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InsightOct 03, 2023

Design educators, it’s time to embrace AI

While AI has inevitably entered the classrooms, Omar Taleb argues that design educators have an opportunity to develop critical thinking among students and enable them to ethically use AI.

If the end of 2022 was about the ascension of ChatGPT, 2023 is shaping up to be generative artificial intelligence’s breakthrough, as companies explore long-lasting integration into their workflows. From a writer’s perspective, the media discourse around AI is fascinating to watch — in public view, we’re collectively working through our understanding of this emerging technology. 

From a new graduate's perspective, many in the class of 2023 feel left out. We’re leaving our institutions too soon to help influence changes to academic conduct and we’re facing AI as we enter the workforce, without experiencing the full scope of its capabilities and understanding the influence it will have on our careers. 

It’s counterintuitive at best and naive at worst to assume university and college students across campuses aren’t already leveraging AI tools for coursework. Surveys of graduates and undergraduates suggest that anywhere from 43% to 51% of students use tools like ChatGPT, a number that will climb as we head into the new academic year and AI further entrenches itself in popular consciousness. 

In my last school semester as a Creative Industries student at Toronto Metropolitan University, I asked ChatGPT to write discussion posts for an English elective. The paragraphs it returned passed as written by a human, but were generic and uninspired. Large language models (LLM) remix pre-existing knowledge, combing through the internet to assemble strings that are statistically likely to be relevant based on publicly available data. There is enough text about Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories that ChatGPT’s output has a high probability of answering my question. The effort required to turn generically human string data into writing that is uniquely my own may not have warranted booting up ChatGPT in the first place.

Furthermore, it isn’t clear if there are specific programs or fields where students are more likely to turn to generative artificial intelligence. Are Computer Science majors more likely to use it to refine Python code, or will Graphic Design students use Midjourney AI to create ad mock-ups? It might not even matter — expecting students to avoid AI is not unlike trying to ban search engine use in classrooms decades ago.

If the original value proposition of an academic institution is equipping students with critical thinking skills, large language models offer a perfect example of what looks like knowledge without criticism; from outlines to lecture prep, it's another teaching opportunity for design educators to instill the importance of questioning students’ role in the design process.

Educators have the opportunity to teach alongside generative AI's widespread, interdisciplinary adoption in creative fields. By focusing on developing creative thinking and ensuring that students understand that a designer's role is to weave aesthetics into guiding user behaviour by mastering the inputs and tools at their disposal. Accessible and eco-friendly design adds another dimension, separating what AI predicts as “good” design from humans designing for other humans. 

In the last few months alone, Adobe announced Firefly, a generative AI model that will “empower customers of all experience levels to generate high-quality images and stunning text effects.” While Firefly is currently only available in beta, it will eventually roll out to Creative Cloud. Canva is also cashing in on generative AI, updating their Brand Kit with “Magic” branded tools like the Magic Eraser and Magic Replace tool to streamline workflows. Forgoing the “button-pushing” tasks that are part of designers’ workflows today, strategists and curators who can be proactive with AI will offer value-adds to clients. 

Teaching a new generation of creatives requires getting comfortable introducing these tools in labs and workshops. The designers who understand the necessary inputs when working with text-to-image or layout generation tools will succeed over creatives who view AI as “the boogeyman stealing their job.” Students should learn what questions to ask to get the outlines and skeletons they need to build on for future clients. Classes debating the legalities and ethics of image generation or labs that practice machine learning basics that teach models to produce desired output will be just as valuable as mastering Photoshop and Illustrator. 

Artificial intelligence has been in daily use longer than you might expect. Whenever you use Grammarly to check the email you’ve written or interact with a customer service chatbot, you are using AI. Arriving at this current moment has been years in the making, but the next decade will widen the gap between AI-skilled and unskilled creative professionals. Creatives are unable to stop technological advancement, but developing new skill sets is well within our control. Educators who continue to embrace technological change will help prepare students for the future.

Omar Taleb, is a writer, researcher and strategist with a background in journalism and public relations. He writes stories that help make sense of the cultural conversation and broader market, consumer and media trends. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's Creative Industries program, he currently works as a research assistant at the Social Media Lab, with an interest in media audiences and online behaviour.


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