Automation of Design

History of design is a history of technological change, and interactive design is not immune to automation


The first job that Sherry Johnson, 56, lost to automation was at the local newspaper in Marietta, Ga., where she fed paper into the printing machines and laid out pages. — The New York Times

Keeping jobs in America is dominating our political dialogue. The winning argument is that outsourcing is leading to lost jobs. This argument is missing that automation is becoming the primary force replacing jobs at home and abroad. Automation has already swamped the industrial base.

As designers, we are not having a critical discussion how automation will change our profession and careers. So here are my thoughts of how automation has affected design, why it matters and what designers can do to address automation.


Design is born out of typography. As defined by Creative Blog staff, “Typography is the art and technique of arranging type.” Typography is the engine of print and publishing. The history of publishing is one of machines and mechanization changing and replacing jobs.

Interactive design is the design of apps, software and websites. These digital products and services are likewise designed with digital applications. The primary tools are an Apple laptop, Sketch, and code. Better yet, as designers we add research, definition and collaboration to our tool palette.

Interactive design is a white collar profession. As white collar workers, we feel that we are free of automation affecting our jobs. Automation is not reserved to mechanical labor. CMSes and templates are technologies that are already changing the job of interactive designers.

As designers, we have to be vigilante about creating value. By providing value, we safeguard our jobs.

How do we provide value? By refocusing our perspective of design as being a problem solving platform, not just as a production process. It’s valuing input the same as output. First, lets trace the history of the mechanization of jobs in the publishing industry.

History of Press

Press Room, T. Fitzwilliam Company Ltd., New Orleans, 1917. Wikipedia

Letterpress to Offset Printing

Johannes Gutenberg invented letterpress by introducing lead alloy type with a screw-type press. Letterpress printing required individual workers to arrange individual characters of metal type into blocks. These blocks of letters served as the text of books and newspapers. After painstakingly arranging type, the worker inked the type and screwed down a sheet of paper against the raised letters to create copies. The work was manual and repetitive. It was steady work as the technique remained the same from its invention in the mid-15th century until the 19th century.

In the early 19th century, lithography increased the value of publishing by streamlining the printing of images. Lithography worked by applying an oil-based drawing onto a limestone plate. The oil burrowed itself into the plate creating a master to produce future copies. The technique allowed for consistent mass reproduction of images.

The 19th century was a hotbed of invention that revolutionized print. In 1810, the first steam powered letterpress hit the market. In 1811, rotating cylinders with attached paper sheets and type blocks sped up reproduction by 6x. November 29th, 1814, The Times, with a steam powered cylinder press, published the first fully mechanized newsprint at rate of 1,100 sheets an hour. The soon to be redundant pressmen were kept in the dark to prevent them from discovering the invention.

Six-cylinder rotary press from the 1860s. Metal curved plates are located on the large cylinder in the middle. Wikipedia

In 1884, watchmaker Ottmar Mergenthaler developed the Linotype. The linotype was an ingenious invention. The machine allowed a keyboard operator to set an entire line of type at once into a type block. The machine removed the painstaking process of lining each character of type by hand. With the Linotype, one person could do the job of six. Luckily the Linotype increased demand for books and newspapers. Laid off typesetters were able to find work operating or servicing Linotype machines. The machine was well suited for newspapers, magazines and posters. In the 1980s offset printing replaces the Linotype.

Modern offset printing

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, new techniques quickly changed lithography printing. In 1855, the invention of photoengraving transferred photo images onto lithographic plates. It replaced the time extensive process of drawing images onto plates. In 1865, a print accident led to the replacement of the stone plate with a rubber plate. The rubber plate streamlined printing as it wrapped around a rotary press. Since rubber is less abrasive than stone, it allowed for better printing onto paper.

Photo reproduction onto rubber plates was the core of transition to modern offset printing. It allowed for inexpensive copying of type and images onto magazines, newspapers, brochures, etc. As offset printing transitioned technologies, each step streamlined the process. Yet each phase also created, changed and eliminated print jobs.

Where are the people? Printing press circa 2015. Wikipedia

Desktop Publishing

Next came the digital revolution heralded by the Macintosh and Postscript. The Macintosh introduced the Graphical User Interface to the general public. The Macintosh allowed for designers to visually draw, paint and manipulate layouts. Postscript allowed designers to print to a Laserwriter printer. This combination sparked the desktop publishing revolution. Designers directly printed marketing material, reports and zines at almost letterpress quality. Postscript also enabled designers to single–handedly prepare and send digital files to film reproduction.

With desktop publishing, professionals known as paste-up artists lost their profession. Paste-up artists hand composited layouts by gluing sections of type and images onto a layout board. The layout was photographed and transferred to CMYK films. Desktop publishing replaced paste-ups by sending files to film. Layout artists that did not transition to desktop publishing software lost their jobs.

Paste-up artist at work. Image by Speider Schneider via Web Designer Depot
Speider Schneider wrote an entertaining article about the cigarette smoking, glue sniffing and Exacto slicing life of paste-up artists. I highly recommend this hilarious read.

The Internet

The Internet and the World Wide Web have completely changed design. We now primarily consume media on screens. Publishing media to screens is exponentially cheaper as it’s not limited to physical processes and mediums.

Instead, online publishing is a free or low cost service. Web templates like Bootstrap and Foundation provide free website building blocks. Template rich CMSes like Squarespace and Wordpress allow people to build websites with low cost prefab layouts. Now the difficulty of launching a simple marketing site is picking from a range of beautiful templates.

Artifical Intelligence

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is dedicated to mimicking the cognitive functions of the human mind. The goal is to build an artificial system that problem solves and learns like humans. Initial AI was rule based allowing for number crunching mastery of chess and logistics. Cutting edge neural network research is now training systems to learn on their own. Neural network AI is now powering Google Translate.

Artificial Intelligence is starting to encroach into design. Services such as the Grid promise that its AI system will layout your content for you. Wix, a website CMS, released its own AI for website design, Wix ADI. The premise of ADI is that by answering a few questions, and I am assuming adding content, the AI will generate a unique website. Currently, the Grid and ADI are early tech but it will be a short amount of time before they mature.

Examples of automated layouts from the Grid

Automation of design tasks is not limited to automated web layouts. AI systems already recognize and automatically categorize images. This technology is already powering Apple Photos and Google Photos. A recent interesting use of AI is a neural network powered bot, Colorbot. Colorbot is scouring the web to learn how to color BW photos. What’s interesting about the result is not the successful applications but the less successful ones. Colorbot has a tendency to overlay images with color washes, almost like it has its own artistic touch.

Additional examples of AI and design

Adobe Sensei is a machine learning framework that categorizes, augments, and edits images. In the demo video, it acts like as an automated helper of design tasks. Almost like a preset selector of your tool palette options.

Autodesk’s Project Dreamcatcher is a rules based generative system for 3d design. The designer sets the constraints and the tool generates the variations. The system eliminates the time required to make design options.

Logojoy and Tailor Brands are services that promise to design logos with their own AI powered platforms.

Automation of Professions

The definition of interactive design is somewhat contested. For this post, interactive design is the design of interface based user experiences. Interactive design requires a higher level understanding of computers and digital tools. Often times these are skills that learned through higher education. Higher Ed was the cornerstone of the American Dream with a guarantee of higher wages and job security. Now, we’re discovering it’s not the level of education but the level of routine that determines job security.

Currently demonstrated technologies could automate 45% of the activities people are paid to perform and that about 60% of all occupations could see 30% or more of their constituent activities automated. — McKinsey

A July, 2016 McKinsey&Company article maps susceptibility of automation by activity type. As graphed by McKinsey, the more routine the job, the threat of automation increases. The history of publishing is of routine jobs replaced by mechanization. Applying the same exercise to web design, it’s easy to image how design of brochureware falls into the routine category.

The McKinsey article is not all doom and gloom. McKinsey also finds that creative tasks and decision making skills are less susceptible to automation.

These activities, often characterized as knowledge work, can be as varied as coding software, creating menus, or writing promotional materials. But humans still need to determine the proper goals, interpret results, or provide commonsense checks for solutions.

Determining goals, interpreting results and reviewing solutions are input driven design skills. With these skills a designer understands problems through contextual investigation. These design activities are better known as Design Thinking and Human Centered Design.

Design Thinking and Human Centered Design

Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success. — Tim Brown, president and CEO, IDEO

Design Thinking is a philosophy of solving problems through a human centered design methodology. Design Thinking extends Human Centered Design to solve business, product, and societal problems. Design Thinking is a five step process.

Image via D.School
  1. Understand your audience through contextual investigation based on human interactions.
  2. Process and synthesize findings to define the right problem.
  3. Creating many ideas and test prototypes with intended audience.
  4. Refining tested ideas, keep best ideas and remove rest. Iterate and test.
  5. Executing refined ideas. Launch final. Learn from results.
Human-centered design is a creative approach to interactive systems development that aims to make systems usable and useful by focusing on the users, designing around their needs and requirements at all stages, and by applying human factors/ergonomics, usability knowledge, and techniques. — ISO 9241–210:2010(E)

Human Centered Design is a process of designing interactive products by understanding your audience. Human Centered Design like Design Thinking is a mindset and practice. Human Centered Design consists of three phases.

  1. Inspiration — learn from the people you are designing for. Value understanding through human interactions.
  2. Ideation — test your ideas through making things and testing them with your audience. Iterate your ideas till you and your audience have the right solution.
  3. Implementation — release your idea into the world and learn from it.

Design Thinking and Human Centered Design are similar methodologies as they guide designers to create contextual solutions by investigation, testing and human interactions. These practices lead designers to create long lasting value. These soft skills are difficult to automate.


As previously described, the history of publishing is of mechanization affecting design professions. With AI, we will witness the acceleration of design jobs being changed and cut by automation. The current design AI tools are in their infancy but they will quickly mature.

As designers, if we want to maintain our careers in interactive design or any type of design practice, we will need to value input as much as we value output. We will need to get out from behind our screens and create solutions based on soft skills of human interaction. We will need to think of design as a problem solving toolkit as much as a product production process.


I greatly appreciate feedback. If you are agree or disagree, please feel free to add your constructive feedback. If you like, please don’t forget to heart.

Additional Reading Regarding Automation of Jobs

History of Printing

AI and Design

Design Thinking and Human Centered Design