Does AI pose a threat to web designers? If not now, will it in the near future? This post will look at the best and worst case scenarios as well as what we can do to minimize its effects on the design space.
Everywhere you go these days, it seems like businesses are finding more and more ways to replace humans with machines.
There are more self-checkouts than open cashiers at some stores. There are hotel lobbies where guests are greeted by check-in screens instead of staff. There are even restaurants entirely manned by robot servers.
In short, no. There are certain things you can do as a web designer that artificial intelligence cannot. However, that’s not the only obstacle you face at the moment.
This post is going to break this matter down into three parts. First, we’re going to examine why AI appears to present a viable threat to web designers’ jobs right now. Then, we’ll look at the best and worst case scenarios in terms of how this will pan out. Finally, I’ll give you 8 things you can do to improve your job security in the age of AI.
The Perception Problem in Web Design
I’ve been reading up on AI generation tools since late last year. I tend to see the same arguments made for using AI vs. hiring a creative:
- AI is easier to deal with.
- AI is faster.
- AI is error-free.
- AI is consistent.
- AI is scalable.
This is along the same lines of the argument I’ve been hearing for a decade-plus of working in the design space:
“Why should I pay you to do this if I can just do it myself?”
Many people have gotten this idea that web design is easy to do. That it shouldn’t take as long as it does nor should it cost as much.
This belief has been reinforced by the emergence of free and cheap website builders and design apps. It’s now further being drilled into people with the rise of ChatGPT and other LLM-based AIs.
You and I both know that a website can quickly and painlessly be built with a website builder. Choose a free template. Replace some images. Rewrite the text. And voila! You have a website.
That’s the same promise being peddled with lots of these AI generators. You can do it all with the help of this trusty robot assistant! Design attractive, intuitive UIs! Write copy! Code entire websites!
I think this is why web designers are facing some uncertain and tough roads ahead.
People who need a website are hearing all the right buzzwords and it’s setting their serotonin receptors on fire. But they don’t realize that there’s a tradeoff when you outsource a very human-centric process like web design to a machine.
How we move forward with AI will ultimately determine what happens to the web design field in the future.
Best vs. Worst Case Scenario: Designers and AI
Okay, so let’s talk about the two possible outcomes here.
The Worst Case Scenario
The buzz around generative AI tools is going to get louder and louder.
It won’t just be big brands like Levi’s or Nestlé openly talking about using AI to generate ecommerce imagery or marketing content. Influencers from every corner of the Internet will have a story to tell about how easy it was to use AI to design their own website, app, and marketing campaigns.
People will start to believe that web designers and developers aren’t needed anymore.
They won’t just be small business owners who were already reluctant about spending too much money on a website. They’ll be marketers who always had a feeling that they could do what designers were doing, but now are sure they can take their place.
And so companies will start to cut their design budgets and teams bit by bit. They’ll leave a designer or two around to supervise the AI generators, talk to the clients, and troubleshoot errors. Stuff like that.
During turbulent economic times, this’ll be well-regarded as the go-to solution for smart businesses. After all, AI is the faster and more economic solution. Plus, AI can synthesize vast amounts of user data and implement optimizations based on that data much more quickly than any designer could.
Over time, people will get used to letting AI do the bulk of their design and marketing work for them. The web, in turn, will look flashy, but feel cold, impersonal, and unoriginal despite the hyper-personalized content and offers that appear around every turn.
Web designers, as a result, will no longer resemble the web designers of the past. Many will move on to completely different fields. Those who stay behind will take on supervisory roles.
It will look a lot like the version of work that appears in Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End:
“There was little work left of a routine, mechanical nature. Men’s minds were too valuable to waste on tasks that a few thousand transistors, some photo-electric cells, and a cubic meter of printed circuits could perform. There were factories that ran for weeks without being visited by a single human being. Men were needed for trouble-shooting, for making decisions, for planning new enterprises. The robots did the rest.”
The Best Case Scenario
A letter published on March 22, 2023 called to “Pause Giant AI Experiments”. As the signers of the letter explained:
“Contemporary AI systems are now becoming human-competitive at general tasks, and we must ask ourselves: Should we let machines flood our information channels with propaganda and untruth? Should we automate away all the jobs, including the fulfilling ones? Should we develop nonhuman minds that might eventually outnumber, outsmart, obsolete and replace us? Should we risk loss of control of our civilization? … Powerful AI systems should be developed only once we are confident that their effects will be positive and their risks will be manageable.”
The main target of the letter was ChatGPT. However, it will begin to sow some doubts in those who were already on the fence about AI in web design.
People will be concerned with the security threat. They’ll also be worried about the dehumanization of our digital world as web designers and other content creators are replaced by robots. There will also be a growing distrust of what people see with their own two eyes with the rise of deepfake imagery, plagiarized content, and more.
Some brands will put their feet down. They will craft internal policies that are human-first. When they hire web designers, the job descriptions will stipulate that their work be free of AI influence and they’ll have to agree to contract terms stating as much.
There will be other brands who straddle the fence. They’ll recognize the risks of going all-in on AI. But they’ll also recognize that to act as though AI never existed would be at their own peril. So they’ll adopt a hybrid approach to web design and marketing. They’ll take advantage of AI’s strengths and empower employees to work more efficiently and effectively as a result.
Over time, the number of open web design jobs will shrink. Partly because of this increased efficiency and cost-effectiveness. But there will also be some companies who put the full weight of their organizations behind AI and have little need for human designers.
Web designers will need to take a stance on AI in order to navigate this new terrain. Job opportunities will shrink, but the ones that align with their values will be clearer to find and get.
What Web Designers Can Do to Stay Competitive
Jump to content in this section:
The age of AI is here. In order to remain relevant within it, web designers should do a number of things:
1. Take a Side
It’s too soon to tell where all of this is headed. We could end up with either scenario. So it’s best to pick a side, but be flexible about it.
For instance, you might be in the camp that fully supports the automation of design and the outsourcing of it to AI. You’re all ready to become an AI-based designer.
Just keep an open mind. There are many known risks and limitations when it comes to AI. For example:
- It’s derivative and unoriginal.
- It can be inaccurate, untruthful, or biased.
- It may create issues for brands when it comes to copyright infringement and plagiarism.
- It does not come from a place of empathy.
There are additional risks and limitations that we may be unable to foresee at the moment. So keeping your web design business model open and adaptable is a good move.
2. Stay on Top of AI
Regardless of where you stand with AI, keep a watchful eye on it.
Just look at what happened in 2023. ChatGPT-3 was released on February 27. ChatGPT-4 was released just a couple weeks later on March 14. Things are moving fast with LLM-based AIs.
As a web designer, you’re used to pivoting pretty frequently. Web design trends, for instance, rotate and evolve from year to year. This technology will be no different.
3. Keep Leveraging the Right Kind of AI
Although there are some problems with LLM-based AIs, that doesn’t mean you need to ditch all artificial intelligence in your work.
AI, in particular, is useful when it comes to synthesizing massive amounts of data. It can also be helpful in automating mundane tasks like proofreading web pages. So continue to make use of AI tools where it makes sense to.
For instance, on the frontend of websites, AI can make your chatbots and search forms more useful for your visitors. On the backend, it can power up your analytics and optimization tools. Google Analytics 4, for instance, is using AI to track users and their engagements with digital products.
4. Strengthen Your Hard Skill Set
AI is going to be a tough competitor to beat if you don’t keep up with maintaining your web design skills. If you’re not in the habit of reinforcing your hard skill set (i.e. the ones that enable you to do design work), then now is the time to make it a habit.
Read and watch online tutorials. Sign up for courses. Subscribe to relevant blogs. Do whatever you can to not only stay on top of the latest design trends and changing web standards, but to make your skill set a more valuable one to tap into than your competition (both human and AI).
It’s not a bad idea to adopt new skills either.
For instance, if you design WordPress websites for small and medium businesses, you might lose a lot more clients than, say, designers who design custom websites and apps for enterprises. Adding skills like programming, SEO, or UX research to your repertoire will allow you to charge more and, by extension, attract clients who are unfazed by AI alternatives.
5. Lean into Your Soft Skill Set
One area where you can make yourself the better choice when compared to generative AI tools is your soft skill set. This includes skills like:
- Critical thinking
- Arguing and reasoning
ChatGPT and other LLMs might sound human, but it’s nothing more than imitation.
An AI generator will be able to listen to someone’s request for a beautiful one-page website for a cafe, for instance. However, if the person inputting the request knows nothing about designing for the user experience, will the AI have the ability to push back and explain why the request is flawed? Or will they act as a “yes” man and carry through with their orders regardless?
Once people begin to realize that the websites they’ve built with AI generators get them poor results, they’ll seek out professional web designers who have the empathy, creativity, reasoning, and other skills to properly assist them.
6. Diversify Your Income
Whether we get the good or bad scenario in this situation, there’s going to be a decrease in jobs for web designers. At least for the time being. But you have some choices.
You can move with the AI tide and integrate it more fully into your work. Another option is to adopt a hybrid approach. And yet another way to go is to keep AI out of your designs.
With the last two options, it would be a good idea to safeguard your business by diversifying your earnings.
One thing you can do is become a comparable alternative to AI and sell turnkey websites. It might not be the most fun, creative, or challenging approach to web design, but it’ll allow you to keep designing your own stuff.
Another thing you could do is to branch out into design-adjacent areas. Web development. Hosting. Marketing. SEO. That sort of thing. While AI will chip away at some of these areas, having the skills to manage each will at least increase the amount of jobs available to you.
7. Optimize Your Processes
One of the biggest arguments that can be made for AI generators is the efficiency aspect. Generative AI tools will be able to whip up designs, copy, and entire websites exponentially faster than any web designer could.
While you won’t be able to compete on that level, you can still work on streamlining your processes. There are plenty of ways to do this:
- Use templates to speed up tedious admin tasks like creating client contracts, invoices, and common client messaging.
- Create a web design toolbox with themes, plugins, and other assets and apps that you know and trust.
- Add reusable checklists to your workflows.
- Work an optimized schedule when you’re feeling the most energetic and productive.
- Remove distractions from your workspace.
- Take time off so you don’t burn out.
The faster you can get things done on your end, the less you’ll have clients looking for better, more convenient alternatives.
8. Focus on Client Retention
Finding good clients can generally be difficult to do. As companies are wooed away by AI and fewer web design jobs become available, it’s going to get even harder.
One suggestion I can make is to move from a business model that focuses around client acquisition to one that focuses on client retention. So that means creating a valuable offering that makes clients want to retain your services indefinitely or to re-engage with you at regular intervals.
Your hard and soft skill sets will help in this regard. So too will the income diversification avenues you choose to go down.
There will always be people out there looking for a fast, easy, and cheap way to get things done. This isn’t a new phenomenon in web design (or other industries).
That’s why it’s important to recognize that AI’s rise is just a new obstacle to overcome, not the end of your career. Look at it for what it is — a shiny new object that everyone wants to play with and is excited about.
As the risks and limitations of generative AI tools become more obvious, people who are serious about doing business online will seek out professional designers like yourself to work for them. Just make sure you’re ready when they come back to you.