The Most Important Design Skill For An AI-Dominated World


John Maeda weighs in with his 2018 Design in Tech report.

Algorithms are getting very good at manipulating images and video — so good, it’s no wonder many creative workers are worried AI is going to take their jobs.

But for John Maeda, the head of computational design and inclusion at WordPress’s parent company Automattic, designers should see the rise of AI as an opportunity to focus their attention on the types of skills that algorithms don’t have.

As Maeda notes in his 2018 Design in Tech report, which he presented today at SXSW, algorithms are based on historical data, which is often flawed and biased against people who aren’t white or male. When those algorithms use biased, discriminatory datasets to find patterns–and make decisions based on those patterns–they will ignore large swaths of the population. So if we rely on these algorithms and flawed data to determine what products get designed, what buildings get built, and what movies are made, as is being done in predictive policing products and criminal sentencing, we’ll end up with more systemic discriminationagainst women and people of color.

[Photo: Helloquence/Unsplash]

That’s where Maeda sees an opening for designers. “Computers aren’t good at inclusion,” he says. “They’re good at exclusion, because they’re only based on past data. The business opportunity for the future-thinking designer is in inclusion.”He takes the recent blockbuster success of Black Panther as an example. “When you look at the data, there’s no reason why a movie with a black superhero is going to be super successful,” he says. “AI isn’t going to tell you that.”

Of course, Black Panther has gone on to shatter records, make boatloads of money, and start a national conversation about race (plus, the sets are just gorgeous). Maeda sees this as an example of what can happen when you don’t rely on data or algorithms to make decisions.

The same thinking applies to design. Inclusive design has proven its business value in myriad industries. Take Oxo Good Grips kitchen utensils, which were initially designed for elderly people who had trouble opening cans, and are now ubiquitous. Closed captioning is another example. Initially developed for people who are hard of hearing, it’s now is used by millions who don’t want to listen to the sound of videos while scrolling through Facebook. “When you are inclusive, there’s a huge design opportunity to make better products, which leads to more successful business,” Maeda says.

This article first appeared in

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About Author

Katharine Schwab

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Seattle Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle.

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