Compete, Protest, Collaborate: Design’s Dilemma in the Age of AI

In his 10th annual Design in Tech report, John Maeda explores the dynamics between AI and design, and highlights the uncertainty of whether to compete with, protest against, or collaborate with AI.

As the design industry confronts the formidable ascent of artificial intelligence, it stands at a crossroads of opportunity and uncertainty. In the age of AI, a pivotal question emerges: friend or foe? While AI promises streamlined workflows and enhanced image-generation capabilities, its integration raises profound concerns regarding its potential impact on the workforce. In his 2024 “Design in Tech” report, Microsoft’s Vice President of Design and Artificial Intelligence John Maeda discusses this complex issue and why design can help make AI more responsible for the betterment of all.

The tenth installment of the “Design in Tech” series explores further computational design, an approach previously highlighted by Maeda. It comprises creatives equipped with algorithmic knowledge, fitting for the AI era. He has devoted past reports to other types of thinking, including design thinking in 2018. As he delved deeper into the realm of future creativity, computational design emerged as an increasingly prominent focus.

In a world increasingly populated by Large Language Models (LLMs), chatbots, agents, robots, and autonomous vehicles, alongside the widespread adoption of generative AI tools, Maeda suggests that designers should not passively accept their fate of being replaced by AI. Instead, he argues that these professionals can be pivotal agents in imbuing technology with a human touch.

Design in Tech Takeaways

There’s a lot of information to process in this 97-slide presentation. Maeda delves into past design trends, tracing the journey to the present, exploring what he calls the ABCs of AI, delving into additional topics, and highlighting interesting creative case studies.

But if you don’t have time to parse through this year’s report, here are three takeaways:

Designers, Learn to Speak Machine

To future-proof careers, Maeda urges designers to learn about computation as well as possible “because knowing how to speak machine can benefit you to get beyond the myth of AI.” Yet, it’s not a call advocating “learn to code.” On the contrary, he emphasizes the importance of staying informed about the development of new technologies and recognizing the potential for design to foster inclusivity in AI.

Prepare for AI-Induced Career Shifts

Next, in the realm of design, Maeda foresees a dramatic transformation in work, although the pace of this change will differ for each individual. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” he explains. The “Design in Tech” report references “makers” versus “talkers”. The former represents developers and designers — professionals who create. Talkers are the latter and the product managers and management within an organization.

As illustrated above, AI has made it easier for makers to…make. Tools such as GitHub Copilot and Adobe Firefly ensure faster generation of code and images. Maeda argues AI will change their lives. However, the lives of talkers will be made better, thanks to apps like Microsoft Copilot and Figma with GPTs, allowing these product managers to focus on bringing in revenue.

How Can Design Make AI More Desirable?

Finally, Maeda posits that blending critical thinking and critical making in the AI space can be a powerful way to entice customers to want something more because it’s more ethical and fairer than the competition. Through this reinvigorated approach to critical analysis, he posits that we will enhance our ability to assess the impact of AI and select more ethically responsible systems.

His 2018 Design in Tech report covered the relationship between design and inclusion. As I wrote back then:

“Running algorithms can help you process information faster, but the results you get aren’t exactly clear cut. There’s a difference between quantitative and qualitative research, and Maeda thinks that companies should have people on staff with good communication and cross-cultural skills, can ask great questions, be a storyteller, observe and listen, and understand psychology and human behavior.”

By incorporating a human element into AI, the machines will be better prepared to solve more global problems.

In a single slide of his “Design in Tech” report, Maeda showcases a graphic that displays multiple overlaid shapes. Among them, a square signifies those tasks uniquely suited to humans, while a fraction indicates tasks that AI could potentially automate. Yet, a significantly larger portion encapsulates both, illustrating how humans and technology can collaboratively tackle the frontier of work.

The Future of Design and AI

Ultimately, whether designers should compete or protest against AI, it probably depends on one’s circumstances. However, it seems that if designers put skin in the game, become more computationally aware, and help influence artificial intelligence, the AI landscape could become better for everyone.

Maeda closes out his presentation by saying he believes the future of design and AI will be to create measurable customer-centric criticality value: “If design can do this, the world’s going to change for the positive for AI.”

Watch Maeda present his 2024 “Design in Tech” report below or view his presentation here.

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