AI Is Design’s Latest Material

MoMA’s Senior Design Curator explores how artificial intelligence helps designers reach visual and functional goals

Design doesn’t exist in an ivory tower; design is how we interact with the world at large. As a champion–and critic–of how design intersects with a broad range of fields, Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator of Architecture & Design and founding Director of Research & Development at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, is known for her thought-provoking exhibitions. During the 20+ years she’s been on staff at MoMA, Antonelli has consistently explored how design influences and intersects with other disciplines, from fashion to synthetic biology to data visualization.

In the seminal 2008 MoMA show Design and the Elastic Mind, Antonelli explored how engineers and designers work together to create interfaces for navigating the world at different scales, from the nano to the cosmological. And her most recent exhibition,Items: Is Fashion Modern?, looked at how people experience the world through their clothing choices, from T-shirts to saris to the “little black dress.” In between exhibitions, Antonelli has led the acquisition of a wide variety of objects and non-objects for MoMA’s permanent collection, including the Rainbow flag23 digital typefaces, and the world’s original set of emoji.

As a follow up to PAIR’s recent collaboration on Artificial Imperfection, a MoMA R&D Salon in New York that offered a cautionary, yet optimistic look at the promise of AI, we caught up with Antonelli to discuss how AI might influence the flow of design history.

PAIR: You’ve said, “Good design is a renaissance attitude that combines technology, cognitive science, human need, and beauty to produce something that the world didn’t know it was missing.” Can artificial intelligence (AI) play a role in good design?

Paola Antonelli: Definitely. Let me dissect that quote. A renaissance attitude encompasses science and technology, as well as arts and culture. Technology is what makes any built object happen. Nothing happens without technology. Cognitive science makes the product accessible to human beings. It identifies interfaces that can be perceived as familiar. If you give people an object that they don't even know how to pick up, or how to use, you do not have a good design.

Design responds to needs—needs that exist, or will exist. It is interesting to consider completely useless objects like the Tamagotchi. People clearly had a need for anguish in their lives (and a need to relieve that anguish), and the Tamagotchi responded to those needs.

And, last but not least, beauty. Beauty is a concept that has changed multiple times in history. Once upon a time it was symmetry and classical proportions. But after Punk, Brutalism in architecture, and Pedro Almodóvar, to name a few case studies, beauty is more like a formal intention. Beauty is a very important means of communication. Beauty is about communicating with other human beings, and it is also a sign of respect.

These can be combined to create something that the world didn't know it needed. Those are the most interesting designs, the designs that reveal themselves both as novel and needed.

How can AI fit into this? Remember that the manifestations of AI, not AI itself, fit or do not fit. AI is a tool, and a tool can have good or bad manifestations, depending on the hand and mind that devised it or uses it. It is not for me to say what is good or bad. I say that it is important to educate both the maker and the receiver of AI.

PAIR: Is it possible to augment designers’ creativity with AI— to see patterns across human creativity and come up with something the world didn’t know it was missing?

PA: I see AI as a tool. When designers master that tool, they can expand their ability. That is what happened with previous tools.

We are likely to see many AI experiments that will not be perfect. I remember when desktop publishing and web design started. A lot of monstrosities were created. Every time a new technology is introduced, there is a moment of drunkenness because everybody experiments as they try to do their best. Then sobriety sets in, a mature baseline evolves, and people develop a critical sense.

“I see AI as a tool. When designers master that tool, they can expand their ability.”
— Paola Antonelli

PAIR: What advice would you give UX designers that would help them make open-source AI tools and AI programming accessible to more people?

PA: I would tell them to work with somebody who has already done it. Your product needs an interface that can communicate with people. Designers that have already tackled the challenge of rendering tools to a very wide audience might have some tips.

Maybe you have to break the program into parts; maybe you have to figure out a way to give it in bricks. I think there are ways that might be devised by talking with experts.

PAIR: Is there inspiration for UX designers working with AI to be found in the history of physical design? For instance, can a UX designer working on an AI-fueled project be inspired by a chair or a building?

PA: I would certainly hope so. I think that UX designers can be inspired by everything around them.

I believe that designers’ educations should start from a core teaching based upon all forms of design, including chairs. Then they should specialize in whatever type of design they want to pursue. A UX designer should know about chair design, and a chair designer should know about digital design, about video games, and about certain types of UX that are very explicit. The more people know about each other's designs, the better.

When people ask why MoMA acquires video games, I explain that I consider code at the same level as wood, or marble, or plastic, or concrete. They are materials that designers use to reach goals that are both visual and functional.

PAIR: What unique roles can art, design, and culture play in AI research and development?

PA: Many people think that design is an addition to the world. They do not believe it is necessary; rather that design is a superfluous beautification you apply when the product is finished.

Without art and design and culture, any technology is bound to either fall flat or not really capture the wholeness of humanity. In other words, it's not only about visualizing, but it's rather understanding what the impact of the technology can be, what the side effects can be, and how to counter them.

It's hard for me to even speak about it because art design and culture are life. It's like saying, “How can AI function without life?”

PAIR: AI is built by people. How might we make it easier for engineers to build and understand machine learning systems?

PA: Engineers, although they might technically understand machine learning systems, can lack a sense of AI’s impact on society. They might see AI as just coding, but they need to realize that AI is not just a technology. Rather, it is part of the world.

I believe that design is the enzyme for any kind of innovation. Designers must be embedded in engineering and coding teams to keep the AI and machine learning efforts real and keep them part of the world.

“Designers must be embedded in engineering and coding teams to keep the AI and machine learning efforts real—to keep them part of the world.”
— Paola Antonelli

PAIR: How might AI systems amplify the expertise of designers, doctors, technicians, farmers, musicians, and more?

PA: Amplify is the right verb, and I believe that AI can be helpful in any profession. In addition to amplifying, AI can also specify; it can augment, and it can specialize. I see AI as an extension of what humans can already do. However, AI can work faster, consider more complex systems, and evaluate many more variables.

If we're thinking of doctors, the fact that symptoms can be scanned and categorized according to precedents that are not in every doctor’s mind can help diagnose illnesses more efficiently and precisely.

If I reframe the question: “What profession could not be helped by AI?” I find it difficult to answer. Possibly a police person directing traffic? But actually, if traffic lights were all connected to an AI system, that would be instant assistance to this police person.

Consider a baker—maybe AI should not get into the bakery? Or maybe it is Italian wishful thinking, to believe that AI cannot have a palate? But who knows!

I cannot see any limitations. I see AI as (hopefully) a benign spice that can be sprinkled on any profession. I really don't see where it will not be used. I also believe that designers should always be alert and look out of unintended consequences and dangerous directions. There is already a major discussion happening on the checks and balances that must be put in AI’s way, on the ethics of it, on the rules and regulations that must be legislated, on the need to be conscious and aware of a new dimension that is added to human life. Designers can help tremendously, supporting other experts with their ability to envision scenarios and describe and guide human behaviors.

PAIR: ML and AI are abstract concepts. What role can artists and designers play in making them less abstract?

PA: I find it fascinating how artists and designers can take very abstract and scary concepts and make them banal and familiar. With respect to AI, I think that is how they can be most useful.

Artists and designers can show that AI is not a monster from outer space. Rather, AI is sometimes very simple. Although it may be internally complex, AI is simply a tool we can use to make things better.

AI is not Mary Poppins, not a fairy, and certainly not a monster. I would love it if designers and artists could show AI as a nice pet running through our lives and making things a little better.

For more on how to take a human-centered approach to designing with ML and AI,visit our collectionof practical insights from Google's People AI + Research team.