Designing in the Time of Robots

Design directors from IDEO and Upstatement go deep on how new technology creates new opportunities and shared anxieties in the design world.

The technological advancements of the last few years are hard to ignore. Beyond opening up new ways of collaborating and creating, they’re also raising complicated questions about how we rely on technology and what part it plays in creative roles. For design directors Danny DeRuntz (IDEO) and Nathan Hass (Upstatement), these topics are top of mind.  

The two recently met for the first time via Zoom to chat through the tools they’re using for better (and worse), balancing hype and skepticism when it comes to emerging technology, and why human creativity will always have inherent value in the world of storytelling.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Getting Started

NATHAN  You started your career at IDEO as a drafter. How did you start as a designer?

DANNY  In terms of drafting, it was just a job I did. “Designer,” in my brain, has more agency in it beyond just being a problem solver… though I guess every job I’ve ever had was just creatively problem-solving. I didn’t go to college. I started when I was 16 in high school.

I did drafting and then got more into prototyping in the shop, which was starting to get pretty creative, coming up with solutions on my own for different problems. That led to video. Nobody did video at the time. It was pretty hard to do well. And then video led somehow to DVD menus, which led to Flash menus, very low-resolution content, which led to, hey, Flash can do a lot of stuff. 

Interaction design was starting to get very movement-based; the iPhone pushed it to the next level with spatial models in motion. I became an interaction designer at some point because I was able to build software work prototypes pretty quickly. 

NATHAN  It sounds like you have a background as a tinkerer and maker that’s led to a lot of experimentation and moving through a bunch of different technologies and career phases. 

DANNY  Yeah, just dumping stuff and picking up the new stuff. What’s your story? 

NATHAN  In high school, I was a photo nerd. I spent all my time in the darkroom and then started getting more interested in graphic design. I eventually wound up at MassArt in Boston. At the time, Ben Fry and Casey Reas had just released Processing so I took a class on processing, the visual programming language that they had made, and that was my first foray into coding. It made me realize that there were a lot of fun new tools available and that you could play with them in different ways. 

I come from a family of engineers who were very afraid when I went to art school. The balance of the engineering mind and the art mind when applied to design, specifically web design and coding, always felt like a natural path to me. 

I ended up taking a job as an intern at Upstatement, when we were very small, and then never left. I started as a front-end designer coding; now I’m a design director, running projects and creative directing. But I’m still kind of doing the same stuff, trying to find and play with new tools. With all the emerging AI stuff, Figma, Slack, the goal is to figure out the new thing that you can be tinkering with to make your work a little bit better and keep pushing the design forward.

Multimodal and Multiplayer Features

DANNY  Every job I’ve ever had has been replaced by some form of automation. Jobs change and people should always be worried. I use Microsoft Copilot, and it’s pretty good. The more I know, the easier time I’m going to have making transitions.

NATHAN  We’re at the precipice of a pretty major change. But those changes, especially across the large-scale organizations that are asking companies like ours to make websites, will take a little while to adopt. 

Having the internet be less of a place that you go to hang out and more of an omnipresent thing that you can pull from feels interesting and exciting to me. And it speaks to a different type of interface than a website you’re going to directly. 

Everyone’s seeing ChatGPT as the future of the internet, which in many ways it is, but, in terms of the interface that we’re using to interact with AI right now, it feels so early. 

DANNY  I was watching an interesting share recently. If you take the ChatGPT interface and then look at all the multimodal stuff you see in the movie Her, it’s kind of like, yeah, we’re there. But the movie already played through the sad part of it, this weird, intimate, one-on-one interaction. We keep going through the same story of solving people’s isolation with an isolation tool.

NATHAN  I’m not sure what communal-based AI tools there have been. One of the places where we’ve been prototyping this kind of thing is with AI chatbots in Slack that reference databases and can be a communal resource that interacts in a public space. It’s still kind of early and has its own issues, but it has been an interesting way to do AI in public.

DANNY  I hope that as the interface evolves, it evolves into a sort of multiplayer version. I don’t really care if it evolves that much in making ChatGPT for me or my personal memory. 

Designing Alongside AI 

DANNY  It’s been pretty fun watching how the disciplines have been blending. We have a lot of data scientists or business designers who are starting to bleed into each other’s disciplines just based on the power of the new tools that are coming out. 

When people say our jobs are under attack, it’s like, well, they’re just changing. They’re getting cooler because more people can join the party. 

NATHAN  There will be some jobs that go away in the next couple of years, just like there always are. But I feel like there’s a democratization of skills that exists. I’ve always fiddled around with coding and was deep on StackOverflow threads trying to make stuff happen. Now I can do weird Canva experiments much faster when I’m trying to figure out how we can make some interaction or new database. It feels more like you’re art-directing ChatGPT than learning JavaScript from scratch. 

DANNY  Also as a teacher, I find that it’s just so dang patient. That’s one of the good sides of its one-on-one-ness. If you want to pull apart or hack at some JavaScript script library, it’ll give you the most excellent and deliberate tour you could ever ask for.

NATHAN  Some things will still require a little bit of experience and training. Like type hierarchy or color theory will continue to be things that you need to get the hang of, but when you combine that with a bunch of really powerful tools, you can get somewhere a lot faster. I forget who said this originally: “Let computers compute and let humans human.” The more we outsource some of the things that machines do better, the more we can do the things that humans do better, which is really exciting and fun.

DANNY  The cynical take is that computers are taking the creative jobs and we’re just moving the boxes. I don’t believe what I’m about to say, but it’s like, the computers are just going to be able to do everything in our digital life that can be conveyed through data. We’re going to have to figure out, what are some non-digital things we’ve got to fix in this world? When people say, make the computers do the sucky work, what do we really mean

Balancing Hype and Realism 

NATHAN  Generally, I always try to approach things with a little skepticism and a lot of curiosity. I always have ChatGPT open. I ask it stuff, it helps me write code and do basic things. I’m also using it as a thought partner at times. I often use it to plan things for the day and workshops. I see a lot of people who are inherently so skeptical and so afraid of it that they let that override the curiosity. Trying to let the curiosity come first, while still holding a little bit of healthy skepticism, usually allows you to at least make use of this stuff. 

DANNY  I’ll plus one on the curious side. It’s like the thing of how you build a stone arch — you pile up a bunch of rocks and then you remove the door. You can’t really just build the arch. As GenAI was coming out, the thing that I was noticing was it had all this random side technology that was accelerating really quickly, directly because of it. I don’t know which parts we’re going to end up throwing away. There are a lot of things that are evolving; it’s not usually just the tech by itself. 

NATHAN  With Gen AI, the products might fail, but the underlying idea will sustain, same with AR, VR, XR. There’s something there that is clearly really useful and impactful — more so in the AI world than the XR stuff, in my opinion — but I have no idea what’s going to last, what’s going to fall apart, which is also part of what is exciting. 

The Inherent Value of Human Creativity 

DANNY  I feel like there’s this overreliance of people thinking they can just get everybody to change if only they could convince them of the facts. But I don’t know if truth is what changes people’s minds versus a great story. Wherever their head is, you got to show them a path. 

NATHAN  There’s an underlying thing that ChatGPT still doesn’t do well: generative creativity. When you ask ChatGPT to write a poem, it still feels like a bummer most of the time. If you ask it to construct a brand story, it doesn’t hit in the way you want it to. But it can give you a lot of the raw materials to get there. Using it as a support and aid to try and get those facts but then not ending there is where the human side comes in. And that’s where you get into not just the core information but the inspiration behind what you’re trying to do with a brand.

DANNY  We’re craving for human made. There’s going to be some kind of a backlash [to AI tools] and I don’t know what the shape of that will be. 

NATHAN  At Upstatement, we’ve definitely used AI art on production sites paired with human-made art. The goal is usually to use human-made art in the end, but using AI art direction to, at least, replace stock photography or to rapidly prototype still feels super useful. 

DANNY  I actually like the GenAI stuff. Like the last generation—

NATHAN  When it was like a little worse?

DANNY  Yeah. I feel like we’re gonna start longing for the early models.

NATHAN  I was using Midjourney yesterday and there’s always something new emerging in there. In my little office, I can make all sorts of junk that I couldn’t have made a couple of years ago. The code that I’m writing or the assets that I’m generating usually are prototypal and will then be made more stable, accessible, and scalable by an engineer or an actual illustrator or animator. But I can get to a rough iteration of a pretty complete idea super fast. 

DANNY  I’ve got some great graphic design friends who can do 10x damage with Midjourney [compared to me using it]. But I’m curious for my son who’s 12, how many careers he can sample using all this stuff. I don’t see the downside yet. I just see him trying out 1000 disciplines.

NATHAN  And then you get excited, you buy a camera and start collecting old lenses or get into the esoteric old pieces of it. Like in the same way that you have several synths behind you.

DANNY  Sometimes you kind of want to dedicate space in the universe for something physical. 

NATHAN  We were doing some logos for a media company recently and the ones that folks ended up liking best were made by our Chief Design Officer taking indigo and combining it with honey and drying out these weird, 3D, goopy letters. You can’t fake that. There’s still some intangible quality there that’s real and physical we can still play with.

Danny DeRuntz is an executive design director at the global design company IDEO and Nathan Hass is a senior design director at the digital product studio Upstatement.