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Design, Interrupted explores how "everyday AI" is restricting creativity

AI-powered algorithms used by Instagram and Pinterest are impacting how designers and architects look for ideas and leading to more homogenous work, according to a University of Oxford research project.

Run by designer and Oxford Internet Institute doctoral researcher Maggie Mustaklem, Design, Interrupted examines how social-media algorithms are influencing creativity.

Mustaklem became interested in the issue while working as a knitwear designer and noticing that her creations were being matched by peers around the globe.

Instagram algorithm an "everyday AI"

"I designed a sweater with a stitch from Pinterest that we sold to a shop in New York for $400, and then I also saw it at Uniqlo for $40 and in a really high-end store for $800," she told Dezeen.

"I know it was the same stitch, and I know that everyone had it on their Pinterest boards. Two of us were in New York, one of us was in Tokyo and we all saw that same image. And I became so interested in this as a problem."

Whereas in the past designers may have leafed through magazines to look for images when starting a project, Mustaklem explained, today they will likely run a quick search on Pinterest or Instagram.

Since 2016, social-media feeds have been largely determined by algorithms that use machine learning to push content considered more likely to be appealing to the user.

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

Despite rarely being referred to as artificial intelligence (AI), these algorithms are among the most common ways that people experience the technology in their day-to-day lives.

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

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

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

Because the algorithms tend to have a bias for certain types of content, Mustaklem believes they are leading to a "narrowing" of the images that designers see when looking for inspiration.

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

In one case, when tasked with finding ideas for a Spanish-style villa, three people in the internet-search group came across images of pop star Britney Spears' former home near Los Angeles.

"It's quite powerful that's it's not actually Spanish materials or construction methods or Spanish national identity coming through, it's really climate-controlled luxury and giant US interiors," said Mustaklem.

"That is a big difference, especially if you're thinking about what ends up being designed based on those reference images."

She suggests that in this example, the algorithm may be prioritising content that is anglo-centric and linked to celebrities or luxury.

"Be a little bit critical" of internet search

Unlike in a book or magazine, Mustaklem points out, the images are also stripped of context.

"It's not like going to the RIBA library to learn about these things. You're trusting a tech company to teach you."

However, she acknowledges the limitations of analogue research.

"I came down to London one day and spent four hours at the RIBA library and I didn't find anything, and it was very frustrating," she said. "I know we're not going back to just working with a stack of magazines."

"But I do think it's important to be aware of the social implications of these systems and to think about that when you're starting that initial search, in ways that we're not really taking seriously right now," she added.

Stack of magazines
Mustaklem accepts that designers are unlikely to return to magazines as their primary source of research. Photo by Charles Deluvio

Part of the issue, Mustaklem argues, is that platforms like Instagram and Pinterest "are not really design tools".

She therefore encourages designers and architects searching for inspiration on these types of websites to be mindful of their shortcomings and consider supplementing their research through other mediums.

"Maybe be aware that we should be a little bit critical of the trust that we place in these things," she said.

"Think about search like a more collective process – what are the analogue components that you're missing in digital search, and what would you like to incorporate that we don't have in the tools that exist right now?"

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

But she said using such models to come up with design ideas "absolutely" intensifies the problems associated with searching for images on social media.

"It's very much not a break from the structure or the biases or the social implications of what's happening with the Instagram-level AI," she said.

"I think it will probably become a tool that people do have to learn how to use well and be really objective about."

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.