The 3 mindsets to adapt in the era of AI
Quick thoughts on how designers will thrive with robots on the side.
With the rapid development of AI, we are witnessing its incredible power and potential to shape the future of design.
At the recent big annual event, Figma made an exciting announcement about their next frontier: They acquired Diagram, the startup that has been working relentlessly to bring AI Superpower into Figma through plugins.
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Since the launch of ChatGPT, I have come across several new AI-powered design tools and Figma plugins. I’ve tried some of them and found them impressive. However, I still encounter friction when trying to incorporate them into my design process on Figma, primarily because AI is not natively integrated into the design tool itself. I believe that when AI becomes a part of the tool, we will see more and more designers harnessing AI in their design workflows.
For the past few months, we have been bombarded with the idea that AI could replace design jobs.
The layoffs and pursuit of efficiency.
The click-bait titled tweets: “RIP web designer” and “UI Design is dead.”
The AI-powered design tools position themselves as tools for non-designers to gain design superpowers.
Noah Levin’s keynote at Figma Config 2023 gave us insight into what designers should cultivate a perspective and embrace in the future with AI. He mentioned that the roles and workflows of those involved in product design and development will shift.
I’ve always thought that the impact of AI is similar to the introduction of the tractor, which replaced traditional farming techniques. The tractor eliminated certain tasks, but it also gave rise to numerous other, more valuable forms of work.
This leaves me with burning questions: What’s next for us as designers? How can we thrive in the new era of AI?
To be honest, I haven’t found a definitive answer yet. I suppose there are no certain answers as the landscape continues to evolve.
#1: Getting deeper into the "Why"
I still vividly remember what it was like to design a UI screen in Photoshop. There were no red-line guidelines or snap guides to assist me. Instead, I had to rely on grids and manually adjust the spacing by shifting elements every 10 pixels—a laborious task.
Our understanding of UI design was more limited back then compared to what it is today. Our tools have evolved, making our processes faster.
With the advent of AI, creating a UI screen will become 10 times faster. The reality is that, as humans, we simply can't match the speed of AI. It is incredibly efficient at placing dividers, buttons, and other UI elements on a screen.
The elements you add to a screen represent the 'What'—they are tangible and visible. On the other hand, the 'Why' is the intention behind each UI element on the screen. It's invisible but crucial, as it gives your craft its underlying value.
'What' = I added a divider. 'Why' = Since there are two groups of content, adding a divider provides clear separation, making it easier for users to skim through the content.
When the process of creating the "What" gets faster, it gives you more space to think about the meaningful reasons, the "Why," behind your design choices.
#2: Raising the standard of craftsmanship
Shifting from 'What' to 'Why' doesn't mean that the value of 'What' diminishes. AI will push the ceiling even higher for designers, allowing them to make their work stand out more, explore uncharted territories, and refine their tastes.
Here’s what Noah Levin says:
One way to think about it is the total space of design having a ceiling and a floor: The ceiling is how good a designer can be at designing, which is constrained by the available tooling; the floor is the minimum skill required for someone to participate in design. AI will lift this ceiling, leading to more creative outputs made possible by more powerful tools; it will also lower the floor, making it easier for anyone to design and visually collaborate.
Consider the example of a supermarket where you can find a variety of ready-to-use sauces that enable you to prepare your favorite meals quickly and easily. Instead of manually peeling and processing basil leaves, pine nuts, garlic, and hard cheese, and then blending them with extra virgin olive oil, you can simply buy instant pesto sauce to add to your pasta dishes. While this convenience allows you to make a decent meal in less time, it may not match the quality of your grandmother's cooking or the dishes served at your favorite specialty restaurant. Think of it this way: If you, as a cooking novice, and Gordon Ramsay both had the same instant sauce to make a pesto pasta dish, would your dish be as delicious as his?
I believe the same principle applies to design. Now that everyone has access to 'instant intelligent ingredients,' what will distinguish you as a designer is your unique combination of skills, tastes, intuition, and techniques. To truly excel, you need to hone those qualities and raise the bar of your craftsmanship. In this new environment, you might even need to get your hands 'dirtier' than before to craft truly exceptional work.
#3: Pushing communication collaboration and delivery even better
With the advent of AI, the value of 'design' is likely to shift more towards being a verb, an action, rather than just a noun, an artifact. Design encompasses far more than just the objects created. For instance, a single button can spark discussions across different departments, and a fancy screen transition can lead to conversations with technical architects.
When we think of design as an action, it becomes a process involving abstraction. You and your team navigate complexities to develop effective solutions; it's far from a solitary endeavor.
Even after completing a visually stunning initial draft or finalizing your design, you've only reached the halfway mark. The remaining journey involves presenting your work, persuading others to support your ideas, and handing over your designs for further development.
I believe we'll eventually reach a point where designers can train AI to perform tasks beyond what we can currently imagine. In the near future, we could be designing user interfaces, user flows, prototypes, and more at unprecedented speeds.
What remains for us? What other values could we focus on?
These will be the perpetual questions that guide us in an ever-evolving landscape. Our ability to adapt is the fundamental skill we rely on, and it is something we are no strangers to.
Designers are no strangers to change. We’ve adapted to new platforms. We’ve become more collaborative. We’ve learned to work in hybrid work environments. And with each of these fundamental shifts, we adapt, we learn, and still—we design.
— Noah Levin