Suggestions, Defaults & More Robot Design

Automation is a word that is creeping into the mainstream vocabulary.

Once jokingly predicted by software engineers in tech cafeterias, now center stage at political debates.

The basic premise is that technology will happily do jobs that humans get paid to do today. Truck driving, building trucks, selling trucks.

As a designer, the existential threat of automation is not something that has kept me up at night.

I’m a creative. I summon ideas down from the sky, I ball them up, stretch them. Throw them against the wall. When I’m done talking, workshopping, prototyping, even the most powerful computer in the world would have got bored and wandered off to automate some other industry.

But it has always been in my rear view mirror. And it feels like it’s catching up. In my opinion, and experience working in tech’ for the past few years, no designer should feel comfortable or complacent.

Here are a few random, photo related features that I’ve noticed automating and suggesting solutions that usually a designer might have presented. All either with one click of a button, or completely by default.

Example 1: Portrait Mode, Apple Camera

Design skill replaced: Tracing / Selection

Stage Light Mono

In one internship, I found myself tracing around hundreds of watches, to remove them from the background and prepare them for magazine layouts. Yes, joyful (and unpaid). But they looked great. A crisp outline, that would be really hard to reproduce. Apple’s portrait mode, released with the iPhone 7+, effectively replaced the (basic) design skill needed to select complex shapes. A few years later, stage light mono’, an iteration of the same feature produces a result arguably better than most amateur photographers could pull off.

Example 2: Crop Suggestion, Apple Photos

Design skill replaced: Cropping


But they could never automate the creatives eye’, could they? Machine learning is eating that too. Apple Photos uses machine learning to optimize your pictures. The product implementation is so subtle, it’s unlikely you’ve noticed this one. When you tap crop’, Photos will automatically crop your photo for you, suggesting the perfect starting point.

Example 3: Automatic background color, Instagram

Design skill replaced: Colour theory


Post a landscape photo in Instagram, and the background will automatically match and complement the contents of the picture. At one point, I thought manually blurring rap videos would be my claim to fame. Now, millions of people get it for free. It’s a minor thing, but the app is making a design decision for you, and unlike Apple Photos, you can’t even override it.

As machine learning and other related technologies get better (every second), we’ll see more tiny design and creative decisions swallowed by automation.

Keep on your toes.

October 25, 2019