Shades of Intelligence: 83% of creatives are already using machine learning tools – is now the time to get on side with AI?

Welcome to Shades of Intelligence, a new series investigating the creative industry’s growing relationship with artificial intelligence. In this introductory piece, we provide a bird’s-eye view of how creatives are feeling towards machine learning and emerging technologies.


Even the mere mention of artificial intelligence is enough to elicit a visceral response in creatives in 2023. There are its hopeful supporters, who believe in its ability to speed up tedious processes, facilitate shorter working weeks or encourage new avenues of learning. Then you have those who are rightly anxious, concerned about the impact AI might have on the job market, the crafts it might erase, the data it’s using, and the prejudices built into that data from the outset. Somewhere in between are the dark humorists, nervously laughing about a computer coming for their job, while trying to understand developments that are moving too fast to make sense of.

Over the past few months, we’ve been immersing ourselves in the world of AI. What has become clear is that this is one of the most divisive questions our industry has ever faced. Never have the tools we use to create come under such scrutiny, but at the same time the future has rarely felt so open and full of potential. We read a whole wealth of material on this subject, yet often finished articles more confused than when we started, understanding little of how our community is actually feeling towards this technology. So, today we launch Shades of Intelligence – a term coined by one of our contributors Matteo Loglio – a new project examining the multifaceted topic of AI in the context of the creative industry.

Created out of a desire to make this subject as accessible as possible, across three articles Shades of Intelligence looks at the lifecycle of a project – from the brief to idea generation, production, art direction and communication – providing real-life cases of how creatives are using AI-powered tools at each step. Throughout, we discuss the positives and negatives of these fast-paced developments, with people actually using this technology in their practices.

We’ve also built this series with the help of our audience, thanks to many of you who completed a special survey in September. Providing an overview of both people’s aspirations and their apprehensions towards AI, the poll results display the creative industry’s adoption of AI in its very early stages – the experimentation phase, if you like. As you might expect, there is a huge chasm in opinion – on the one hand a sense of disdain towards a machine’s ability to create, and yet on the other, those same individuals are using AI – and regularly.

Across the breadth of creatives who responded to our survey, an overwhelming majority (83%) have already adopted AI into their working practices. Almost half (49%) say they have used these tools in the past week alone, while 33% have done so in the past six months. Yet, across disciplines, opinions are divided. When offered a multiple-choice selection on their overall feelings towards AI, 56% of our respondents describe their feelings as curious, with 41% saying they are excited about the opportunities such technologies present for the future. Those who lean more sceptical, however, are not far behind: 36% of respondents believe that AI’s capabilities are overhyped, and 26% say they feel it’s a terrible development for creativity overall.

These are general sweeping statistics demonstrating how all the creatives who responded to our survey are currently feeling. Predictably, variations in opinion emerge when we analyse our results based on creative discipline, seniority level and the type of work people carry out. For instance, those who work in-house at agencies or studios are more likely than the average to have recently used AI tools: 55% said they had used AI within the past week. Meanwhile, 38% of solo artistic practitioners and 27% of self-employed freelancers told us they had never used AI in their work at all.

Dividing respondents up by discipline unearths further insights. Strategists are currently using AI the most (78%), followed closely by people who describe their discipline as “digital arts” (74%) and those working in advertising (65%). We can assume that the majority of these people work in-house at agencies and studios. At the other end of the spectrum are those who are more likely to work in a freelance capacity: 54% of animators, 53% of illustrators and 33% of those working in film and motion have never used AI.

Interestingly, it seems to be the more senior members of staff who are most frequently using AI tools, with heads of department representing the most regular users (71%). We see comparable attitudes when we cross reference this with senior creatives’ general disposition towards AI. The roles more likely to be curious about AI’s capabilities are creative directors (71%), while 67% of heads of department noted their excitement for a future working with these tools. Such results are also reflected in the age ranges of our respondents, with those aged between 36-50 more likely to have a strong interest in the potential of AI in comparison to those in older and younger age brackets.

The fact that 83% of our survey’s respondents have used AI in their practice led us to wonder how exactly they were learning about such tools. Given the majority of these creatives currently work in-house at agencies or studios, it would be natural to assume, considering the enthusiastic stance expressed by senior leadership, that learning opportunities are being facilitated.

However, formal educational settings are rare when it comes to how creatives are learning about AI. For instance, 97% of creatives already using AI tools are learning through personal experimentation, while 27% have used web-based tutorials, 24% are picking up tricks via creators’ social accounts, and just 5% have taken a part-time course. Such reliance on creatives learning through doing could lead to experimental results, of course, but it is surprising to see an emphasis on personal exploration if a focus on AI is coming from the top down. On this note, it’s notably creative directors who stand out as the most frequent users of web-based tutorials – 41% compared to 27% of all respondents.

After gaining a general understanding of how creatives are learning to incorporate AI tools, we wanted to examine where in the creative process AI is proving most useful. From an overall perspective, creatives believe AI’s most important role lies in idea generation, with 38% of respondents singling this out. Yet respondents appear to be less enthusiastic about AI’s capabilities when it comes to the final outcome phase of a project, such as product development (6%), final production stages (6%) and marketing and communications (6%).

If AI’s capabilities are proving to be most helpful to creatives during idea generation, a larger ethical question presents itself when we consider the data feeding these tools. One of the dominant concerns around AI is how and whose creative work is being used in visual data sets, posing a minefield of copyright challenges. It’s also a topic which divided opinion amongst our survey’s respondents. Only a slight majority (54%) say they would be happy for their work to feature in a data set used by their peers, while 40% stated that they would only be comfortable with their work being used in this way if they were credited. A higher percentage of respondents (46%) are not comfortable with the idea at all.

Discipline also has a key influence here. Film and motion practitioners, alongside illustrators, are the most uncomfortable with their work being featured in a training set (70% and 77% of respondents, respectively). However, photography respondents are the most comfortable, with 82% stating that they would be happy for their work to be featured – but only with the caveat that they would be credited. Interestingly, however, a higher percentage (71%) of respondents have no issue using other creatives’ work to create work in a client-focused context, demonstrating a clear distinction in opinion between using these tools and having their own work used by others.

When we put aside all these considerations of use cases, learning opportunities and data sets, creatives are overwhelmingly unimpressed with the aesthetic quality of AI-generated work. Only 1% of creatives who responded to our survey believe that AI-assisted work reaches the highest standards currently. Additionally, of the creatives who are already using AI tools, only one in six (17%) say AI has truly altered their process. The creative world’s stance towards artificial intelligence’s visual capabilities provides a sense of reassurance to those who have harboured concerns about AI encroaching on their craft. However, as we look to the future, challenges quickly present themselves again.

Anticipating what lies ahead for the creative industry and the adoption of AI tools, we asked our respondents to share their current concerns around this technology. In line with wider industry anxieties, many respondents worry that AI will affect creative industry jobs, with 37% naming this as their biggest concern. Copyright and artist compensation issues then follow (33%), and a smaller but still significant proportion voice their unease of potential AI bias, and the lack of control we may have over this technology in future (both 15%, respectively).

In general, however, creatives appear hopeful for a future where we might create in tandem with specific tools. Fully 80% of our respondents say that, in a dream world, they’d like AI to support them in performing menial tasks, providing space to concentrate on being creative. This kind of adoption is also where creatives see AI’s greatest potential. Respondents were most excited about AI being adopted by the tech sector, presumably to create more integrated tools for their workflows. With this in mind, the majority of respondents (58%) believe that, in five years, AI will be a tool in every creative project.

With this wider understanding of how our industry is feeling towards AI, the further articles within Shades of Intelligence probe its use at each step of the creative process. Our aim with these pieces is not to present an overt opinion on whether this technology is necessarily positive or despairingly negative, but rather to shed light on what is happening in creative practices adjacent to your own. It’s entirely up to you whether or not you adopt such technologies, but we cannot ignore the fact that they’re here – and, as our data suggests, already being widely used.

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About the Author

Lucy Bourton

Lucy (she/her) is the senior editor at Insights, a research-driven department with It's Nice That. Get in contact with her for potential Insights collaborations or to discuss Insights' fortnightly column, POV. Lucy has been a part of the team at It's Nice That since 2016, first joining as a staff writer after graduating from Chelsea College of Art with a degree in Graphic Design Communication.

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