Building websites has become progressively simpler since the early days when people who wanted a website had to know how to hand code their layouts. Today, anyone can install a WordPress template or drag and drop images on SquareSpace or Weebly to easily create pages. Now the introduction of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation is putting the final nail in the coffin of web design as a discipline. Or is it?
The maturity of design patterns is beneficial for customers, who can now get a reasonably attractive website built for a few dollars and less than an hour of their time. This scenario is far different from the old landscape where businesspeople had to hire a pro. But how will these trends, specifically the latest AI technology, affect the web design industry? Let’s look at what’s out there and what the experts are saying about it:
Artificial intelligence and web design
The service everyone is talking about lately is The Grid, a web design company that plans to build customer websites using artificial intelligence. Specifically, developers at The Grid claim their software will analyse a user’s content and create an attractive layout that complements the text and photos. The Grid will choose a layout, colour scheme, and fonts based on the message that a customer wants to convey.
Right now this service is getting a lot of publicity because of its innovation, and if it is successful there will be a rush to create competing products. As the technology matures, the results will be better and less and less human interaction will be needed.
Just another tool?
Some technology experts point out that the design field faced and weathered a similar crisis with the introduction of Adobe’s suite of tools back in 2003. Photoshop, Illustrator, and After Effects were seen by many as a threat to the careers of digital designers. People would no longer need to know how to code to create great looking layouts.
Did these tools lead to a mass influx of designer wannabes? Well, yes, but Adobe also ushered in a wave of productivity and creativity that had profound positive effects on the design industry.
The Grid’s founder, Dan Tocchini, seems to be taking this approach, thinking of his new AI design program mainly as a productivity tool. His vision is that web designers will help train and improve the software and in exchange The Grid will help them scale their design efforts by automating most of the web design process, eliminating technical tasks to let designers focus on the creative inputs.
Web design as a commodity?
Is a stand-alone website even a top priority in today’s market? Many small businesses use Facebook or a blog template as their main format for customer interactions, and the push towards automated digital assistants is reducing the need for people to search webpages for information. If you need to know a fact, make a reservation, or get directions, you can just ask Siri or Google Now. And surveys show that most mobile users prefer using an app to visiting a company’s website.
Does that mean that websites are becoming irrelevant? No, for the foreseeable future a company’s website remains its anchor on the web, the place where users are drawn for content, advertising, and app downloads.
What has changed is that with the introduction of templates and automation, the barrier to entry is drastically lower. Since it’s so incredibly easy to build a site and there are millions being added all the time, many businesses choose the ‘good enough’ option for getting their message out there. It’s up to web designers as individuals and as a profession to convince potential customers of the competitive advantage they’ll gain by creating a custom design.
The sceptics weigh in
Though The Grid raised $4.6 million from investors in late 2014, the company’s software has still not gone live. As of now they are only accepting customer pre-orders with a promise of availability in the not too distant future. Designers are quick to point out that an AI web designer is not truly able to intelligently analyse content or communicate a message. At best it is simply using the input fed to it by human designers to develop general style rules. Thus, the site can mimic current design trends but has no design process of its own.
Another area where an AI designer will run into trouble is with semantic markup. Semantic markup, or structured data markup, is an element of a website’s underlying code that gives meaning to data on a page. For example, markup tags can tell Google who authored a blog post, the content of a YouTube video, and the price and availability of your latest product. Structured data is understood by Google and can be used in their enhanced search results, but an AI program will not be able to add these tags without help from a human.
Finally, using AI for building websites does not help customers with business strategy. A good designer helps her customers clarify their branding by guiding decisions about tone, target demographics, and the best way to get their message out. The Grid proposes to help with some of these aims, such as designing a site tailored for SEO traffic, but the software can only ask questions, not be a guiding expert in the decision making process.
Designing the future
But if the doomsayers are correct and the role of the average web designer will soon be obsolete, what can you as a designer do to adapt? One solution is to work on improving your skills so you can market yourself to higher-level clients. Instead of just working with WordPress templates, if you learn to code you can create custom products for clients who are willing to pay more for professional results. Some clients will undoubtedly still prefer a unique website that is a work of art to a generic AI-designed site and will be willing to pay a premium.
A more lucrative long-term approach may be to rebrand yourself as a designer of user experiences. Today’s businesses have to maintain social media sites, mobile apps, APIs that talk to other sites and programs, and multiple other virtual and physical points of interaction. All of these channels make it ever more difficult to present a cohesive experience to the customers.
A UX designer who is able to carry a brand message across so many variables will remain in high demand. Whatever form information takes in the future, it is the content that will remain important. So by positioning yourself as a manger of content and experiences you’ll remain relevant in the design world.
Will artificial intelligence become a dominating force in the web design industry or just another tool that human designers use to be more productive? Designers pride themselves on being creative and generating new ideas and new approaches to problems. So in the long term, the design industry will undoubtedly adapt and remain strong. Whatever the outcome, there will always be a need for good designers who understand the language of human communication.