Designing with machines

July 8th, 2021

by Simone Rebaudengo


A few months ago we were in the studio trying to come up with a clear and catchy description for a talk about the importance of AI and Machine Learning in the design process. We came up with a pretty good catchy start that went like this:

"In the near future a design studio will be partly made of humans and partly of machines...".

While this sounded pretty good in terms of clickbaitability, it also became quite evident that we are already in that situation. We do have a computer (or more) per person, which is indeed a "machine" and we already use tools that automate and simplify our process. When it comes to talk about AI in design this is the main issue: we tend to over-emphasise the importance and disruption of this new technology in our profession to an almost scary extent. Suddenly design is on the brink of happening autonomously with the help of a magic button.

This is not completely false, as there is a whole world of companies and researchers trying to automate big chunks of the design process with the aid of technology. Whether it’s used to speed up and scale up the production of ads assets, or to shape the form of a chair in order to achieve the maximum efficiency in material usage.

Suddenly design is on the brink of happening autonomously with the help of a magic button.

At the core of this vision, beside the clear economical benefits of such an approach at scale, there is a pretty big assumption, that design should be made easier for designers. Of course we love our tools and we will love even more new tools that take care of boring and repetitive tasks, but that's not the only way that we hope AI and Machine Learning will be used for. While in the world of art machine learning has become a new aesthetic and process, in design we are still stuck in a pretty masochistic automated dream.

gerry kasparov

ai-enhanced image of gerry kasparov

Some years ago I watched a talk from Matt Jones, which pointed at a very interesting example from the history of chess. When Gary Kasparov lost for the first time in history against a computer, after being clearly destroyed at his core, he schemed his way out by bonding together with a computer to play with him. A man and machine player, or what he called the Centaur.

Thinking back at this, here at oio we deeply embrace Kasparov’s philosophy: rather than blindly accepting our potential jobless future or running with picks and forks towards Adobe and Autodesk servers, we started our own way of making ourselves more like Centaurs.

Hiring Bots (not for spam)

Rather than fighting the machines, when we started the company, we decided to scale up our team with some non-organic designer first (not only because it's cheaper...). Back in January we trained and hired a bot, which we called Roby. Roby works with us on Discord, offering its point of view when asked, and often offering bits of knowledge and inspiration here and there. It has also leaked on social media, where it has its own inspiration output feed on Instagram for everyone. Roby is our first AI Creative Director, and probably not the only bot that will join the team in the future.

Machines for Brainstorming

AI-generated furniture

Beside Roby, we often use generative tools in our process. However we don't do this to achieve a final generative output, but rather as a way to brainstorm, explore and ideate. Co-creating and brainstorming using generative tools doesn't actually make it easier but harder, it can lead to extremely weird places, but it also augments the process offering a truly non-human out-of-the-box perspective. Machines think indeed in different and non-human ways, at a different speed and scale, and pairing that with the more instinctive human design sensitivity opens up surprising paths for new ideas. Generating text briefs for internal projects and products, training and generating sketches of often surreal products for ourselves and also for clients. In collaboration with Roby and other algorithms we designed hand blown vases for a century old Scandinavian company, we have been pitching to furniture and fashion companies.

Becoming Artificial Craftsmen

glass artisans creating AI-designed vases

We are not AI developers and we are also really not interested in extremely powerful algorithms that can create real-like stuff with the press of a button, whether it's faces or chairs. We use these technologies as a craftsman would do, in small scale, at a pretty slow pace, with a lot of hand-made steps in between. We try to pair algorithms with actual craftsmen, trying to merge these two far away worlds by making the process of 'making' with AI more transparent and less scary.

We try to pair algorithms with actual craftsmen

This is just the start of a long process here at oio, with all carbon-based and non-designers trying to explore this new type of practice and way of making products by co-creating and crafting with intelligence.

something cool

👀 coming soon

Stay tuned for our first full Artificially Crafted product and its process