My favorite design story this month involves the rise of Nikolay Ironov, the graphic design phenom who has wowed clients of Art. Lebedev, Russia’s largest design studio, with a string of edgy, eye-catching logo designs that stand out from the work of his peers.
Until a year ago, no one had ever heard of Nikolay. But since signing with Art. Lebedev, he has worked on more than 20 commercial projects creating, according to this report in The Next Web, “everything from beer bottle labels to startup logos.”
His designs were offered via the studio’s “express design” program. Clients—among them restaurants, cafes, craft beer pubs, public relations agencies, and YouTube bloggers—registered online, answered a series of text-based queries about their business and brand aspirations and agreed to fork over a fixed fee of 100,000 rubles (about $1,500) for logo designs. Design decisions were final; there were no redesigns or further discussions.
Nikolay’s designs were different, daring—and often downright daft. A few clients complained. But for the most part, the buzz was good.
And then this month the buzz got even better. Art. Lebedev revealed that Nikolay wasn’t a person, but a machine—created in secret by the studio, powered by artificial intelligence and trained on hand-drawn vector images. Even Nikolay’s profile photo on the studio website was a computer-generated amalgam of photos of all the studio’s designers. There were glowing reviews on Medium and Fast Company.
By all accounts, clients aren’t complaining about being duped by the studio. Instead, most are basking in the glory of what appears to be a brilliant publicity stunt.
But two questions linger: Are ‘Nikolay’s’ designs any good? And does A.I. pose a real threat to the job security of human designers?
You can answer that first question for yourself by having a look at Nikolay’s portfolio here. (Personally, I love the orange craft beer logos but find the rest of his work pretty meh.)
As for the second question, Art. Lebedev head developer Roman Kosovich declares Nikolay a resounding success. Clients were happy. The studio got paid.
“Ironov can effectively undertake real, commercial tasks,” Kosovich exults on the studio website. “He’s available 24/7, doesn’t get sick, or get ‘writer’s block,’ while continually evolving and solving creative problems in a matter of seconds. And, most importantly, he offers absolutely unique takes on design solutions.”
I remain deeply suspicious of that last assertion. Yes, Nikolay’s work is quirky. But is it truly unique? Is it genuinely creative? Did the machine approximate empathy?
As I’ve argued often in this space, the problem with most A.I. is that it reinforces human biases rather than resists them. That’s the reason, for example, that I hate Spotify, whose fancy algorithms can’t figure me out at all. Ages ago, I used to count on classmates, snobby record store clerks, or crazy college DJs to badger me into listening to new music. But now I have Spotify, which serves up the same old bland comfort food, time after time, occasionally slipping in a few minor variations. Facebook, Google, Amazon are much the same.
A.I. may be able to generate interesting logos. It is getting better at composing music and has significantly improved in its ability to generate facsimiles of human faces, fake videos, and special effects. And yet algorithms remain hopeless at painting, writing fiction, and many corporate tasks like recruiting.
For future designers, the challenge will be to learn to work with A.I. without being imprisoned by it.
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