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AI Art, Friend or Foe?

In a world that’s full of daunting acronyms, complex projects, and glaring opinions, it can be confusing to navigate the creative realm without being sucked into the idea of starving artists being pushed to the wayside by automated creativity-churning machines.


I’m here to explain the dramatic shift from traditional design to a digital hellscape filled with AI “text to image” prompt boxes and NTF stock markets - I’m joking, of course. When we talk about AI in a contemporary design context, we often see people addressing the concept as a dystopia rather than another tool for designers to add to their arsenal.


The online editorial platform ‘It’s Nice That’s’ new series of articles by Lucy Bourton, “Shades of Intelligence”, highlights some promising developments in AI among the contemporary design community. According to a November 2023 survey for its second instalment, “an overwhelming majority of creatives (83%) have already adopted AI into their working practices,"  and “almost half (49%) said they have used these tools in the past week alone.” These statistics clearly show an accepting and overall positive welcome of AI into the design industry.


Although Bourton does continue to point out the concerns people have around this newfound “quick fix” for graphic designers, she goes on to reiterate the idea of AI being able to take more of the load off of the designer: “80% of our respondents say that, in a dream world, they’d like AI to support them in performing menial tasks, providing space to concentrate on being creative.”


Using generative AI to help create work has been embraced by a few designers already. For example, designer Daniel Ting Chong created a very pared-back and simplistic branding strategy for Design Indaba in a collaborative experiment with Jonx Pillemer, Neil Meiring, Paul White, and Lauren Fletcher. The idea was that the designer would be able to take more of a backseat role when it came to composition, only entering shapes and then letting the AI randomly choose which shapes to use and how to have them interact.


“On the process and the designer’s role in this new way of working, it seems that he would need to evolve into a “design planner”, to choose what shapes and colours he will feed the AI, and a “design curator”, to make decisions regarding the visuals to choose.” This project quickly turned into an exploration into collaboration, taking an AI, a designer, an animator, a photographer, and a copywriter to each play a valuable role.


A great example of how designers have been adapting to the arrival of this new competitor is by understanding the issues with AI generators and using them to their advantage. For example, Linda Dounia Rebeiz has shifted her practice to focus on the relationship between real people and AI after discovering the skewed relationship between people of colour and AI.


The way that AI is trained doesn’t account for a range of cultures, just whatever there is the most of, so things like stereotypes start to fill in the gaps. “Bias and prejudice, whether conscious or unconscious, are an impact of history," Rebeiz explains. “Contributions by individuals from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, genders, and non-European cultures have often been marginalised or ignored.” Thus, AIs don’t understand how to capture non-European cultures.


After becoming aware of some of these AIs’ “deeply flawed and exclusionary understanding of the world," Rebeiz decided to train different forms of image-generating AIs with her paintings. By doing this, she was able to focus on creating control around using these AI tools to create work while also highlighting the shortcomings of the AI themselves.


I want to offer some reassurance for those of you still worried that there will no longer be a need for designers or creative work. This is the advice my dad gave me about AI concerning the creative realm: “It’s not really intelligent, it just looks at what's been done a million times already and learns from that. So it can never be truly creative or innovative, it just appears that way.” It may be an innovation, but it's not innovative itself.


In conclusion, although this integration of traditional design and AI poses both opportunities and worries, by understanding the limitations and benefits of using AI as a design tool, designers and creatives can find more freedom to create what they want, when they want. 


The thing that makes creativity so interesting is the human aspect of it, so whether you take a page out of Rebeiz’s book by breaking down the pre-imposed bias of software and remoulding it in your image, follow in Ting Chong’s footsteps and use AI to take the brunt of the workload, or if you’re just someone who doesn’t want robots to take over the world, I hope you figure out a way to make AI work for you or with you.


Editorial Illustration by James Lewis, jlaemweiss Illustration.

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