Technological advancement is, if you’ve momentarily forgotten, altering the way we interact with pretty much everything. It speeds up the product production process, its changed with we way communicate with friends, and even how we get a pizza delivered on a day when we’re too hungover to amble to the shops. It’s even, somehow, affecting what we read — only last week AI Instagram influencer Lil Miquela made her writing debut for Dazed.
As great as these things can be, every so often something will give us pause for thought. What if these changes put us all out of work? Maybe our personal choices have already become algorithmic without us even knowing it? What responsibilities do we have to start putting parameters on it? Actually — is it that the responsibility of designers?
Those were the questions asked at From Pixel to Place, an event organised by Airbnb Design and hosted by It’s Nice That as part of London Design Week. Posing those queries was It’s Nice That’s managing director Alex Bec joined by a panel featuring founder and creative director Mona Kim, partner and creative director of International Magic Adam Rodgers, senior curator of design and digital at the V&A Museum Corinna Gardner, and Alex Schleifer, VP of design at Airbnb.
Over the course of the evening it became clear that despite the differences in their practice — from Mona’s appreciation of tactility in experimental spatial design to Adam’s optimistic view of technology’s benefits on the design process — all creatives build up the same concerns in their head; as Alex Schleifer put it, “at the end of the day we’re all trying to solve the same problems”.
In turn, the overall responsibility of designers was that while the advancements of technology are something that has to be shared by individuals and governments, “design shapes society” as Corinna said succinctly. The big question, then, is what should our community be working towards to gain the ultimate benefits of technology? And how does that push things into being super exciting rather than anxiety-inducing?
Design of any kind, in its very purest sense, is a process which aims to answer the needs of others – from filling out a mortgage application at the bank to being pointed toward an exhibition in a major museum. As a counterpart to this, designers must think ahead to keep relevant. It’s not just about answering those initial needs, but providing the solution to what society needs next — ideally before they’ve even thought of it. It is for this very reason that machine learning became a hot topic of conversation for the panel.
At a basic level, machine learning provides an insight to human opinion and understanding. “Machine learning means, essentially, that you get gigantic data sets which are often made by humans,” Airbnb Design’s Alex Schleifer explained to the audience. “Imagine you ask 100 humans to look at 100 flowers and tell you if a flower is blue or red. You then take all that data and put it into a machine learning algorithm, let the machine chew on that for a second, then ask ‘what is this flower?’ The machine will know it’s blue.”
Handy of course, but it cuts out the middleman (read designer) and that initial creative process that has proved so important: gathering insight. The threat of this is clear when you think of the creative audience attending the event last week. Only some had an understanding of machine learning and it’s entrenching on their actual jobs, so imagine how little wider society may be able to grasp.
In turn, what Alex suggests is that “any designer should develop an understanding of machine learning,” due to the fact that it’s “behavioural modification at a scale we’ve never seen before, never”. Ultimately, the last thing we want is for “the machine to start feeding itself… We’ve also seen the movies where that turns out so good,” he jokes. However, for that fully to take effect, as Corinna rebutted, it’s not just designers who need to gain an understanding of it but “a multitude of voices”.
To gather this multitude we need to start at the very beginning with the next generation. Recently Airbnb Design expanded its employees but Alex feels it will need more. “We don’t have enough and we’re an exciting company to work for — who’s going to design medical technology or the buttons we press in lifts? We’re lacking probably two million designers if we really want to do this.”
To logistically do this, the panel shared the thought that upscaling of such a figure was dependent on encouraging children to enter the industry. “Upscaling is about an informed public,” Corinna explains. “But, it’s also about the creative industry making sure to get the next generation, those with real ambition and drive, to understand that design and the creative industries are as well shaping as if you go into legal professions or politics. That’s the real challenge for us within the field.”
It’s through this encouragement of the younger generation that designers can rise and have the upper hand. At the end of the day, the one thing machine’s can’t do — yet — is sit with you and have a chat. As Mona Kim points out it’s “physical spaces which give us a chance to engage all our senses… there are many layers, but until you’re sitting next to a person do you get the layers of information,” we’re just tactile animals after all and a machine won’t ever be able to design with that level of empathy.
Consequently, it may not be the individual designer’s responsibility to put parameters on the way commerce, or a society as a whole, utilises technology advancement, but, it is our responsibility to learn and accordingly teach others about it. It should also inform the work designers make. Projects should ultimately be made with intention and meaning — in turn making this high-speed transition into the digital age as smooth as possible — rather than working towards the goal of impressing peers or even competitors.
“We tend to design for the people in the room — how do you design for everyone?” Corinna asked as the panel drew to a close. Possibly, the biggest problem creatives face from technology is that it could be better at designing with society in mind than the current inclusivity of the design industry.