Six human skills that will future-proof your design career

AI is coming for our pixels. How do we leverage our humanity to drive our destiny as designers?

A black-and-white medical illustration of a human heart is at the center of a collage, against a black background, consisting also of a purple square, a pink checkerboard pattern, a blue circle, and a green uppercase R in a calligraphic typeface.

Collage art by Samantha Warren

My mom graduated from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh in 1968 with a degree in fashion illustration and aspirations of drawing for publications like Vogue. It was her background in commercial art that eventually led to my career in design.

One Sunday morning my phone rang. Bleary-eyed, I picked up to see why my mom so urgently needed to talk to me on the one day I could sleep late. The conversation began with, “Samantha, what you do is on TV! Turn on Sunday Morning!” As many folks in tech can relate, this sort of statement from a parent can yield any number of results, so my curiosity got the best of me, and I tuned in. To my delight, it was a segment on AI-generated art which, as senior director of design for Machine Intelligence & New Technology at Adobe, I’d been exploring as part of my work on Adobe Firefly.

The story highlighted the wonders of the technology but balanced that optimism by acknowledging the possible downsides of automation, and when it ended, I asked my enchanted and enthusiastic mom, “But what about jobs? Aren’t you worried about the future of design jobs?” Her response was immediate, “How many fashion illustrators do you know today? All jobs in the arts change with technology.”

My mom wasn’t wrong. Looking back at the history of art and design, there are many examples of how technology has evolved our industry. Generative AI is creating another moment in time that, like others, will require people to adapt. The difference is the speed at which it's happening. Moore's law, when applied to technology, states that the speed of innovation doubles approximately every two years. However, since the rise of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, that time has shortened—the current estimate is that it doubles every six months.

The AI train is coming for our pixels, and it’s moving fast. We can’t ignore its pace or how it might affect our daily lives—and our jobs. A Jetsons-style Rosey the Robot, that designs app screens and illustrates user maps, could happen faster than we’d like. With this impending scenario, how do we push and change our industry and our careers faster than in the past? Anyone can evolve but how do we rescale quickly? As I reflected on these questions, I realized that, because computers can never replace the humanness of designers, the answer to future-proofing our careers is to leverage our humanity. I have some ideas about how to do that.

Beyond pixel-pushing, what core competencies do designers bring to their work?

As AI changes our world, it will also morph and change the shape of our teams. Roles and responsibilities will undoubtedly evolve to adapt to the new landscape. What can be automated will be automated, and what makes us human will expand our roles. There’s an age-old debate about whether designers should know how to code. But in the world of AI, a much more adaptive mindset would be that designers’ responsibilities would evolve to overlap with those more traditionally associated with product management or product ownership. With automation, the “designed experience” will need to be more about the context and less about the pixels.

Designers have an opportunity to start to evolve our roles and play the part we want in this story's next chapter. But before we can think about adaptation, evolution, and future versions of our careers, we must better understand the qualities, beyond pixel-pushing that make us valuable as creative problem solvers. Designers bring specific competencies to their work that transfer across design disciplines:

Six ways designers can lean in to their humanity to enrich their core skills

In Futureproof: 9 Rules for Humans in the Age of Automation, Kevin Roose talks about three job types that will not be replaced by AI: surprising (not repetitive, like teaching), social (require human connection, like nursing) and scarce (high stakes and rare skills, like 911 operators). In many ways, the attributes that make these job types resilient to disruption are that they define what it means to be human. As designers consider the ways we can future-proof our destinies as AI is further integrated into our careers, it’s our uniquely human qualities that we need to rely on:

1. Become blob-shaped

We’re all familiar with the T-shaped designer (someone with broad skills and knowledge supported by a key specialization) but I talk with my team often about being blob-shaped designers. Being blob-shaped means you evaluate the situation and shape-shift to do whatever needs to be done to get the best outcome for your goal. Rather than doubling down on a specialized skillset, you double down on adaptability, honing the tools in your toolbox to analyze complex scenarios and then do the work to fill in the gaps. That doesn’t mean that as designers, we’d be expected to also know how to code, do in-depth research, or run a business analysis, but looking at these adjacent disciplines, what are the outer fringes that designers can flex and fill? What are the soft, or more “human” skills, that AI just won’t be able to replace or automate? Those are the areas most ripe to flex towards for the future.

A black-and-white photograph of a handheld toolbox made of wood is at the center of a collage consisting also of a red triangle, a green square, and a blue circle. Instead of tools, the toolbox holds two women, a young man holding a parrot, the head of a statue, and a yellowed ticket stub.

2. Create the unexpected

Many people talk about AI raising the ceiling and lowering the floor. Raising the ceiling means that people will be pushed to exceed expectations, while lowering the floor means more access to design will democratize it. Surprise for designers means providing solutions that are unique, innovative, and extraordinary. Designers who focus on excellence, craft, and quality will thrive and rise to new heights to create unexpected designs that will redefine the height of the ceiling.

Black-and-white photographs of a planet, a cloud-filled night sky, and the Space Shuttle are at the center of a collage consisting also of a red circle, a blue triangle, a purple rectangle, and a botanical illustration of a fig tree branch.

3. Build connections and relationships

Human connection is core to design. Brands, design systems, and user flows are all complex blueprints for complex tactical execution and understanding how the pieces and parts fit together is part of a designer's job. Building understanding requires building relationships then using the knowledge to solve problems, build trust, and bring people together. Those human connections position designers as silo-breakers in big organizations and advocates in smaller ones.

A black-and-white photograph of three young Black women doing a choreographed dance routine are at the center of a collage consisting also of purple circle, a green square, and a blue circle, a red triangle, a yellowed postcard, and a botanical photograph of a white carnation.

4. Learn empathy

The nature of design requires that we’re able to adapt our skill sets to different scenarios to get our clients the best results—that we’re able to empathize in unique, interesting, and nuanced situations. I’m not an oceanographer, army ranger, or filmmaker, but I’ve designed products, brands, and websites for all three of those audiences. To do that, I had to learn about those businesses, lives, and challenges to gain the perspective I needed to be a better problem solver and to be able to advocate on behalf of those clients. Designers who can relate in unique scenarios, and who can build portfolios of relatable situations, will be prepared for the future.

Black-and-white photographs of a white man in a suit looking through the viewfinder of a camera on a tripod, a Black man in uniform saluting, and an underwater diver standing at attentiion are at the center of a collage consisting also of a yellowed sheet of music, a blue square, a pink triangle, and a red triangle

5. Tell stories

Society currently places value on a creative entity (the “things” we create when we design). Those things—websites, user interfaces, presentations, brand materials—are the output of creation. But if AI can make an unlimited supply of things, how much value will be placed on them in the future? How will designers provide value amid an ample supply of AI-generated output? I would argue that they will do it through storytelling. Stories are the composition of what is extraordinary, human, and valuable (we value those things that connect us as humans) and designers who can tell stories through their work will future-proof their careers.

A photograph of a yellowed postcard, the torso of a statue, and a yellowed ticket stub are at the center of a collage also consisting of a purple circle and a pink square.

6. Capitalize on unique qualities

In the future, a shiny, pixel-perfect website won’t cut it for a portfolio. If AI can replicate it, it will no longer stand out. To get to the next phase of the designer evolution, it's not a matter of “reskilling,” but of capitalizing on your unique strengths or expanding your more human areas of expertise Those areas that have been a quick blip in a job interview will be areas of focus when teams are looking for designers who can transcend what AI will automate.

Designers have a treasure trove of unrecognized human-centric skills hidden by the perceived skills they need for the job. They are the hobbies, curiosities, and experiences, that are both related and unrelated to design, part of what makes us human, and certainly a part of what can make us valuable and effective designers in the future:

A medical illustration showing the muscles of a male body and a black-and-white photograph of a white man seated at a switchboard are at the center of a collage also consisting of a green circle, a purple square, a blue circle, and a red triangle.

What my mom said about jobs in the arts changing with technology is true. As machines get better at being machines, our roles will evolve and expand to focus on more of the human aspects of our work. We’ll need to pick apart the dimensions of our humanness and begin applying that to our evolution as designers so we can drive our destinies and help create the future of what we believe our industry should be. But, if the speed of innovation is indeed doubling every six months, we must start doing it today.

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