The democratization of design:
This post was originally posted on Designing with AI on September 29, 2023.
ChatGPT has entered the multi-modal phase, enabling it to “see, hear, and talk.” While this exciting development is currently being rolled out to Pro+ users over the next week or so, many of us eagerly await the opportunity to experience this revolutionary shift. Luckily, a few fortunate individuals who already have access have shared videos that offer us a glimpse into this transformative capability.
And when I say transformation, I truly mean it. I have around four different articles titled “The Democratization of Design” sitting in my drafts, eagerly awaiting the examples that would fully support the shift we’re currently experiencing. Honestly, they never felt complete until now.
Multi-modal turns everything on its head. Honestly, I’m still processing what it all means.
First, let’s take a look at some of the examples emerging this week:
ChatGPT can “see” and therefore translate images, an example posted by Pietro:
It even can interpret more complex imagery and meaning, like this example shared by Charlie:
But when you combine the modes, that’s where it starts to get wild. Here’s a video posted by McKay showing how ChatGPT can interpret a whiteboard drawing into code:
And in case that didn’t make it clear enough for you, let’s take a look at this one (also from McKay) where ChatGPT goes from mock up to code:
These by no means are complete, but can you see it? These modes unlock a way of working and generating that changes the control, process, and ownership.
Neither of these show the design process per se, which let’s be clear, a lot of design generation is already possible with generative AI. And what remains to been is right around the corner.
This is not just a signal of the possibility of the democratization of design; it marks the beginning of change.
Resetting the baseline
In the past, designers were the ones who held the cards (and power?) when it came to creating, because we had the craft and the tools. And when others entered our territory (e.g. showing up with a wireframe or hanging out in our Figma), we didn’t always accept it with openness.
Now, you may not have a choice.
The massive and rapid adoption of ChatGPT revealed the potential for many people to step into content and analysis in a way they probably couldn’t previously. Tools like Photoshop’s Generative Fill, Midjourney, and DragGan makes it easy for any one to pop into a document and mock things up or make dramatic changes. And it’s not just happening in the visual design space, if that’s what you’re thinking.
Within product design, I’ve used several tools where I can easily imagine a PM drawing out a rough sketch of UI, reskinning it with some of design’s mocks or design system documents in seconds, and then working with an editable, on-brand, high-resolution comp. And maybe, even tinkering with it in code. This is all conceivable with the products being built right now.
These tools will democratize aspects of our craft, and more people will become designers. They always were, frankly, but we didn’t accept it because it didn’t meet our expectations of “quality.” But what if this raises the bar?
Imagine if what they’re designing with actually started from a place of “good.” I mean, almost every single design team I’ve worked with has defined (time and time again) a set of principles that establishes a baseline of “good UX” or “good product design” that we could basically transfer to any single product and it’d still be true.
But what if new models were trained on these fundamentals, just like us. Meaning great interface patterns and accessibility built in from the start. That means all products would probably be a lot better than they are today — and that certainly isn’t bad for designers. I want to live in a better designed world, don’t you?
Now that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen immediately, particularly with the speed in which things are moving. There may be a period of more stuff with meh quality. Sure, that’s part of the evolution.
Imagine if we don’t have to debate basic good typography, or basic accessibility standards like contrast?
Imagine if the democratization of basic UI means you can finally work on all those big juicy challenges that you’ve been complaining to me about for years that you didn’t have time to do?
Redefining our value
I wrote about the upcoming need to redefine our craft in a recent Design Dept. blog post, but I still hear a lot of resistance in conversation that this has happened, or is happening.
If the democratization of design is here (I won’t say coming any more), what does that mean for us? Well, we won’t know until it happens, but here’s a range of predictions, starting with the things I’m most confident about:
The democratization of design definitely means that we need to be the most effective with our GenAI tools.
- In the short term: We’ll be able to harness the power of design better because we’ve been art directing for years, and that’s an easy translation into prompt crafting. And with the current market conditions and tech shifts, it’s likely that we’ll be expected to do so. (FYI, some teams are already redefining expectations or headcount for assumed productivity.) Even if the tools aren’t perfect yet, it’s time to learn the fundamentals and start considering new workflows.
- In the long term: We may all use GenAI, just like post-its and sharpies at a brainstorm. And that’s okay, if we also in paralell illustrate our value beyond generation.
The democratization of design will mean that we must anchor our value more clearly in creativity and impact.
- In the short term: We should be elevating skills that help us emphasize the value of creativity in business, and the ability to shape and influence decisions. I’ve spent the last 3–4 years teaching business acumen and strategy to design/UX teams at Meta, Google, Lyft, and many more, while trying to help designers get over their identity crisis that holds them back. But now’s the time to move beyond, and illustrate that impact more clearly than ever. Our value is way beyond moving boxes around. Show it.
- In the long term: We may define a new path for professional designers which continues to to blur the boundaries with engineering and product management. Be on the look out and an opportunity finder. New paths will emerge.
What else do you think is coming? Share your thoughts in comments.