Brain trust: Can the design process be automated?

For each theme, we ask a selection of diverse marketing minds to respond to a discussion topic. This time around, since we’re focusing on ‘design’, the question is:


“Can the design process be automated?”


Joshua Saling

Design director, Sling Design

joshua saling headshot bw 180Meeting a design brief depends on a communicative client-designer relationship, so I doubt that this will one day be completely automated. Recently, however, we have seen tools emerge that give designers the ability to automate certain parts of their process.

With the introduction of analysis tools to product development software, we are seeing the numbers of iteration cycles reduce, as we can more accurately validate digital design concepts. I believe design automation will bring three main benefits to designers:

  • The generation of potential design configurations at an increasing pace and complexity,
  • the ability to simulate real world scenarios to validate designs with increasing sophistication, and
  • the ability to create the most efficient products possible, by automatically calculating efficiencies.

The question of whether design automation will extend into creativity is more challenging. If creativity is the ability to produce original or novel solutions to a problem, then computers currently have the ability to be creative by chance.

We are currently seeing generative design tools that can develop three-dimensional forms based on a set of predefined criteria selected by the designer. At first glance, many of the solutions generated by these software packages would appear to be creative. The difference is that the computer is not thoughtfully creative. So then the question becomes, is random creativity inferior to thoughtful creativity?

As design automation evolves, designers will be free from focusing on the mechanical aspects of design to focus purely on the subjective qualities of design. The creative skills of the future will encompass how the designer decides to set up design criteria to be fed to software, as well as an ability to select the final design solution. In effect, designers will be working with the combined skills of a computer programmer and an art curator.


Jess Wright

Associate design director, Cornwell

jess wright headshot bw 180As technology evolves at an unprecedented rate, computers are becoming smarter and are improving their ability to learn. Design tools are also becoming streamlined and automated, and design can now be delivered in ways and time-frames previously unimaginable. Even so, it is evident that creativity – the foundation of design – is a very human trait that technology can assist with, but never fully replace.

Design needs to add value by being authentic, relevant and unique. Original design requires ideas that meet objectives and convey a point of difference. While computers are able to automate some design tasks, they cannot generate the creative concepts needed to drive the design process.

Good design is expressive and resonates with people. Computers don’t have feelings. Without them, they are unable to make emotional connections, which prevents

them from being able to perform this important part of the design process. No matter how smart computers become, they will never be able to be programmed to reflect or replicate the broad spectrum of human feelings and values.

Design is never conducted in isolation. It requires a collaborative approach, with colleagues, clients, suppliers and even the audience sharing ideas. Collaboration is a uniquely human trait that requires empathy and complex interpersonal communication skills. It’s a task that can be challenging for us humans, even though it is hardwired in our DNA. How then can we expect a computer to be able to do it on its own?

It goes without saying that computers will play a major role for design in the future. Designers do, however, need to separate between the tools technology provides and the creative aspects of the design process. Design is an expression of human creativity, imagination and intuition. It is something computers can enhance and streamline, but never be able to effectively do on their own. Technology should be seen as something that is complementary and not a competitor.


Jon McCormack

Professor of computer science, ARC Australian Research Fellow and electronic media artist, Monash University

jon mccormack headshot bw 180The human intellect and our physical abilities are prime targets for downsizing by researchers in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics. After all, robots that can move and sense with far greater speed and accuracy than any human are now commonplace. As far back as 1997, a computer program developed at IBM beat the best human player [Garry Kasparov] at chess. More recently, IBM’s Watson software – an AI system capable of answering general knowledge questions using natural language – won the popular US television game show Jeopardy!, beating two of the show’s former champions (the computer also pocketed $1 million in prize money).

Despite these achievements, we are a long way from developing computers or robots that are as creative as any human being. Automation is the process of mechanising tasks that were previously performed by humans. Traditionally, these tasks were tedious and repetitive, so it made sense to get a machine to do them. One argument for automation is that it saves time, giving people more ‘free’ time. Yet, our subjective sense of time is that of a ‘time famine’, where pressures of a high- speed, always-on networked society are accelerating our hectic pace of life leaving little ‘quality time’ in our lives. Ironically, the average hours worked, both paid and unpaid, has remained roughly constant over the last 50 years.

Attempts to automate design so far have sought to homogenise creativity to a singular view of a software developer’s values (think camera automation, such as smile detection or Adobe’s Content-Aware functionality). The question, then, is not ‘can design be automated?’, but rather ‘should design be automated?’. Thinking in terms of automation is the wrong approach; a far more exciting possibility is that of a creative partner or assistant: one that pushes your own creative boundaries, inspires you with fresh ideas, mentors you and helps you become better at what you do.

It is a mistake to think that machines need to be ‘human’ or ‘human- like’ to be genuinely creative. Machines can learn our desires, loves, fears and follies without needing to live the human condition, or even a simulation of it. But would you want to live in a world where humans forgo any creativity or imagination of their own, because machines always do a much better job?


Ian Wong

GBS partner and interactive experience lead, IBM Australia

ian wong headshot bw 180In our consumer-centric, data rich environment, the design process has experienced a Renaissance. With exciting new technologies now readily at hand, today’s designer is more empowered than their predecessors to create more engaging products, more memorable encounters, and even build Smarter Cities. Capable of accelerating, complementing and informing the creative process, analytics technology has become the most valuable tool in the designer’s kit. For designers of customer experience, the possibilities are infinite. Whether it’s enhancing iterative design with prototypes, or personality profiling through cognitive computing, data-driven design is here, and it’s only just the beginning.

As with any new movement, data-driven design brings with it a new manifesto for approaching design thinking. Today, organisations looking to enhance customer experience and engagement need to reason like artists do – creating something from nothing, when in real terms, they’re rendering something from everything. That everything is data.

As organisations such as Tennis Australia have demonstrated, most recently with the 2015 Australian Open, an omni-channel, cross functional approach is key. Recognising the ‘game-changing’ nature of data when it comes to improving customer experience, Tennis Australia has been able to innovate its event with its audience firmly in mind, with an online tracking tool allowing attendees to better plan their day at the tennis. With the roll-out of a social media leader board, leveraging historical data to predict player strategies, the organisation understands where its audiences are, how to reach them, and how better to engage them.

Taking these insights and displaying them in an intuitive, beautifully-designed front-end or interface adds another dimension to the user experience. Such is the legacy of great customer experience, and the possibilities when technologists, designers, strategists and marketers work together in close collaboration.

Armed with both analytics technology and the next wave of what we call ‘cognitive computing,’ this new breed of digital, cross functional agency, embodied in IBM’s 14 interactive/customer experience labs globally, is helping organisations tap into the resource of data in order to inform better, smarter design. Taking this one step further, leveraging a strategic partnership with Twitter to utilise the largest repository of online human interaction, tapping into an exclusive partnership with Apple to tap into experts in consumer design, or  implementing a cognitive system like Watson can lend further substance to the creative process. From automating research for faster, accurate insights, to predicting successes and minimising repetitive tasks – with analytics and cognitive computing combined – organisations have an even bigger view of how customers experience their products, services and brands.

There’s no denying that user experience design continues to evolve. The key to getting ahead however is to incorporate data-driven insights with human intuition – understanding both the world around us and our reception to it. Taking this road may seem overwhelming at first, but no intelligent piece of design or art for that matter, ever came about easily.