Generative design and the future of creativity (I)

September 2016

I wrote this article in 2016 and things are now moving in the right direction. There is at least one app that I know of democratising machine learning (RunawayML) and I am sure many more will come!

I don’t know if you are aware of a little videogame that has caused a bit of a stir this summer but in it you can find the seeds of future unemployment, you might want to pay attention.

In the universe the game creates, a player can travel to an infinite number of planets inhabited by an infinite number of living species all different and unique for every user. Sounds crazy but thanks to new advances in math and computation, it works. For sixty euros every user can see hundreds of unique planets and creatures. The game has already sold millions of copies… do the math, how many unique species have  already been created?

Autodesk is applying the same principles to industrial design. They are  working on software that will allow industrial designers to create infinite variations of the same design around a set of principles. This is how it will work: the designer will first determine principles like “a bicycle has two wheels and a fork attached to the front wheel and these are the forces the frame will need to sustain”. From there the software can create a virtually infinite number of variations of the same frame.

This will come to graphic design too. Imagine designing a magazine layout where the designer defines a number of rules like “I need to have these three pictures with one looking bigger than the rest and I also have these three texts associated with each image”. At this point the algorithm will create an infinite number of variations. Of course not final variations but nonetheless, new variations that can be mixed, altered and curated.

Any why not experience design? Why not feed the algorithm emotional and functionality maps to let it design new apps and interactive experiences? And why not literature or music? Too much? I was lucky enough to meet the founders of this very cool startup that allows users to create original music with the duration, mood and style they define… for free, TODAY. Go now and create an good original song in less than five minutes. Yes, it is happening!

This is generative design and it will change the business of creativity. It will happen in music, industrial design, interaction, motion, literature… Every human endeavour will be supercharged by algorithmic based generative creativity.

Of course this is not going to supplant inspiration, personality and may I dare say it, magic. But no doubt it is going to change the business of creativity as much as the computer did in the 80s. Algorithms will not be great at understanding the nuances of context, culture or even problem definition (after all this is what humans are the best at) but they are already better than us at many things and now they are about to get better at creativity.

I remember listening to a presentation by 8vo (probably one of the most interesting British graphic design studios active during the 80s) where they told the story of how they designed one of their most famous pieces. Most of us in the audience were born in the computer era and what surprised us all was how slow and labor intensive graphic design was at the end of the film era. They were extremely thorough, sure, but this piece took various designers more than a week. Modern software and computers could have helped them do the job in a tenth of the time but the question is, how much could generative design could have helped them to either design faster or better?

Laid out by hand 8vo poster

Algorithmic based generative design is going to to revolutionise creativity like software and computers did in the 80s, maybe like the printing press did in the sixteenth century. The price of creative variation is going to plummet. Superficial variation is going to become less valuable but humans will still be hungry for meaning and narratives. Just like the printing press lowered the price of books and increased the value of narratives and information, generative design is going to lower the value of signs and increase the value of meaning.

The logo is less important than you might imagine, what matters is the narrative, the values and the forces that inspire customers and the signs that are remembered and filled with meaning. In the coming world of generative design this trend will continue. Signs will matter less, meaning will matter more.

If computers are bicycles for the mind, let’s put an engine and some flame stickers on it and strap your helmet on. Creativity is about to get even more exciting.