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Design Taste vs. Technical Skills in the Era of AI



Summary: 
The need for discernment is amplified when generative AI enables anyone to create anything. Creative skills will still be necessary to produce superior designs.

Shift in Technical Capabilities 

Generative-AI (genAI) tools are enabling people to create things they never could before. You don’t have to own a camera to create a photograph, you don’t need any visual-design skills to make an illustration, and you don’t have to know anything about meter to create a poem. With just a few clicks, anyone can generate almost anything, unbound by traditional barriers.

This is one of the exciting benefits of AI tools — they fill skill gaps and reduce the boring, technically tedious tasks often required in design. However, just because someone can create something that they couldn’t before doesn’t mean it’s good. 

Technical Capability ≠ Taste

While AI can produce all kinds of outputs, the quality of those outputs is not guaranteed. Technical capability does not equal creative ability. The perfect analogy came from Oisin Hurst on LinkedIn: AI is to creativity what microwaves are to cooking.”

If you are (like Kate) a terrible cook, a microwave will get the job done. But the output won’t be nearly the same quality as an intricate meal made by a chef. The microwave doesn’t allow for much creative experimentation. You can vary the cooking time and intensity, but that’s about it. So, if you’re a talented cook (like Sarah), it might feel frustrating to use a microwave, because you have less precise control over the output and the product will be inferior to the results of most other cooking methods.

With widespread access to genAI, designers are no longer the only ones capable of producing design outputs. You don’t have to be a visual designer to create illustrations, a content designer to create content, or even an interaction designer to create websites (with AI-assisted interface generation).

We anticipate that, in the future, designers will no longer be differentiated based on the technical skills required to create designs. Anybody will be able to produce various content types, regardless of their skills.

So why would we need designers? We argue that creating a good design requires much more than technical skills.

Just because a design can be technically created doesn’t mean it will be the right one. In other words, there is no guarantee that it will be high-quality, will meet its goals, or will be better than a design created by a trained designer.

Example: Photography

Just a few decades ago, people could produce photographs only if they had substantial technical training and access to expensive, temperamental equipment. Even with those assets, the best photographers had to spend a lifetime of practice and experimentation before they developed their own unique style.

Today, anyone with a modern smartphone can take a very high-quality photo. Since the 2010s, smartphone cameras have been AI-assisted to make photographs that look even better than their hardware should technically allow for. 

A large portion of the world’s population has now the technical capability to take a great photo, but if they don’t have an eye for composition and a sense of their unique perspective, the photographs they produce just won’t be very compelling.

Even though photography knowledge is today not needed to produce a photograph, a photography background is extremely helpful in generating and refining outputs (in the same way that familiarity with art history allows users to articulate specific styles they want to mimic when prompting an AI chatbot to produce an image.)

What Is Taste?

We agree with Elizabeth Goodspeed’s perspective on taste, outlined in her It’s Nice That article. Taste requires discernment — a series of small-to-large decisions that contribute to the whole in purposeful ways.

Taste is what enables designers to navigate the vast sea of possibilities that technology and global connectivity afford, and to then select and combine these elements in ways that, ideally, result in interesting, unique work.”

– Elizabeth Goodspeed

We’ll add that, especially as it relates to our field of digital design, there’s also an element of strategy connected to taste. Designers with the best taste can judge how to orchestrate hundreds of small decisions around a central vision focused on both users’ needs and strategic business goals. These decisions range from small micro-visual details to large, contextual choices that best fit the goal and audience of the design.

For example, a graphic that will be used on a webpage must not only be tasteful on its own, but it must also fit into the overall site’s visual design and harmonize with the organization’s brand.

What Makes Taste Good or Bad?

Taste is subjective, nebulous, and personal. It depends entirely on the audience and is often used as a social signal or a means of communicating values and identity. 

We think taste isn’t objectively good or bad. Especially in the context of experience design, designers exhibit taste by being intentional in the choices they make. All details should work to expand and enhance a single organizing thought, idea, or vision. Create with intention.

Even though you can create something today that you couldn’t before, it will take effort and time to make it high-quality and different from what anyone else can create.

Taste as a Differentiator

Technical ability was previously a differentiator, but what happens when everybody can do what you do? What happens when your niche skill (e.g., designing visuals, content, or interactions) becomes accessible to many others? When people not in your field can “technically” do what you do, at least in the eyes of a naive audience? 

Selection, taste, and discernment make you and the product of your work stand out.

Imagine you’re a graphic designer. Suddenly, your employer doesn’t need you to create a visual — they can produce an illustration with an AI tool instead. It’s a scary thought.

But the time you’ve taken to perfect your craft wasn’t wasted. Just because a stakeholder could create something without you doesn’t mean it’ll be the right thing to achieve their goals or resonate with customers.

 

Reference

Goodspeed, E. 2024. Elizabeth Goodspeed on the importance of taste – and how to acquire it. It’s Nice That.[Online]. Available at: https://www.itsnicethat.com/articles/elizabeth-goodspeed-column-taste-technology-art-280224.



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