The extinction of the Designosaurs

Even if the risk of automation is a distant worry, the design landscape is changing drastically. Many designers are doomed to extinction if they don't update their skills and mindset

17 February 2020

This post is part of a series. If you’re new to the series, visit the first post “Redesign the World. A designer’s guide to the next decade” for the full table of contents and bibliography.

“In five years machine learning will enable computers to make the kinds of aesthetic choices that humans make today.”

— Matías Duarte, VP, Material Design at Google (cit. in LaBarre, 2016)

In 2013 Frey and Osborne from the University of Oxford published a paper about the risk of automation for 702 professional categories. They evaluated the chance that human labour will be replaced by a machine, robot or artificial intelligence (AI).

According to their estimates, 47% of US workers are at risk: telemarketers, warehouse workers and road drivers lead the ranking. Even intellectual professions (i.e. diagnosticians, lawyers, journalists) are likely to be automated soon. The timeframe of the study is not clear, yet it’s evident that this growing trend is not limited to the USA, it is global.

At the moment, even the most pessimistic designers can sleep peacefully: our area is considered among the least at risk. Designers are special creatures, endowed with critical thinking, a creative attitude, a desire for integration, and the ability to reconcile function and form. Today, these traits are still extremely complicated to develop in an AI.

Occupation Projected growth
(by 2024)
Automation risk
Graphic Designers 1% 8.2%
Floral Designers -3% 4.7%
Commercial and Industrial Designers 2% 3.7%
Art Directors 2% 2.3%
Interior Designers 4% 2.2%
Fashion Designers 3% 2.1%
Set and Exhibit Designers 7% 0.6%

Despite this, even the design landscape is going to change drastically, thanks to the (probable) technological progress: in the next decade, we will soon carry out many of the daily work activities with help from AI. This means with less effort, greater speed and, hopefully, better results.

And with this shift, some of the jobs that we consider valid and attractive today will become superfluous and old-fashioned. These Designosaurs won’t be able to adapt to the new times and will be doomed to extinction.

Above: Still taken from the documentary Graphic Means: A History of Graphic Design Production.

Designosaurus humilis

Low-level and cosmetic activities are going to be the domain of AI, capable of faster iterations in tedious activities. Thanks to progressive improvements in generative design algorithms, no one will need $5 logo designers anymore (see Greif, 2018). With the same budget you will obtain 100 different proposals by an AI trained with a database of every logo ever designed in history. It will be the end for those who push pixels all day, those who retouch photos, who draw backgrounds, the guys who do the dirty job. “Why pay for these creative services when you can use a computer-generated version for free?” (Caroline, 2019)

Above: Ugly designer using Letraset.

Designosaurus monomedialis

The historical evolution of the profession suggests that designers will increasingly work outside their traditional playfield, integrating skills, concepts and methods from different disciplines in each project. Asta Roseway, Principal research designer at Microsoft, says that, in an increasingly fluid environment, the designer’s role “will be to act as the ‘fusion’ between art, engineering, research, and science” (in LaBarre, 2016), becoming a true Fusionist. Extending beyond the classical design skills will be a key for success.

Those who are expertly versed in some narrow field and those who master only one medium will have a difficult life. We can already see these designosaurs among us: they failed to upgrade their skill set and remain anchored to old labels, such as the distinction between printed and digital media. They seem not to notice that we already deal with a design environment where omnichannel experiences and hybrid interactions are the status quo.

Graphic designers should overcome the traditional supremacy of the sight, by envisioning multisensory interactions (vocal, haptic, …). Industrial designers should look far beyond ergonomics, also taking into account systemic aspects related to the Internet of Things (IoT). If we put aside the great masters and the long tail of niche markets (Anderson, 2004), this pattern can be spotted in most fields of design.

Above: Image scanned from an old magazine, from Gene Gable’s vast archive.

Chief Design Officers and other designosaurs

On Fast Company, John Brownlee lists “5 design jobs that won’t exist in the future” (2016). Among these obsolete job titles are UX designers (when every design project involves experiences, this will be too vague), Design ethnographers (outclassed when better interpretation of big data will be available). The list includes also the Chief Design Officers we’ve already met: according to the most fervent evangelists of design thinking, the designer’s mindset and its advantages will soon spread across innovative companies as a survival strategy, until they become a prerequisite for every single C-level manager, not just the ones involved with the actual design practice. “Design is now too important to be left to designers.” (Brown, 2019, p.43)

Curiously, Chief Design Officers are also mentioned in another article on Fast Company, by Susan LaBarre (2016). This time, they are among the most promising design jobs of the future — the ones we are going to write about in the next post of this series. This apparent contradiction is actually a confirmation that there is not a single future ahead of us, but many.

Read the next post in this series: The next frontier of design practice




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