Can algorithms ever replace designers?

If movies have taught us anything, it’s that machines taking over for humans is a scary concept. I mean, just look at what happened when we created an artificial intelligence: an army of Terminator machines tried to wipe us out! But these events (albeit fictional) have not slowed our efforts to develop machines that can do everything a human can do, and that includes being creative.

Earlier in the year, Nutella released millions of uniquely designed jars of their product around Italy, all of which were created using an algorithm. The ad agency that created the algorithm calls each jar a ‘work of art’ and some journalists are suggesting that this new technology could usurp designers. But over here in a design agency – filled with designers, no less – naturally we’re sceptical that we will be ousted anytime soon.

To the credit of the ad agency, it’s an impressive marketing technique. We also can’t deny the hard (human) work, thinking, and development that would have gone into making the programme for Nutella. But when it comes to branding, designers have the upper hand. Branding is all about emotive reactions and perceptions: designers look deep within the company ethos and study the emotions associated with the business and product or service, and help the business extract the desired reactions from the target audience. An algorithm can take many factors into account, including colours, patterns, and shapes, but it can’t establish a rapport with an audience.

After all, what exactly are the algorithm’s designs based on? Branding and design are about much more than a quest to create something aesthetically pleasing. The Nutella algorithm wasn’t responding to a brief, neither was it trying to solve a problem. Much like generative electronic music, whereby machines create sequences of sound within human-defined conditions, Nutella’s designs are just generative decoration. The only accomplishment is scale, and while that is admirable in its own right, it’s not good design.

Machines cannot replace the creative, human, and emotive aspects that have a huge effect on good design. The key difference between an algorithm and a human is the presence of empathy. You can feed data and problems into both an algorithm and a designer and they’ll both looks for solutions, but only a designer can address the problem at an emotional level.

So no, the Dusted creatives aren’t worried just yet. Smaller businesses, especially, will find little value in having algorithms generate their design in the way Nutella did. Having millions of designs for your packaging is a neat trick, but only the largest, most recognisable brands can afford to toy with their design while still maintaining brand recognition. It doesn’t look like algorithms will be taking over for designers any time soon.

But replacing designers was never really the point of algorithm-based design (despite what you might read). Designers already juggle many tools and technologies to help produce the best results, and algorithms – while being capable of producing many designs – aren’t supposed to provide the answer, but merely assist the designer in developing one. An algorithmic approach to design could be helpful for workflow efficiency: feeding relevant information such as shapes and colours into an algorithm could help to generate loose ideas, layouts, and combinations of elements. It can also cut down the production time of rough ideas so that designers can choose the most interesting of the rough designs and develop from there. In the future, algorithms could even become an essential tool on the designer’s proverbial tool belt.

We designers will often read stories about robots doing a better job than us humans and will gleefully (and correctly) dismiss them as ridiculous, but a good designer also knows when to recognise potential. There’s no telling how the technology will develop in the future, so we’ll be keeping a close eye on it. Of course, despite their potential, there are no machines out there that can replace humans in creative fields. Okay, except maybe Johnny 5 from Short Circuit.