Automation vs human beings in design

06 March 2017 / Neil Pendrey

Search for the term ‘automation’ on almost any design resource website and you’ll be met with a wealth of content and adverts all promising to make your life easier, streamline processes and make you a better designer.

But, in reality, what will the impact of automation be on the role of the designer in the future?

Automation – is it a dirty word?

Ever since the industrial revolution, machines have replaced human jobs. But with the rise of intelligent machines, the scale and nature of this process is escalating.

At a recent Ted X event the futurist Thomas Frey predicted that 2 billion jobs will disappear by 2030 – 50 per cent of all jobs. Driverless cars and delivery drones are just the beginning.

Companies within the creative and technology sectors constantly look to streamline their workforce by automating jobs. If a piece of software can replace you, it will.

In his Atlantic article, ‘A world without work’, Derek Thomson gives the example of AT&T and Google: “In 1964 America’s most valuable company, AT&T was worth $267 billion in today’s dollars and employed 758,611 people. Today Google is worth $370 billion but only has about 55,000 employees – less than a tenth the size of AT&T’s workforce in its heyday.” In short, better software and automation is helping Google and other companies make more profit with less people [Source: creativeblog.com].

Over the past 5 years there has been a significant shift amongst corporate clients to maximise efficiency by automating as much of their global marketing tools as possible. And why not? It makes sense financially, ensures brand integrity (to a certain degree) and keeps things simple. Right? Well, yes and no. Automation isn’t necessarily a dirty word, but it is a double-edged sword…

The impact of automation on design

Compared to a lot of other industries, design is one area where the substitution of human with machine seems unlikely. After all, designers deal with unstructured information, ideas and ‘blank sheets of paper’. But in reality, a modern designer will spend a lot of their time working with grids and using pre-set rules (such as Bootstrap) to ensure things work across multiple platforms and devices.

So, it makes sense for corporates to want to replace as much of the creative process as possible with automated templates and processes. But in reality, the initial savings can prove costly. Let me explain…

When a designer creates something, they consider much more than the mechanics and mathematics of the piece. Shape, size and function are considered alongside emotional response, humour, cultural reference – all things that cannot simply be replicated with an algorithm or template.

Consider this

You have a widget to sell.

Your creative agency creates a killer campaign for the UK. So successful in fact that you decide to go global.

To keep costs down, the campaign collateral gets converted into templates for use by local teams, but no consideration has been given for subtle variables and nuances such as the local market, cultural references, language differences (visual and verbal) and humour.

The result? A badly implemented interpretation of the original concept, put together by people with little or no design knowledge who are just trying to tick all the boxes. Something that resembles the original but just isn’t quite right. Because of the constraints of a template it’s poorly laid out, illegible in places, and in some cases, ugly.

In other words, FAIL.

So, what’s the answer?

Automation in design needn’t be a bad thing. If you can use it alongside cost-effective creative resources you can actually end up with a globlisation strategy that keeps the FD happy yet retains its creativity and effectiveness. You just need to remember to keep the human element. After all, people respond better to people than machines…

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