, more mundane tasks that designers historically spend much of their time on but that produce little in the way of added value — and in a levelling of the playing field — allowing smaller companies who cannot afford to hire designers to make functional, aesthetically pleasing sites at a lower cost.

Automation isn’t just coming, it’s here. But its utility is still being worked out (something designers happen to be very good at).

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Written by

Leigh Bryant

Leigh Bryant

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