Visual design is safe from the rise of AI, right?

Kenny Crow
Kenny Crow
6th September 2022

Ask me five years ago, and I’d have said ‘absolutely’. A machine could never match a living, breathing human being’s creative mind.

Okay, granted. Technology has pushed visual design into impressive new territory since the days of hand-drawn artwork and illustrations but call me a purist — it can’t take ideas from people, surely!

Enter DALL-E — an Artificial Intelligence model which can generate images from anything you type. You may have seen it on social media recently, or at least images created with it. The first version produced scrappy – sometimes quite terrifying – images.

Nevertheless, DALL-E’s ability came as a surprise to us, unsuspecting designers. The relative speed and accuracy of the AI-generated imagery raised an interesting question in the design community — how far could this go? How well could AI generate bespoke imagery to meet somebody’s request? Perhaps a client’s request? That’s what we do, after all!

As I typed more and more obscure suggestions into the program, I pondered these questions. In truth, the odd and semi-resemblant results were putting a smile on my face and calming my worries image by image. I felt safe knowing machines weren’t replacing me anytime soon, and I wondered why I was ever really concerned.

But then OpenAPI’s DALL-E 2 arrived, and the results I saw were alarmingly impressive at first. The new version can create anything from complex illustrations, which would take professional illustrators days or even weeks to craft or spit out, or a range of logo concepts in a matter of seconds, which ordinarily takes designers hours and hours of pixel pushing.

How does it work, exactly?

DALL-E 2 utilizes a ‘generative model’ — a simplified term for a sophisticated deep-learning AI that creates images from natural language. It achieves this by understanding the relationships between image elements, which allows it to connect them in progressively different ways.

I’ve given an example in the image above. For this AI-generated image, all I inputted were the words ‘The last selfie on earth, high quality digital art.’ There were still disparities in the images DALL-E 2 formed from my suggestion, but the connections between each visual element remain undeniably consistent with what I would expect to see.

AI products and the future.

Well, as much improved as DALL-E 2 is from its predecessor, what does the future hold for AI, and will it further evolve?

Just a few months ago, OpenAI revealed that DALL-E 2 was becoming available in beta, with around one million users invited to try the product. Users will own all the commercial rights to the generated images, and there aren’t image use restrictions for businesses or brands.

This news garnered a mixed reception. A commercially available AI product could spell trouble for working artists, creatives, and designers. Businesses like stock photography image sites may also be under threat. With this kind of product, companies can rapidly expand their in-house creative capacity, and marketing teams can save time and money.

The incredible capacity of AI also raises an important ethical question. How can we guarantee correct usage? And filter out potentially damaging realistic imagery or offensive content? OpenAI took a long time to make DALL-E 2 commercially available, and figuring out this significant challenge was part of the reason why.

Companies behind DALL-E 2 and other AI programs, and the businesses using them, must be wary of where, how, and when they rely on AI-generated content. AI is still in its infancy, and infants have lots to learn!

So, should we be frightened of AI? Or is it just a new tool to use?

Despite its youth, AI has been around for a while and will inevitably influence art, design, and even content production for decades to come — as is proving. Rather than viewing our relationship with AI programs as fighting a seemingly lost cause, the design community (myself included) should embrace these new capabilities and look for opportunities to harness the power of AI to enhance our collective output.

Broadly speaking, let’s accept the change, not fight it.

I can already see how this astonishing tech could fit into a visual artist’s workflow once it hits the mainstream — even though it’s still unclear how that might look. Should AI programs like DALL-E 2 be bought out by Adobe or Getty and fleshed out as just one of our day-to-day tools or not? I have to say, I’m warming to the idea.

I’m more excited than frightened.

Simplification is on the rise. The unstoppable march of Squarespace and Wix for semi-automated website building and even Canva for graphic design dictates that we’ve already transitioned into a new world. One where we’re using all tools available to us to make other products and assets available to more people around us.

In the same way, I’m convinced that DALL-E 2 and other AI-centric programs that integrate with the creative industries ethically and responsibly will be more of a benefit than a hindrance.

A part of me thinks a designer should be as afraid of this new technology as a copywriter is of a thesaurus. Access to a bank of endless vocabulary allows a writer to make more appropriate and informed language choices. So, what’s wrong with designers having AI as a trusty resource to begin visual conception? Or to offer up alternative visual approaches to create something a bit more interesting? Nothing, if you ask me.

So don’t panic, everyone. I think we’re all safe for now.

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