Artificial Intelligence in Design For The Real World

Illustration: Ben Usher Smith

Using artificial intelligence in design is not only about creating visually appealing products and solutions. The real power is in leveraging it to speed up the skilled but mundane aspects of design processes. AI could allow us to spend more time solving problems and meeting people’s needs.

At USDC HQ we’ve been spending time to learn and understand the tools, tricks and consequences of designing with AI. We’ve also spent a lot of time looking at how it’s going to impact what we do. And what everyone else does in the coming months and years. This in turn made me go back and visit a few of my favourite design books and articles.

Victor Papanek’s, “Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change,” published in 1971, is more relevant than ever. Designers and organisations seeking to procure design services with the advent of artificial intelligence in design. Victor’s thesis is that designing for the real world means designing for everyone, irespective of their socio-economic background.

Not just aesthetically pleasing

Whilst I don’t agree with many of Papanek’s socialist and anarchistic summations. The ones so many ‘progressive’ designers like to hang their hats on, I find his work of great utility. His books challenge designers to use their skills to make the world a better place for everyone. He criticises designers for their obsession with form and function and for ignoring their designs’ social and environmental impacts. Instead, Papanek argues that designers must take responsibility for the consequences of their designs. He also encourages them to use their skills to address pressing social and environmental issues.

With AI-assisted design now becoming more prevelant, the role of designers has become more important than ever before. Integrating AI into design workflow offers dozens ways to enhance design processes however it’s like drinking from a fire hydrant.

Integrating AI into design workflow

AI-powered design is going to revolutionise the design process, making it faster, more efficient, and more accurate. However, the use of AI also raises a number of ethical concerns. For example, AI algorithms may inadvertently perpetuate biases and inequalities. AI could create products that are harmful to the environment and society. Not because it’s SKYNET, but simply because the way it’s trained doesn’t account for how it gets used.

Designers who are aware of flaws in AI tools and who stay abreast of how they evolve will be essential. These designers can use their skills to ensure that AI is used in a responsible and ethical manner. They can help to insure AI algorithms that are transparent and accountable. They can fill in the gaps of the process to take into account the needs and interests of all stakeholders. Freelancers and small design firms can improve as machine learning in graphic design becomes more accessible. They can dedicate more time to sustainable, inclusive design. Investing saved time and money into enhancing social and environmental aspects of their designs.

My copy of 'Design for The Real World' by Victor Papanek.
My dog-eared copy of ‘Design for The Real World’.

“Much recent design has satisfied only evanescent wants and desires, while the genuine needs of man have often been neglected. The economic, psychological, spiritual, social, technological, and intellectual needs of a human being are usually more difficult and less profitable to satisfy than the carefully engineered and manipulated “wants” inculcated by fad and fashion”.

Victor Papanek, Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change, 1972, p.10-11

With change comes opportunity

With the time and cost saving benefits that using artificial intelligence in design brings, we can make better design decisions. Organisations seeking to procure design services can benefit from Papanek’s insights and prioritise social and environmental responsibility in their design briefs. They can encourage designers to think beyond reach and return and even form and function and consider their designs’ broader implications. They could also then ask designers to demonstrate how their designs will address social and environmental challenges and to provide evidence of their impact.

Artificial intelligence in design - Could we save time money and the world
Inspired by ChatGPT’s Ruby Chen Illustrations.

Papanek’s book, “Design for the Real World,” is more relevant than ever to designers and organisations seeking to procure design services with the advent of AI. By embracing Papanek’s vision of design as a tool for social and environmental change, designers can use AI to create products that are not only beautiful and functional but also ethical, sustainable, and inclusive. And by prioritising social and environmental responsibility in their design briefs, organisations can encourage designers to use their skills to make the world a better place for everyone.

If as designers we start actively engaging in learning and understanding how AI can be used, we can then help determine how it’s used and also deliver better design solutions. If you haven’t already started exploring AI it’s worth taking some time to play with these tools to get some idea of how they are going to change the world; and maybe read Papanek’s book, just don’t get deluded by some of it’s idealistic anarchistic and socialist ideas.


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