I had occasion to be in Washington, D.C., recently. With a few free hours, I found myself walking the marble halls of the National Gallery of Art, staring at paintings from the 17th century Dutch Masters—names like Rembrandt van Rijn and Johannes Vermeer. These are some of the greatest artists the world has ever seen. Only the paintings I was looking at weren’t done by them; they were credited to their studios. Large portions of these portraits—the backgrounds, the bridges, the sky—were actually painted by the many apprentices working with these famous artists in their studio.
There’s a lesson here for all of us. Especially those of us in the digital and web design world.
With AI and emerging computational design tools, we too can and should be starting our design work like Rembrandt van Rijn often did—in the middle of a project. Experience designers should be using AI to instantly grab all the existing colors and patterns and atomic elements in the current website as they begin their total architectural redesign of its experience. Visual designers should be using AI to work with color choices that are automatically filtered to provide only combinations that are within ADA compliance for contrast and legibility. Content writers should be using GPT3 to create early drafts of “writing prompts” to create entertaining and SEO-optimized copy for experiences on the web.
Now, some may say this doesn’t sound creative. This sounds like just another crummy way to dull down innovation and drive up efficiency. I say, think like a 17th-century artist. Sure, computational design tools can make our process more efficient. But also, anyone who has ever designed something knows that real invention often starts with the remixing of existing elements into exciting new and unexpected combinations. Here, AI and computational design tools can help as well—by suggesting and cycling through hundreds (if not thousands) of design combination possibilities. The kind of thing designers used to do manually by thumbing through pages in a book now can be done at a scale and with intelligence that will drive new thresholds of creativity. Plus, the hours not spent doing repeatable labor and recreating the foundations of web design can be reapplied to higher-value design exploration. Think deeper work on storytelling and brand building. Creating drama, excitement, and gamification in our experiences. Truly creating tools that benefit the community and serve a real purpose in the world.
In the end, this is all about creating better design. I believe the process these Dutch studios and artists like Rembrandt van Rijn used was really all about creating more stunning oil paintings. The time Rembrandt didn’t waste painting the background or the sky, he focused entirely on the hero subject matter in each portrait: the composition, the facial expressions, the look in a noblewoman’s eye suggesting her innermost thoughts and feelings. The same eye I found staring back at me over hundreds of years of time from the walls of the National Museum of Art. We all should aspire to have our digital tools and the digital experiences we create rise to the level of art. As it turns out, the first step in doing that just might be in not doing it all by yourself.
Barry Fiske leads Global Experience & Innovation for LiveArea, a Merkle Company. He is also host of the What Bubbles Up creativity podcast