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

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


February seemed to have zoomed by, as it always does, but there were some crucial events in that short month that are sure to have long-lasting effects. Let’s dive into it:

While scrolling through TikTok in early February, I came across a video that led me down a rabbit hole about technology and how it’s going to 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 photograph by configuring multiple photo frames, adjusting elements such as exposure and contrast. In other words, this technology shows that camera phones are moving away from technically perfecting features like lenses to produce a more lifelike image. Instead, the phones choose technology that creates a more “perfect” image, regardless about how true it might be. What is perhaps most interesting in Gee’s comment is that this editing algorithm was developed not only to create a more perfect photograph, but one that would appeal most to the consensus of the average consumer.

Gee then makes a connection between this and Spotify’s Discovery Mode feature, described on the Spotify for Artists website as a “marketing tool that helps your music be heard when audiences are most open to discovery.” The engagement algorithm is not driven by novelty, but by popularity (and the more your song is heard, the bigger cut Spotify gets for your song). So smaller artists with songs that capture 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 curatorial guide will stifle innovation in music, as songs that appeal to the larger masses will be more profitable. This raises an important question in the field of design: what happens to the aesthetic development 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 while AI is not strictly an algorithm, it relies on sets of algorithms to learn and evolve), it opens up the potential for an exit we previously could never have imagined.

A fascinating viral LinkedIn post was published in February by creative director Eric Groza, who used AI to envision a sophisticated conceptual collaboration between British Airways and Burberry. Aside from the unimaginable logo that gives away the AI’s handiwork, I’d argue that many designers would see these renders as usable 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 highlight that these images were chosen from among hundreds of others by Groza, underscoring the critical role of an editor’s intervention when using AI for creative purposes. While AI is certainly a remarkable tool in this regard, we must also consider that it can only draw on examples of past excellence to generate these sophisticated images.

The British Airways x Burberry experiment is proof of 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 directions are based solely on the culmination of past 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 potential to introduce truly new and remarkable ideas into culture? This is a question that requires careful consideration going forward.

In other AI news

AI no doubt imitates life, but how will life imitate AI in the future? This LinkedIn post presents a curious potential scenario:

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Reporter has a bizarre chat with Bing’s new AI Chatbot Sydney, saying: “I want to be alive.”

For those who haven’t yet read this interview Kevin Roose did with Bing’s AI chatbot named Sydney, it’s a wild ride. Perhaps even more disturbing is the fact that when asked why Sydney behaved the way they did during this conversation with Roose, Microsoft had no clear answer.

This app can block text-to-image AI models from ripping off artists

The power of previous examples in generating AI also calls into question the issues of copyright. It appears 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. The founders of the Glaze project at the University of Chicago noted that their AI countermeasures program is “not a permanent solution to AI mimicry … AI is evolving rapidly, and systems like Glaze face an inherent challenge of being future-proof … It is important to note that Glaze is not a panacea, but a necessary first step towards artist-centric protection tools to resist AI mimicry.We hope that Glaze and follow-up projects will provide some protection to artists while long-term (legal, regulatory) efforts take hold . . .

A worrying news story emerged on February 3 when a train crashed in the town of East Palestine, Ohio, spilling a cocktail of chemicals that were quickly burned into the atmosphere to avoid a deadly explosion. This fire, of course, sent noxious chemicals into the air, causing residents to experience terrible headaches, visibly polluted riverbanks, and strange phenomena such as chickens laying eggs with a disturbing purple hue.

A view of the smoke caused by the Ohio train derailment on the night of February 3 (image source: Wikimedia Commons)

How this story ties into design has to do with the chemicals spilled in Ohio—a combination of substances including, but not limited to, vinyl chloride, isobutene, ethylhexyl acrylate, and benzene. Vinyl chloride, for one, is a chemical most commonly used in PVC pipes, but can also be found in products such as vehicle upholstery and plastic kitchenware.

While the story of the derailment itself has much more to do with parties like Norfolk Southern (the company that runs the derailed train), the damage to our environment due to chemicals used in products designers bring to market reaffirms the role 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 final decisions about manufacturing, product development and materials. .

Can environmental disasters like this be used as an urgent call to start rethinking our systems? While it’s hard to imagine our supply chain reliance on chemicals alongside vinyl chloride and toxic plastics fading any time soon, it’s certainly a moment that calls for conversations about our future reliance on materials, and how we can evolve them to reduce their impact.

While it’s understandable to feel a sense of overwhelm at the state of climate change today, February had some news that suggests there are phenomena we can take advantage of to begin working toward positive change.

The exciting news in January released by the World Meteorological Organization that efforts to repair the thinning ozone layer are working has served as a beacon of optimism for anyone feeling a sense of doom about the climate. A report released in early February by the International Energy Agency also revealed positive news, suggesting that renewables and nuclear power are expected to meet almost all global electricity demand in just the next three years – big news at a time when electricity consumption is set to to rapidly increase.

There are also interesting developments in the areas relevant to design that show how the industry can reduce further damage.

Read Space10’s Regenerative Home Report

A report published on February 22 by Space10, an IKEA-backed research center, provides interesting key learnings around potential ways design can effectively reduce energy consumption in the home. The Regenerative Home Report focuses its research on the fact that home energy consumption is a huge future challenge, with household consumption behavior responsible for a shocking 72% of global greenhouse emissions (with high-income countries responsible for the largest share of this percentage).

Looking at positive change through the lens of design, the report explores how designed interventions can significantly reduce emissions in housing/construction, energy use, food and agriculture, and consumer products for the home. It’s a fascinating read, full of useful statistics on home energy use, resources on upcoming products and technologies that tackle issues related to home energy use, and interesting examples of progressive sustainable design interventions that can serve as examples for the future.

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