Some time ago I was lucky enough to be invited to a friend’s wedding. A glorious day was had by all – there’s really nothing to beat an English summer wedding with contingency rain cover provided as standard. One of the things that I enjoy most (although it used to terrify me) was meeting new people and conjuring conversations out of thin air. I have to admit that the bubbly helped no end.
Two such conversations were held with a lovely elderly, retired couple who were seated alongside us at our table – I’ll call them Mr & Mrs X. I talked to them separately during the course of the lunch, and both of them asked me the same surprising question. I say surprising, because (without wishing to be ageist), I expect elderly retired couples on the Parochial Church Council to be more focused on flower arranging and golf than on cutting edge technologies. That’s certainly my plan for retirement, anyway.
Two unsettling questions
During my conversation with Mrs X, she asked what I did for a living. On answering that I’m a graphic and website designer, rather than receiving the routinely delivered “how interesting – what does that involve?”, her reply was unsettling.
“Aren’t you worried that you’ll be replaced by AI?” she asked.
I was taken aback – and impressed that she, who had no reason to be aware of the AI revolution making creative industries nervous, was so well informed. Again, apologies for being ageist and judgemental.
Some time later, I found myself discussing Dire Straits with her husband, Mr X. He’s a big fan, as am I – what’s not to like? We moved onto other topics – he was a Chartered Surveyor before retiring and now he likes to read and enjoy red wine. I told him what I did for a living.
“Aren’t you worried that you’ll be replaced by AI?” he asked.
OK. So at this point I started to think that there might actually be something to worry about.
Sack of bricks
I felt like it was very, very recently that friends and colleagues started mentioning – and then raving about AI. Come to think of it, it was very, very recently. This thing has landed like a massive sack of bricks outside our collective front doors. We could continue to use the back door and walk around it every day, but at some point we’re going to have to deal with it.
So I started to deal with it.
I began testing a few AI services to see how useful they really were. The results of my extremely unscientific study led me to conclude that these systems are indeed amazing – but are they truly creative?
There’s an an ever-increasing number of AI systems appearing daily – and many from big names like Adobe and Microsoft. You can find an AI to knock out a website or a leaflet design at the drop of a hat now. Microsoft Designer, for example, offers to bang out a design in seconds based on your description. And Wix can rustle up a website in moments. But I don’t see these as anything other than enhanced templates at this stage – anything even vaguely customised seems beyond their capability.
For the purposes of this little experiment, I’m focusing on the creation of text and images by AI.
The most talked-about and eye-catching AI system (at the time of writing – things might change tomorrow the way this thing’s going) is unquestionably ChatGPT.
ChatGPT – Text-Generating AI
AI and Graphic Design
It was during a rainy holiday in Corfu that I first introduced myself to ChatGPT. It’s strange – it’s actually a ‘chat bot’ designed to intelligently answer questions in the absence of human beings. But it has become so much more than that. I found myself actually thanking it for its help and apologising for asking for elaboration on its answers. It was gracious and polite in return.
One morning whilst sitting under a large parasol with the rain-hammered Mediterranean lapping around my toes, I registered an account and asked for tourist-related help. Here’s my ‘prompt’ (any instructions given to AI systems are referred to as prompts – because that’s all they are – you prompt the system to give you its ‘considered’ answer to a query):
What is a good tourist loop if we are hiring a car from the Grecotel Eva Palace hotel and we want to explore north east Corfu?
I don’t know what I was expecting – I was an AI virgin. But what I got was impressive. The response took only a few seconds and included a nine-stop tour taking in most of the places that had been recommended to us by friends:
If you’re staying at the Grecotel Eva Palace hotel in Corfu and wish to explore the northeast part of the island, there’s a beautiful tourist loop you can follow. Here’s a suggested route: (followed by a comprehensive list of 9 instructions)…
This suggested tourist loop will take you through various scenic spots, charming villages, and beautiful beaches in northeast Corfu. Feel free to adjust the itinerary based on your interests and the amount of time you have available. Enjoy your exploration of this enchanting part of the island!
We hired a car, followed the supplied instructions and – occasional tweak aside – it did a pretty good job.
ChatGPT wouldn’t be the first thing that had been designed for one purpose but ended up being used for another. The ZX Spectrum springs to mind – the product of Clive Sinclair’s unique brain that was intended for accountants and copywriters – and ended up being used almost exclusively by spotty, gaming teenagers (myself included) playing Manic Miner, Daley Thomson’s Decathlon and Jet Pac. It seemed that ChatGPT had been similarly hijacked.
If you ask ChatGPT how much it knows, it answers thus:
As an AI language model, I have been trained on a diverse range of topics, including but not limited to general knowledge, science, history, mathematics, literature, and more. I have access to information up until September 2021. However, please keep in mind that I do not have real-time data or knowledge of events that have occurred after my last update.
This is still a lot of knowledge – so I thought I’d stretch its legs. I had read that it had coding capabilities. I started with something simple (simple for a coder, anyway).
I create websites almost exclusively using WordPress, an open source blog system that’s morphed into the world’s most widely used content management system. It’s easy to expand WordPress functionality using ‘plugins’, which are snippets of code that can be designed to do pretty much anything.
I asked ChatGPT to create a simple WP plugin using the following prompt:
Write a WordPress plugin that will enable users to change the font in the admin area
In seconds, it didn’t just tell me what to do or where to find out more – it actually wrote the code – including built-in instructions explaining how to install and use it. I uploaded it to a test website and it worked. I asked for a few tweaks and it re-wrote the code to enhance functionality.
I can only assume that during its pre-September 2021 training, it read all the available documentation on WordPress and how to code for it. This was impressive.
Any website designer/builder will tell you (if they’re being honest) that they’ve spent more than a little time looking for answers on Stack Overflow. It’s a great resource for answering coding challenges.
But woe betide any designer naive enough to ask the Stack Overflow community a question. If the query is placed in the wrong place, considered ‘idiotic’ or is similar to a question asked in the past, the coding community will show absolutely no mercy, tearing the designer to pieces without breaking a sweat.
Enter ChatGPT – a polite, well-read alternative – an AI that responds to please and thank you and thinks nothing of answering any follow-up questions posed by a nervous designer. OK – so I haven’t asked it to code a program that’ll solve climate change – but for simple queries, here’s an interesting alternative to being publically mauled by purist coders.
I started to find chinks in its armour when I asked ChatGPT to have a crack at some copywriting.
We recently completed the design of a leaflet for Thame Museum. Confident that the museum had been around for a long time prior to September 2021, it was a safe bet that my trusty chat bot had some information about it.
I prompted the AI to write an article for our portfolio that would showcase the museum as well as suggest the benefits of having a promotional leaflet professionally designed to promote it. At first glance, it did a reasonably good job. The subheadings were great, but the body of the text seemed… robotic. There were a couple of creative phrases that I liked, so I took a gander to see if they existed anywhere else.
Of course they did. They’d been lifted from other websites, presumably during the ‘learning’ phase. I’m willing to accept that this might have been a coincidence – after all, there’s nothing new under the sun… but I’ll let you make your own mind up:
“…the museum educates and enlightens visitors…”
Yankari Game Reserve
“…preserving the past, educating the present, and inspiring the future…”
Smithsonian Museum and Theatre Inc
In the end, I re-wrote the piece. But ChatGPT had given me a good framework as a starting point – and usable subheadings for talking points. Its ‘creative’ writing was limited to what it already knew or gleaned elsewhere – which, let’s face it, is what we would expect from an AI chat bot in this day and age. But I have to admit, if the author wanted something fast and wasn’t too bothered about content style or tone of voice, it does a serviceable job.
I will note that it is supposedly possible to get ChatGPT to write in a specific tone of voice by pasting in some sample text (it can’t scan anything online). I did try this, but wasn’t convinced. Willing to be proved wrong though.
And for the record, I wrote every word on this page myself, free of AI interference. The illustrations, however…
There’s been a flurry of speculation around the water cooler recently about if or when ChatGPT will replace Google as the search engine of choice.
I have to admit that I’ve gone to the helpful bot a couple of times in order to do some research, whereas before I would have defaulted to Google. But I’d only do this for specific reasons – for example (as demonstrated above) to solve a coding conundrum quickly and easily rather than risk the fury of those who know more than I (of which there are many).
But I wouldn’t ask it for a plumbing service nearby – or for a review on the latest Mac Mini (Apple has really gone downhill since Steveo’s departure, but that’s another story). For as long as ChatGPT doesn’t scan the internet, it’s a useful reference resource and little more. When it starts delivering up-to-the minute, live information – well I suppose time will tell.
Midjourney and Image-Generating AI
AI and Graphic Design
Earlier this year I found myself in a pub chatting to a fellow Ringwood Best Bitter fan. As it inevitably does, the conversation turned to what we did for a living. Dave (let’s call him Dave) was in between roles, but was very excited about his new venture as a digital artist. Having dabbled myself, I was interested to see his work. He pulled out his phone and showed me some eye-catching, slightly surreal, almost photorealistic fantasy digital artwork.
“Amazing” I said. “What did you use to create them? Procreate? Photoshop?”
Surely it had to be a mixture of the two…
“No – Midjourney.” He replied.
I hadn’t heard of this software before and I pressed him for more information. I didn’t have to try very hard – like an enthusiastic Amway convert, he was very eager to share how he had become an artist.
Using Midjourney is weird
I like to think of myself as pretty conversant with creative software and the use of computers in general, but what he told me left me scratching my head. No artistic input or skill is required at all – the better your plain English description, the more (supposedly) accurate the end result.
Midjourney is like no software I’ve ever used – mainly because it isn’t software as you and I would understand it. For reasons that I’m sure are very clear if one cared to look into it, Midjourney operates within a chat room run by Discord (originally created for the gaming community).
Whilst there have been occasions when a free trial has been available, at the time of writing, demand is so high that you have to pay for a subscription on Midjourney.com. You then have to create a free account with Discord.com and either join an existing chat room (that has the Midjourney bot as a member) or set up your own chat room and add the Midjourney bot as a member.
Like I said, weird.
Once signed up to both platforms (it cost me $10 for a month which would cover 200 minutes of run-time and / or 200 images – it’s not entirely clear), you have to write a prompt (remember the prompt?) – but you have to prefix it with /imagine prompt: or you’ll end up with nothing at all (typing ‘/imagine’ and a space automatically adds the ‘prompt:’ part).
Then it’s just a case of describing the image you want the AI bot to create. Four options are suggested which you can re-render, vary or select for ‘high resolution’ creation (if 1024 pixels square can be considered high resolution). The more specific the prompt, the more supposedly accurate the image.
Striking results but expect to waste a lot of time
Midjourney is an absolute godsend for frustrated teenagers who want to spend some alone time with their latest fantasy female creation.
It’s also useful for creatives who have an idea of what they want, but are willing to accept something wildly different after hours of attempted tweaking.
I found that if I came close to getting what I had in mind, I could get the ‘seed’ number of the image and ask the bot to create the same again but with subtle variations. This almost never worked though. For example, if I got the bot to create a drawing of a character and then I wanted that same character to be pictured handing out a business card, I could be certain to be delivered a completely different character with something resembling a banana growing out of their shoulder.
AI doesn’t know what things are
And this brings me to the crux of the problem with AI systems and their ‘creative’ thinking. As impressive as they can seem, much of their performance makes use of of smoke and mirrors. They can only deliver results using information that they have been spoon fed – which arguably means they cannot be creative. Useful, absolutely – creative, not so much.
And they don’t understand what things are.
The key word here is ‘interpretation’. The AI looks at your words and interprets them into an image. So you have to figure out the best way to write the words in order to get what you want – and it’s not as simple and obvious at it might sound.
It’s not AI that is going to take your job, but someone who knows how to use AI
Richard Baldwin, an economist and professor, at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in 2022.
Having wrestled with AI prompts, I am beginning to understand why the above may be true. English is becoming the new, cutting edge coding language.
This can best be demonstrated by studying some of the images produced by AI. But first, full disclosure… all of the images shown on this page were created by Midjourney. Or more accurately, were interpretations of my prompts.
Does that make me the artist? Or is the AI the creator? Or what about the creator of the AI?
Whilst you ponder that conundrum, here are some results of my pulling teeth and squeezing blood from a stone whilst trying to get what I wanted from Midjourney.
Yellow postits with a name and telephone number scribbled on the top note, on a white background, in the style of hand drawn rough illustration 2D
Man with parrot on shoulder?
Paint a rough watercolor cartoon caricature of a person smoking a pipe and wearing a ship captain’s hat with a parrot on his shoulder, extremely accentuating his features, showing rough sea in the background
Woman in jungle?
Paint a highly stylised watercolour caricature of a woman with a forest in the background
As you can see from the above images, whilst the prompts were brief, they weren’t exactly unclear – and yet none of the images would be usable (except perhaps in an article like this). Looking through the prompts of other Midjourney users, some do go into extreme detail – and whilst the results might be more accurate, you do feel a little like Forrest Gump opening a box of chocolates…
“You never know what you’re going to get”.
Other Image AI Generators
There are quite a few out there.
I tried three AI creators – Midjourney, Images.ai and Adobe Firefly. I fed each of them an identical prompt and was delivered wildly varying results:
A 30 foot sailing yacht on a rough ocean with stormy skies, baroquelike
A 30 foot sailing yacht on a rough ocean with stormy skies, baroquelike
A 30 foot sailing yacht on a rough ocean with stormy skies, baroquelike
Whilst Midjourney produces arguably better results, none of the generators understand what a yacht is or how the rigging works. They are all interpretations of boats which, whilst recognisable at first glance as sailing yachts, the sails and rigging are all wrong – and some of those hulls wouldn’t last five minutes.
AI and Graphic Design – ChatGPT
As I mentioned earlier, this has been a very unscientific experiment.
I can’t say with any certainty how much time using AI has saved me (if any) – but I’ve had a lot of fun trying them out. There’s no doubt that AI has become a very useful tool, very quickly.
As good as ChatGPT responses are, it lacks creativity. It takes a great deal of assimilated information and brilliantly regurgitates and organises it into a very useful format – so it’s great for overcoming writer’s block, or giving a quick answer to a technical question. But it’s not human – and at this point in time, I’m yet to be enticed, persuaded or enthralled by a robot. Amazed, certainly – but not quite sold.
AI image generators (I have to say that Midjourney is the best I’ve tested if only for entertainment value), have a long way to come. But at the speed they’re developing, they won’t take long to arrive. I’m used to working with creative software and have an aptitude for working stuff like this out – I am not convinced that a client looking for a designer to take the weight off their shoulders will spend time rolling the dice with an AI consultant.
Even if the quote above is true and someone who knows how to use AI becomes proficient enough to match the work of designers and copywriters, they’ll probably cost about the same to employ and won’t, in my opinion, produce work more creative or original than a traditional designer.
I’m certainly not worried about my role – and I am enjoying my new toys.