As part of a new series reflecting on what it means to be creative, illustrator and author Ben Tallon reflects on how designers and intelligent machines could coexist.
The jury is still out when it comes to the impact of AI on our future career prospects. Debates have raged in abundance. I’m not sure how I feel at this nascent stage in the evolution of technology, certainly impressive. Replications of specific artistic styles, from naive drawings to detailed oil paintings, have been held up as terrifying harbingers of mass redundancy for us mere mortals with our pens, brushes, and gadgets. Do we burn the bots while we still can, or assimilate them into our toolset, as we have done with Adobe products and the like?
Of course, I’m not here to try to answer that question, but I confess to having a bit of trepidation. For one, video never killed the radio star. On the other hand, Blockbuster Video is gone.
When someone says Artificial Intelligence, what image comes to mind? Perhaps the vague white robot head in a shower of code that I’m imagining now suggests that I’m part of the problem. In the battle to prevent the creative industry’s supposed march towards an apocalypse at the hands of an algorithm, my overexposure to Google images speaks volumes. Any AI or technology related image search invariably yields a number of affordable, generic stock images. It’s easy to see how these dystopian scenes are replicated. As of November 2022, there have been 9 billion searches on Google each day. Meanwhile, 10.1% of Google searches are for images. Every time we return to so widely accessed sources of inspiration and ideas, aren’t we limping from one borrowed vision to the next, and isn’t this fueling those fears of mass redundancy?
While collective visions of the rise of machines should be avoided, we must still exercise caution when working with AI and retain our humanity and creativity as it improves. If with every online action we take, the AI becomes more intuitive, then we are raising a baby. You may not be aware, but it’s getting closer all the time, and there are problematic implications for our employment if we don’t lead with our humanity and creativity, because it will grow to be better than us at a fraction of the cost. and time.
Is technology driving us towards creative homogeneity?
Friend and Studio DBD founder Dave Sedgwick also teaches graphic design. He recently told me that he saw a student on Google “how to get an idea”. Meanwhile, during my own occasional guest speaking sessions, I’m dismayed to walk into a study space to find the entire room bent over laptops and more than half of them using Pinterest.
I spoke at length with Jones Knowles Richie’s executive creative director, Sean Thomas, who really gets to the heart of the matter.
He says: “What I’ve noticed is that a lot of the young people who grew up before there were libraries in studios, for example; everyone would go to the same three blogs for inspiration and ideas.
“Now, for an agency that tells prospective clients that they believe in making their brand unique and charismatic, that results in a lot of mood boards that seem pretty interchangeable. I ask my designers what the peculiarity is, what makes it unique? Placing the type and making it dynamic is not enough.
“One thing that drives me crazy is when you see a designer working on, say, a magazine cover, and he walks into a website full of great magazine covers… all you’ll see is work that’s already been done.
“I think there is a danger that technology makes everything the same, restricting creativity. Will we all be building our websites on Squarespace? Will we all work with the same three or four typefaces, the same pastel tones? We are an industry that is all about creativity, and that process is dangerously close to automation. You can only avoid it if you get ideas and inspiration from interesting and diverse places. By the time you are taking it out of online blogs; well technology can completely do that.”
Avoid “Stovepipe Societies”
There’s nothing wrong with any form of technology or process in isolation, but the Pinterest starting point alarmed me. The room froze and the energy of the art school was lost. Class leaders would try to echo Sean Thomas’s sentiments and students would groan or look puzzled when challenged to switch off and explore.
In my case, writing the manuscript for The Creative Condition has taken me out of the field of visual communication. I have spent time talking to firefighters, judokas, neuroscientists, Olympic gold medal winners, and former prisoners. The valuable lesson taught to us by possibly the most famous scholar in human history, Leonardo Da Vinci, is the need to draw inspiration and ideas from the entire web of life to create pioneering work. Of course, he is credited with designing the helicopter and he also painted the Mona Lisa. Imagine trying to fit all of that into a LinkedIn profile.
As an illustrator, there may come a time when the simpler aspects of my work, say my black ink drawings of found objects, are cheaper, faster, and easier to acquire through AI technology. Maybe that’s already here. But can AI provide the narrative or the subversive black comedy that feeds the work? Can you replicate the incidental nuances of the job and determine what works and what doesn’t? Can you go back to the designer and ask the logo to look “more commercial”?
For context, the AI can certainly illustrate a sinister clown in a style almost indistinguishable from my own, but could it provide whatever troublesome aspects of my psyche the Urban Clown series spawned? An image of which shows a laughing couple leaving Tesco Metro, heading towards a pram now occupied by a hideous little incarnation of a much maligned child artist, resembling something between Chucky and Pennywise? If it can, then it just amounts to replication, so I, like all of us, must continue to work those mental muscles to stay one step ahead and preserve our value and livelihoods.
We are certainly at a crossroads. If we become complacent and put trends, security, and delivery of the expected ahead of the creativity that has long been our defining asset as designers, making things easy for AI, then before we know it, we’ll be the last industry devastated by automation. But if we challenge what I’ve heard described as “stovepipe societies” in which we exist in compartmentalized industrial echo chambers, and delve into those rich, textured, and unique layers that make us individuals, human, and creative, then I have faith in that it can continue to be essential for a progressive society. In that way, AI, incredible as it is, can become an asset and the gateway to a new world of possibilities.
Ben Tallon is exploring “the nature, behavior and psychology of creativity” as part of The Creative Condition. This is a current podcast and a book will follow in late 2023.