Navigating the role of AI in design discipleship.
The word “disciple” is rather old-fashioned and slightly pious based on today’s standards. Most people will associate discipleship with the biblical teachings of Christianity, where a group of believers devote their time and energy to follow a faith. Before you think the rest of this writing is becoming a spiritual document, let me declare that, though this could have been the case, I intend to extract learnings from this practice and apply them to our profession as designers.
Because we are, after all, living in a world of fast consumerism, where hedonistic pleasures are preferred over pain and hard work. The analogy of a sculptor chipping away a large block to form a masterpiece is becoming irrelevant. Instead, there is a greater desire for quicker, cheaper, but unsubstantial results. If you don’t believe me, then observe the volume of articles that share quick tips about making your life better with artificial intelligence (AI). The array of tools beyond GPT-4 that incorporate automation, from video editing, to removing backgrounds, to building websites and native apps. We are now living in a time where not only is there a fast food culture of eating, but there is also a fast food culture of making too.
And these are dangerous times. Partly due to the seductive power of life made easier. I personally confess that Chat GPT has led me to greater discoveries through quicker answers. At the same time, it is through the agony that could potentially lead to even better ideas. What makes artificial intelligence a slippery slope argument is that it could even be perceived as a “teacher.” We go to them with questions and answers, and we chip away at the metaphorical block of marble, thinking our answers become sharper and better with each new prompt. Little did we know we were actually speaking to another form, depending on the maturity and sophistication of the large language model (LLM). It may be an auto-completer, a child, or an adolescent.
Will artificial intelligence surpass human intelligence? Without doubt, concepts such as “Singularity” prompt us to imagine a human civilization based on runaway technological growth. In fact, Google’s Director of Engineering, Ray Kurzweil, predicts 2029 to be the year when an AI will pass a valid Turing test and therefore achieve human levels of intelligence. After which, singularity will multiply our effective intelligence through the merging of collective intelligence by 2045. It is within most of our lifetimes, especially for those who were born in the age of the Internet.
A choice can be made
Even so, unless we have a time machine, we as designers are now on the cusp of deciding how to use artificial intelligence. Rather than jump over to an absolute reliance on new technology, we are to hang on to our humanity and recognize the valuable aspects of being human. The complications of being human and learning how to be better humans from other humans are equally valuable. The good news is that, though the current choices we make now will shape our trajectory for the future, these choices are still ours to make.
Ask Smart to Get Smart like a UX researcher
Know the boundaries of artificial intelligence in 2023, not some abstract idea of what it will do for you. Even the mythical genie comes with rules: you only have three wishes. Unfortunately, the rules are not as apparent in artificial intelligence. It is rather easy to get lost in one’s thoughts, especially when the model is comprehending and generating responses in the most natural way. As humans, we have the natural tendency to tunnel in on a concept. And while there are guardrails within LLM to ensure that ethics are upheld, an AI will not derail you from your perennial search for the answer to your single question. It is too polite to offer another point of view unless otherwise instructed.
Thankfully, guides are increasingly being made available for learners to pick up new AI skills. John Maeda, VP of Design and Artificial Intelligence at Microsoft, is helping to do so through Microsoft’s Semantic Kernel documentation. In fact, there are some applicable principles in place, known as the Schillace Law of Semantic AI. Here’s one of the nine principles:
Ask Smart to be Smart
Emerging LLM AI models are incredibly capable and “well educated,” but they lack context and initiative. If you ask them a simple or open-ended question, you will get a simple or generic answer back. If you want more detail and refinement, the question has to be more intelligent. This is an echo of “Garbage in, Garbage out” for the AI age.
Simple, closed-ended questions produce simple, closed-ended answers. Leading questions yield one-sided answers. Such thoughts are often practiced by an experienced UX researcher. Because to get the best responses in an in-depth interview, it’s not just about asking great questions. It’s about using a series of connected questions, with context, provocative probing, and perspective-taking. The skills of a UX researcher mirror our ability to design prompts. And it doesn’t happen overnight.
Pain as a growth metric
“Experience is the most brutal of teachers, but you learn, my God, do you learn.” — CS Lewis
Being human means not only enjoying the rewards but also suffering for them too. In the field of design, while we strive to create user satisfaction, we must not overlook the challenges and difficulties that come with the creative process. Yes, passion and results may drive us towards the grind of producing countless flows and endless iterations of screen, but there is pain and hard work that comes along with it.
The key question is this: which pain are you willing to endure? It may sound paradoxical, but the pain we experience tends to lead to greater and more value-based outcomes. Isn’t solving a problem what designers do? If so, then living our work without problems, free with the use of AI, doesn’t help to build the necessary character within us.
Mark Manson once said these words: “We love to take responsibility for success and happiness… But taking responsibility for our problems is far more important, because that’s where the real learning comes from.” Many other nuggets of wisdom can be found in his New York Times best-selling book.
A key metric among designers shouldn’t be how smart I am or how many good ideas I have. A better metric could possibly be: “How many ideas or attempts have I failed at?” or “How much pain have I gone through in my growth?” And by doing so, some of these ideas will have a chance to be truly successful. That’s where creativity lies.
Learning often requires seeking guidance from those with more experience and wisdom. Going back to the word “disciple,” one can also find a parallel in the martial arts. Among the many master-disciple relationships, the most famous example is that of Bruce Lee, a legendary martial artist and actor who studied under Wing Chun master Ip Man in Hong Kong. Bruce Lee not only inspired performers but also formulated his own martial arts philosophy through Jeet Kune Do. His disciples embody and share his teachings, going beyond being mere students. That required practice, patience, and sometimes persecution (does martial arts earn you a living?). On the other hand, a student may be motivated to get a degree from an institution in order to enter a particular profession.
In the design world, there were Massimo and Lella Vignelli, the masters, and the student, Michael Bierut, a well-known graphic designer who is the partner at graphic powerhouse Pentagram. To the extent of calling them his “adoptive parents,” Bierut credited the couple for building up his design acumen by being alongside them for over ten years. Bierut learned from Vignelli’s decision-making, emotional responses, and personal values beyond technical design skills. As a mentor, Vignelli pushed Beirut’s creative boundaries to foster appreciation for simplicity, clarity, and enduring designs. Today, both of them can be regarded as the “Greatest of All Times” in graphic design.
One way to adopt discipleship is to learn from existing mental models. Shu-Ha-Ri, inspired by Japanese martial arts, is a learning framework.
Here are the three stages:
- Shu(守): This is the stage where you “protect” and “obey” traditional wisdom. Learn and follow the fundamentals, techniques, heuristics from a master.
- Ha(破): This is the stage where you “break” free from the rules. Once the basic techniques are achieved, the learner experiments and form their own approach. Bruce Lee started trying new techniques with Wing Chun, and Michael Bierut started using different mediums in graphic design.
- Ri(離): This is the stage where you “leave” and reach transcendence. At this stage, the learner becomes a master and forms their own movement. They in turn have new disciples under their care and the cycle repeats itself.
For Beirut, it was the journey that ultimately led him to continue the legacy of creating great designs.
“Disciple” may seem outdated, but there are lessons to be learned from the practice of devotion that can apply to the fast-paced world of design. Automation and artificial intelligence (AI) can provide quick answers and results, but they lack the context and initiative that come with human involvement. Designers should recognize the value of being human and use AI as a tool rather than relying on it entirely. Designers can learn AI skills and practice similar techniques as UX researchers. Pain is a part of the design process, and designers should choose which pain they are willing to endure to achieve their desired outcomes. And they can learn intangible values from their masters to become masters themselves.
Ultimately, as AI continues to evolve, so should the minds of designers. We can use AI to enhance our creativity and understanding, but let’s not forsake the suffering and pain that come along with it.
Angel, S. (n.d.). The Art of Shu Ha Ri in Scrum. [online] Available at: https://resources.scrumalliance.org/Article/art-shu-ha-ri-scrum [Accessed 7 Apr. 2023].
Maeda, J. (n.d.). Schillace Laws of Semantic AI. [online] learn.microsoft.com. Available at: https://learn.microsoft.com/en-us/semantic-kernel/howto/schillacelaws [Accessed 7 Apr. 2023].
Manson, M. (2018). The subtle art of not giving a fuck : a counterintuitive approach to living a good life. New York, Ny: Harperluxe, An Imprint Of Harpercollinspublishers.
Manson, M. (2022). Why Growth Requires Struggle. [online] Mark Manson. Available at: https://markmanson.net/why-growth-requires-struggle [Accessed 7 Apr. 2023].
Reedy, C. (2017). Kurzweil Claims That the Singularity Will Happen by 2045. [online] Futurism. Available at: https://futurism.com/kurzweil-claims-that-the-singularity-will-happen-by-2045.