28 February 2023
Design Practice

The End of Design As We Know It? How Automation and A.I. is changing the Face of Design Forever

As the technology landscape continues to evolve, so does the field of design. The rise of industrialization and automation has led to a shift from traditional craft skills to more assembly-based work. With the development of AI, we are seeing the possibility of even more automation in design. This raises questions about the future of the profession and the role of human designers. In this article I look at the commercial and technological trends facing the industry and try to imagine what comes next.

In the past, furniture making was a craft that required skilled artisans to painstakingly create each piece by hand. However, this was both time and labor-intensive, making it a costly process. As a result, while wealthy landowners could afford to furnish their homes with expensive pieces, local villages were lucky to have a few precious items.

With the advent of industrialization, furniture making became a factory-line process. This meant that more furniture could be produced for less, making it more accessible to a wider range of people. Instead of furniture makers designing chairs, a smaller number of industrial designers working for furniture brands like Knoll, Habitat, and later Ikea created the designs, and large factories populated by lower skilled workers produced them en masse. Although there is still a need for furniture makers, especially at the high-end, the number of local furniture makers has dropped significantly. The same fate may await the design industry.

In the early stages of my career every town and village had a host of local web designers creating promotional sites for shops, restaurants, and small hotels. However, much of this work has become self-serve through tools like Shopify and Wix. Many of these freelancers moved in-house, in part because the local work dried up, but also in part because of a massive boom in demand and the industrialized scaling up that followed.

As a result, the job of the designer has shifted away from coming up with brands, high-level design concepts and the “0-1” work. Instead, designers create industrialized design systems and use those systems to assemble screens from their component parts. Designers are now doing much less design from scratch and are rather assembling pieces to order. This requires skill, but a lot less hands-on craft skill than before.

Product managers are starting to do a lot more of the conceptual design work themselves. They’re the ones talking to customers, deciding what problems to solve and how to solve them. They often create wireframes and prototypes themselves, before handing them to the design team to assemble.

It won't be too long before we start seeing tools that make it super easy for non-trained folks to start doing the assembly work as well. In fact, some startups without designers are able to make pretty good-looking products by using UI kits. So it's only a couple of steps to the point where product managers will be able to “design” using real components and then push these designs to production, maybe without needing an engineer either.

In addition to the industrialization of design, the role of AI is also changing the landscape of design work. With the development of machine learning algorithms, AI is becoming increasingly capable of handling some design tasks, such as generating color palettes, suggesting layout options, and even generating entire pages from existing design systems.

While AI has the potential to greatly enhance the efficiency and accuracy of design work, it also raises questions about the future of the design profession. As AI continues to develop, it's possible that some design tasks could become fully automated, potentially leading to a reduction in demand for human designers.

Of course, we’ll still need designers to create the design systems in the first place - at least for the time being. And like high-end furniture makers, there will always be a need for hand-crafted artisan sites, apps, and products. However, the move to automation is shifting design from creation to assembly.

As such, one may wonder whether we've reached "peak designer" already, or will do in the coming years. We also wonder how designers will make that transition from creator to assembler to coordinator. Whatever happens, it's clear that the evolution of design is an ongoing process, and the future will undoubtedly bring new challenges and opportunities.