Design, Interrupted explores how “everyday artificial intelligence” is limiting creativity

The AI-powered algorithms used by Instagram and Pinterest are influencing the way designers and architects seek out ideas and are leading to more homogeneous work, according to a research project from the University of Oxford.

Led by designer and Oxford Internet Institute PhD researcher Maggie Mustaklem, Design, Interrupted examines how social media algorithms are impacting creativity.

Mustaklem became interested in the matter while working as a knitwear designer and noticed that his creations were being styled by colleagues from all over the world.

Instagram algorithm an “everyday AI”

“I designed a sweater with a Pinterest dot that we sold at a NYC store for $400, and then I also saw it at Uniqlo for $40 and at a high-end store for $800,” she told Dezeen.

“I know it was the same spot and I know everyone had it on their Pinterest boards. Two of us were in New York, one of us was in Tokyo and we all saw the same picture. And I got so interested in that as a problem”.

While in the past designers could flip through magazines for images when starting a project, Mustaklem explained, today they’ll likely do a quick search on Pinterest or Instagram.

Since 2016, social media feeds have largely been driven by algorithms that use machine learning to push content deemed most appealing to the user.

Search Instagram
Social media apps like Instagram and Pinterest started using search algorithms in the mid-2010s. Photo by Georgia de Lotz. Top photo by Stephen Phillips

While rarely referred to as artificial intelligence (AI), these algorithms are among the most common ways people experience technology in their daily lives.

“Most of us don’t really think about all those kinds of machine learning or computer vision applications,” Mustaklem said. “I call it everyday AI.”

The impact of these search algorithms on creativity is less recognized than in other fields, Mustaklem argues.

“We’re really aware of the algorithmic flattening that’s happening in other areas like politics, but when it comes to creativity for the most part we’re still like, ‘that’s amazing, I can see so much,'” she said.

Because algorithms tend to have a bias for certain types of content, Mustaklem believes they’re leading to a “shrinkage” of images designers see when looking for inspiration.

To explore this phenomenon and encourage designers and architects to think more about it, Mustaklem runs workshops where participants are given a design suggestion and asked to undertake initial research using a stack of print or internet publications.

In one instance, when tasked with coming up with ideas for a Spanish-style mansion, three people in an Internet research team came across images of pop star Britney Spears’ former home near Los Angeles.

“It’s powerful enough that it’s not actually Spanish materials or construction methods or Spanish national identity that emerges, it’s really climate-controlled luxury and gigantic US interiors,” Mustaklem said.

“That’s a big difference, especially if you’re thinking about what ends up being designed based on those reference images.”

He suggests that in this example, the algorithm could prioritize Anglo-centric, celebrity- or luxury-related content.

“Be a little critical” of Internet search

Unlike a book or magazine, Mustaklem points out, images also lack context.

“It’s not like going to the RIBA library to learn about these things. You’re trusting a technology company to teach you.”

However, he recognizes the limitations of analogue research.

“One day I came to London and I spent four hours at the RIBA library and found nothing, which was very frustrating,” she said. “I know we’re not going back to work with just a stack of magazines.”

“But I think it’s important to be aware of the social implications of these systems and to think about them when you start that initial research, in ways that we’re not taking seriously right now,” she added.

Stack of magazines
Mustaklem admits that designers are unlikely to revert to magazines as their main source of research. Photo by Carlo Deluvius

Part of the problem, Mustaklem argues, is that platforms like Instagram and Pinterest “aren’t really design tools.”

He therefore encourages designers and architects who seek inspiration on these types of websites to be aware of their shortcomings and consider supplementing their research with other means.

“Perhaps being aware that we should be a little critical of the trust we place in these things,” he said.

“Think of research as a more collective process: what analog components are you missing in digital research, and what would you like to incorporate that we don’t have in the tools that exist right now?”

Mustaklem started the Design, Interrupted project in 2019 before the emergence of generative AI tools like Midjourney and DALL-E 2 that quickly synthesize images from a text prompt.

But he said using such templates to come up with design ideas “absolutely” intensifies the problems associated with searching for images on social media.

“It’s absolutely not a break from the structure or bias or social implications of what’s happening with AI at the Instagram level,” he said.

“I think it’s probably going to become a tool that people have to learn to use well and be really objective.”

Illustration by Selina Yau


This article is part of Dezeen’s AItopia series, which explores the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on design, architecture and humanity, both now and in the future.

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