Unless you’ve developed the enviable skill of ignoring adverts on Twitter, you can’t have failed to notice The Grid, a new service promising “AI websites that design themselves.” The Grid “is not another do-it-yourself website builder,” the difference according their site, is that The Grid boasts an advanced AI (artificial intelligence) that can build custom solutions for its clients in mere seconds. I’ve often heard WYSIWYGs, and more recently website builders, likened to robots replacing human workers on factory production lines; I’ve yet to hear of a robot making it into the design department. Certainly, there is scope for automation in web design: When once you spent an hour setting up basic stylesheets, now you import a framework; when once you spent a day considering design options, now you choose a design pattern; when once you spent a week coding specific functionality, now you download a plugin. We all want to think of our skills as essential, but are we essential to our skills? Are web designers surplus to requirements?
Can The Grid out-code you?
Can The Grid out-design you?
In 1997, world champion Garry Kasparov was beaten at chess by the IBM designed computer Deep Blue. Coming just three short months before Skynet was due to become self-aware and wipe us all out, it seemed like a benchmark moment. Except that Deep Blue didn’t beat Kasparov at chess; no computer has ever beaten a human at chess. To win a game, one has to compete, and to compete one has to strive for dominance. To my knowledge no computer has ever been programmed with an ego. Kasparov did lose the match 2.5 – 3.5, not to a computer, but to a team of computer programmers who used a computer as a strategy aid. [pullquote]A computer has no knowledge or understanding of communication, it’s simply a conduit.[/pullquote] How does The Grid judge the readability of a paragraph? Does it lean back in its chair? Squint its eyes? Perhaps carry itself over to the window to check the design under different lighting? A computer has no knowledge or understanding of communication, it’s simply a conduit. From typography to user experience, every single design choice made by The Grid has been dictated by human designers building a set of style rules that they hope will apply to any given data. The Grid’s creative director is Leigh Taylor, who designed the blogging platform Medium. Hats off to him, Medium is a highly accomplished blog design. Of course Medium, with its numerous subjects, authors and commenters is a site that cannot know its own content. As witnessed by the myriad of Medium imitators out there, it’s not an approach that can be universally applied with the same success. Take one of The Grid’s premium features: the ability to detect faces in photographs and crop accordingly; any photographer will tell you that the cropping of an image is one of the key ways of investing emotion. Drama, optimism, strength, ambition, all of these things and more can be achieved with a well-cropped image. Centering on a face does little but fit the image into the available space. Another core feature is the ability of The Grid to recolor images to unify hue and saturation. However, even in The Grid’s promotional video we see that images look dull, like Instagram filters set up for a vintage style. It works…sometimes. The problem with The Grid’s design process is that it doesn’t have one. It mimics design, but actually applies style without any understanding of content. The Grid has no inherent cultural awareness, no subconscious, it doesn’t even have eyes. Design is about taking decisions, and The Grid’s AI has no understanding on which to base a value judgement. The Grid does not design, it applies a pre-conceived set of rules. All truly great design knows when and how to break rules; computers never deviate from the pattern they’re fed.
Can The Grid out-strategize you?
For most web designers, the most urgent area to address when taking on a new client is strategy. You may not even realise you do it, but for a business that doesn’t understand branding, or blogging, or whether the colors their CEO’s daughter picked out really work, your advice is invaluable. The infinite monkey theory states that given enough time, a monkey hitting random keys on a typewriter, will eventually produce the complete works of William Shakespeare. Using a similarly optimistic approach, The Grid uses A/B testing to optimize its choices, but design is not simply a mathematical process and there is no equation for creativity. thegrid.io, built by The Grid, works as a site because it’s copywritten, art-directed, and strategized by web designers. Most companies will know instinctively the kind of site they want, they may have a strong idea of branding, their priorities may even be straight; but very few companies are anything but hazy on the details. What tone should they be setting? Is their imagery appropriate for their target demographic? Will their content help them climb the search engine rankings? Should they focus on blogging or social media? These are just some of the questions that The Grid cannot answer. The Grid can’t carry out research, brand values mean nothing to it, it has no cultural sensitivity. This leaves the responsibility for critical decisions with the client. By handing complete freedom to the client, The Grid delivers none of the guidance that a good web designer provides. Instead of providing solutions, The Grid poses questions.
Is The Grid a better web designer than you?
Ben Moss is Senior Editor at WebdesignerDepot. He’s designed and coded work for award-winning startups, and global names including IBM, UBS, and the FBI. One of these days he’ll run a sub-4hr marathon. Say hi on Twitter.