June 24, 2024

Thought piece: AI isn’t killing design - it’s only speeding up what we brought upon ourselves

AI's impact on the design industry is inevitable, potentially replacing many designers and diluting the quality of design itself, which worries me more than job loss. The influx of unqualified designers from bootcamp factories over the past decade has already weakened the industry, making it ripe for AI disruption. This upcoming reset might be painful but necessary, as only true problem solvers will survive, giving us a chance to restore the industry's integrity.

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These days, unsurprisingly, I’ve been getting a lot of questions from designers, colleagues and clients about how I think AI will impact the design industry, and most emphatically, how it will impact their jobs and if it will replace them.

What I want to tell them is that the idea of something replacing designers isn’t all that new. Designers have been under threat of being replaced for decades. Whether by the printing press, computers, postscript, the web, you name it — something has always put a target on designers backs. I want to tell them that this time, again, we will be fine — maybe even grow as an industry again. 

I can’t say that, not honestly.

Personally, I’m not particularly worried about being replaced myself — nor about my business becoming obsolete, even while I remain hyper aware both may occur regardless of whether I am worried or not. Let’s face it, that’s always the case with any career, business or even industry as time carries on. Everything is always changing. One must always be ready to adapt to change, or die in obsolescence. 

I’m also not all that bothered by the idea that AI will replace the lions share of today’s  working designers. Not because I don’t think it will happen, I certainly think it will. I just don’t particularly care.

The design industry, especially in UX and interface design, is well overdue for a healthy dose of natural selection. The strong will survive, and the weak will not. 

Bring it on.

That being said, I do have a deep-seated fear of my own, but it’s not that designers will be replaced — my fear is that AI will be the last straw that breaks the back of true, intelligent, authentic and original design. Not designers, but design itself. This keeps me up at night.

I love design, I live design. Above all else, my concern is for the health and longevity of design itself, not the practitioners.

I have no doubt that AI will water down design. It will steal from existing designs, and combine them in unnatural and ineffective ways. It will learn from bad designs, and make more bad, if not worse, design that it will then learn from to make even shittier design. It will prioritize dark patterns. It will lean too heavily towards prioritizing the user thus reducing efficacy for the business, or lean to far in favour of the business thus alienating the customer.

It will further reinforce the ignorant perception of design as a surface-only activity — lipstick on a pig — and not deserving of a seat at the table. It will falsely embolden product managers and founders and executives to believe they can simply ask an AI to design their ideas into experiences — and will not have the expertise to see where it will fail, or damage their business.

This will happen, and this will bring chaos and decimate the design industry, resulting in mass industry-wide layoffs, chat prompts replacing problem solvers, and worst of all — the confirmation in the minds of the business and tech world of the grotesquely incorrect concept that design wasn’t ever that important anyway.

The truth is, all of the above was already happening well before generative AI. We’ve been on this path for the last decade at the least. And we as designers can’t blame AI, or anyone else. We did it to ourselves, knowingly. 

  • The unexpected boon of UX demand started the trend 10 years ago
  • There were more job openings than qualified candidates, so the unqualified were hired
  • Opportunists saw this trend, and created bootcamp factories that churned out ‘grads’ who were primarily taught to build a portfolio and how to interview, say the right things and skirt by with just-enough knowledge to pass as “worth taking a chance on”
  • These Bootcamp grads spread the issue like cancer to fill the employment gaps, and we allowed it.
  • Due to the overwhelmingly insufficient number of authentic designers, these unqualified grads were promoted, and placed into hiring positions themselves 
  • Those now in hiring positions don’t know the difference between real designers and paint by number “designers”
  • The quality of the output of design teams suffered. Results reduced. Wins became fewer. It all looks the same, feels the same, and rarely addresses the true issues that real design would
  • Most designers today simply copy trends, emulate popular designs, and cut and paste frameworks
  • Sometimes that’s enough — which is why it’s lasted this long… 
  • until it’s not — and that’s where the real damage starts: “design” didn’t solve the problem, it wasn’t worth the investment, it didn’t get the results we were promised… design is perceived as not adding value, not contributing to the bottom line
  • This will be the downfall of design. Us as designers, allowing pseudo-designers to infiltrate the industry so that we could build our fiefdoms, grow our departments and influence — which often when cuts and layoffs happen, are the first to go in one fell swoop.
  • So what was it for? Was it worth it? No

We’ve allowed pretend-designer automatons to fill our ranks for years. We’ve allowed the quality, craftsmanship and effectiveness of design to slowly diminish year over year simply to keep and grow our kingdoms under the false pretence that it would get us a seat at the adult-table. It backfired, and has now weakened the perception of design so severely that we’re ripe for replacing.

We had an opportunity to grow our industry responsibly a decade ago when demand grew exponentially. We collectively took the easy way out, hiring to meet the volume of work, not to meet our own expectations of quality, expertise and delivering positive outcomes — and now we’re paying for it. I too made this mistake with tension, and it cost us a lot of money, a lot of clients, and years to rebuild the momentum and success I had initially created for the company.

AI will only accelerate the trend we allowed to start a decade ago, albeit very sharply. 

Should designers be worried? Yes: this will indeed be a culling. Many will lose their jobs, many will be “replaced”. And I for one don’t think it’s a bad thing, not in the long term anyway.

We’re desperately in need of a reset. We’re about to be pushed backwards by a decade in UX and design in terms of value perception, jobs, and opportunities. There will be fewer jobs, and even fewer positions with true decision making power. We will see the reduction of c-level design roles to a rarity below that which we saw a decade ago. Due to the sheer volume of “designers” looking for those fewer available jobs, supply and demand will see a significant reduction in pay scales for designers, and possibly a fire / rehire trend to remove stalwarts who can’t have their salaries cut directly — just to rehire for the same position at a lower pay. It will be painful, it will destroy some people’s careers. Many will pivot to other careers. Good.

Design as a profession will not see the heights it has in the last decade for a long time, if ever. The more human computer interactions move to voice, headless systems, and AR — the opportunities for design as we know it today will continue to dwindle, disappear and / or change into something else entirely. The previous glory will not return, not in the way that it was — and again, I say good.

Some designers will remain. True problem solvers that deliver real, tangible and inarguable results. It will be harder to find work, earn what they’re used to, and get projects that are truly exciting. Also good.

Only those who live and breathe design, those crazy and passionate enough, will be able to weather the coming storm. Fighting the good fight, standing up for the value of design. Struggling once again for a seat at the table as we did in the before-times. Pushing for what we know is right for the business, their clients and the market, while those we fight with see us as nothing more than pixel pushers.

This will be our second chance. This will be our opportunity to right the wrongs we did upon ourselves the last time. This is our chance to not fuck it up again.

Design is dead. Long live design.

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