Design Speculations, February 2023: Creative Direction Brought to You by AI, the Ohio Train Derailment, and Other Sustainability News

Design Speculations is a monthly article that rounds up the latest news and postulates what this means for the future of design.


February seemed to fly by, as it always does, but there were some pivotal events in the short month that are sure to have long-lasting consequences. Let’s dive in:

Scrolling through TikTok in early February, I came across a video that led me down a rabbit hole about technology and how it will affect the evolving visual direction of design.

The video is by TikToker Derrick Gee, a fun follow-up for anyone interested in music and lesser-known design facts. He first discusses the computational photography updates to the iPhone 14, announced in September 2022. Apple’s “deep fusion” software uses contextual information to create an ideal photo by configuring multiple photo frames and adjusting elements such as exposure and contrast. to fit. In other words, this technology shows that camera phones are moving further and further away from technically perfecting features like lenses to produce a more lifelike image. Instead, phones are opting for technology that creates a more “perfect” image, careless of how lifelike it can be. Perhaps what’s most interesting about Gee’s commentary is that this editing algorithm was developed not only to produce a more perfect photo, but also one that will most appeal to the average consumer consensus.

Gee goes on to link this to Spotify’s Discovery Mode feature, described on the Spotify for Artists website as a “marketing tool that gets your music heard when the audience is most open to discovery”. The engagement algorithm isn’t driven by novelty, but by popularity (and the more your song gets heard, the bigger the discount Spotify gets for your song). So smaller artists with songs that appeal to a large audience get priority and a chance for a big spotlight – a win-win right?

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Gee argues that the overall effect is a bit more complicated. He worries that relying on engagement analytics as a guide for curators will stifle innovation in music because songs that appeal to the wider masses will be more profitable. This raises an important question in terms of design: what happens to the aesthetic evolution of design when a technological tool determines what is considered exemplary? As we increasingly incorporate image-generating AI into our design practices (although it should be noted that AI is not strictly an algorithm, but relies on sets of algorithms to learn and evolve), it opens up the possibility for an output we never had before can think of.

In February, a fascinating viral post was published on LinkedIn by Creative Director Eric Groza, who used AI to propose a sophisticated conceptual collaboration between British Airways and Burberry. Aside from the indecipherable logo giving away the AI ​​handiwork, I’d say many designers would consider these renderings fair for a pitch deck.

A luxury eye mask design for British Airways in the style of Burberry (Image credit: Eric Groza)

British Airways seats with a Burberry touch, imagined by AI (Image credit: Eric Groza)

It is important to emphasize that these images were selected by Groza from hundreds of others, highlighting the crucial role of an editor’s intervention in using AI for creative purposes. While AI is certainly a remarkable tool in this regard, we should also keep in mind that it can only draw on past examples of excellence to generate these cutting-edge images.

The British Airways x Burberry experiment is a testament to AI’s ability to match the quality and aesthetics of 2023. But what comes next? How can we innovate beyond current trends if our brand guidelines are based solely on the pinnacle of previous references?

Gee’s concern about Spotify’s algorithms promoting music that appeals to the masses rather than fostering true innovation carries over to the world of design and AI’s role in it. How can we use AI as a useful tool without sacrificing design’s potential to introduce truly new and remarkable ideas to the culture? This is a question that requires careful consideration in order to move forward.

In other AI news

AI is undoubtedly imitating life, but how will life imitate AI in the future? This LinkedIn post poses a curious potential scenario:

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Reporter Has Bizarre Chat With Bing’s New AI Chatbot Sydney Saying, “I Want To Be Alive.”

For those who have yet to read this interview that Kevin Roose did with Bing’s AI chatbot called Sydney, it’s been a wild ride. Perhaps even more troubling is the fact that Microsoft didn’t have a straight answer as to why Sydney behaved the way she did during this conversation with Roose.

This app could prevent text-to-image AI models from ripping off artists

The power of the past example in generating AI also raises questions about copyright. It seems that programs are being developed to thwart AI’s attempts to copy artists’ work, but even the developers of these programs note that it is only a short-term solution. Founders of the Glaze Project at the University of Chicago noted that their AI mitigation program “is not a permanent solution to AI mimicry…AI is evolving rapidly, and systems like Glaze face an inherent challenge in being future-proofed.. It is important to note that Glaze is not a panacea, but a necessary first step toward artist-focused protection tools to resist AI impersonation. We hope that Glaze and follow-up projects will provide some protection for artists as efforts in the longer term (legally, regulatory) get off the ground.”

A worrying news story emerged on Feb. 3 when a train crashed in the town of East Palestine, Ohio, spilling a cocktail of chemicals that quickly burned into the atmosphere to prevent deadly explosions. This burn, of course, released harmful chemicals into the air, giving residents terrible headaches, clearly contaminated riverbanks, and strange phenomena such as chickens laying eggs with a disturbing purple hue.

A view of the smoke caused by the train derailment in Ohio on the night of Feb. 3 (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

How this story relates to design has to do with the chemicals spilled in Ohio – a combination of substances, including but not limited to vinyl chloride, isobutylene, ethylhexyl acrylate, and benzene. For example, vinyl chloride is a chemical most commonly used for PVC pipes, but can also be found in products such as car upholstery and plastic kitchenware.

While the story of the derailment yourself has much more to do with parties like Norfolk Southern (the company that ran the train that derailed), the damage to our environment from chemicals used in products that designers bring to market reaffirms the role that design plays in climate change. It is a well-known statistic that an estimated 80% of all product-related environmental impacts are determined during the design phase of a product. This puts a lot of power in the hands of those who make the final decisions about production, product development and materials. .

Can environmental disasters like this be used as an urgent call to reevaluate our systems? While it is hard to imagine that our supply chain reliance on chemicals, parallel to vinyl chloride and toxic plastics, will soon fade away, it is certainly a time when conversations need to be had about our future reliance on materials and how we can develop it to reduce impact.

While it’s understandable to feel overwhelmed by the state of climate change today, February brought news that suggests there are phenomena we can take advantage of to begin working toward positive change.

The exciting news released by the World Meteorological Organization in January that efforts to restore the thinning ozone layer are working has served as a guiding light of optimism for anyone feeling a sense of doom about the climate. A report released by the International Energy Agency in early February also brought some positive news, suggesting that renewables and nuclear energy are expected to meet nearly all global electricity demand within just three years — huge news at a time when electricity consumption will rapidly increase. rise increase.

There is also an interesting design development that shows how the industry can limit further damage.

Read Space10’s Regenerative Home report

A report published February 22 by Space10, an IKEA-supported research center, offers interesting key lessons about the potential ways design can effectively reduce energy consumption in the home. The Regenerative Home Report focuses its research on the fact that home energy use is a huge future challenge, with household consumption behavior responsible for as much as 72% of global greenhouse gas emissions (with high-income countries accounting for the largest part of that percentage). ).

Looking at positive change through the lens of design, the report examines how designed interventions can significantly reduce emissions in the areas of housing/construction, energy use, food and agriculture, and consumer household products. It’s a fascinating read, full of useful statistics about home energy use, resources on emerging products and technologies that address issues related to home energy use, and interesting examples of forward-thinking sustainable design interventions that can serve as models for the future.

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