Here’s my message for those of you who think the robot revolution isn’t going to change the design industry: think again. In just two years, Toronto-based startup Looka has created custom AI generated logos for nearly 5.5 million customers. Those logos, based on the moodboards of users, are delivered in under 30 seconds for half the price of what a human designer might charge.
But that’s not to say automation is going to put us all out of a job. Artificial intelligence is still in its infancy; just take a look at this image recognition glitch that mistakes everything for a toaster, or sift through researcher Janelle Shane’s collection of neural network weirdness. The same goes for other emerging technologies like virtual reality, cryptocurrency, and gene editing. But as new technologies continue to advance, the design industry will need to grow and evolve along with it.
According to design educator Anastasiia Raina, it’s not too early to begin considering what the roles of designers might be in a future where tasks like layout and production are completely automated. What would “human-centered design” mean in a future where our client-partners are robots, or even non-human lifeforms?
This is a question Raina poses in her new undergraduate course at RISD titled Design in the Posthuman Age. The curriculum follows the lines of inquiry generated by designers and futurists before her—theorists like Cyborg Manifesto’s Donna Haraway or Dunne & Raby, authors of Speculative Everything. To Raina, Posthuman Design is not so much an aesthetic as a design methodology with roots in Postmodernism.
We sat down with Raina to talk about developing a structure for her course, the importance for creating empathy for the Other through design, and just what, exactly, “post-human design” actually means.
How would you describe Posthumanism, and how does it relate to traditional graphic design?
Posthumanism refers to a critique of Humanism, emphasizing a change in our understanding of the self and its relation to the natural world, technology, biotechnology, and, in my research work, design and artifacts.
The Great Chain of Being serves as an excellent illustration of the fact that our understanding of the world and of design has always been shaped by the act of elevating man over the nonhuman realm on a hierarchical scale. Protagoras’s “Man” as the “measure of all things” is at the core of design ethos, and is echoed in Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man or Corbusier’s Modular Man. All of these examples represent a “normative” body as a universal calibration standard.
“We are gradually becoming aware that man is not the center of the universe, and that we need to expand our understanding of what it means to be human today.”
Following this line of thought, you can see how these notions seep into all fields of design. At times, they are even disguised as “human-centered design,” with an oversimplified goal of solving problems through a “human” perspective.
Design is founded on the understanding of the human as a discrete, individual subject. However, a modern understanding of biology and our relationship with advanced technology, along with a recognition of the historical injustices that have marginalized certain voices, are beginning to call into question the centrality of human beings as it’s traditionally understood in the natural order.
The notion of what it means to be human in the 21st century no longer reflects the ideas of 18th-century Humanism. We are gradually becoming aware that man is not the center of the universe, and that we need to expand our understanding of what it means to be human today to include the perspectives of people who continue to struggle to be considered fully human: women, queers, post-colonialists, persons with disabilities.
Moreover, recent advances in technology are forcing us to develop a paradigm and a discourse over rights that may even expand the definition of “human” to apply to synthetic organisms containing artificial intelligence, as well as to genetically engineered life forms. If Humanism at its core is exclusionary and perpetuates binary notions of the human and the Other, Posthumanism deconstructs any ontological hierarchy. It created a multidimensional network of beings entangled with other beings.
Is there a Posthuman aesthetic?
As we develop a more nuanced understanding of the relationships between technology, society, and non-human worlds, we become acutely aware of our all-too-human nature. Our human-centrism and exceptionalism is now juxtaposed with the incredible capabilities of other species and algorithmic intelligences. Even when we try to make a leap to embody non-human perspectives, we recognize our inability to escape human-centrism. I think this exact failure to embody other perspectives is an important safeguard from false empathy. It’s also an imposition of our personal understanding of other entities, instead allowing for the space and the possibility to imagine other types of intelligence that are completely different from our own.
Today, artificial intelligence-based machines are presenting paintings at Art Basel, writing the next Game of Thrones books, and curating exhibitions at Tate. With A.I. increasingly able to automate the design process, how do we develop a visual method that resists creative reductionism?
“I see Posthumanism as a methodology: a conceptual framework that can be applied to the field of graphic design.”
Human design with all of its imperfections and flaws is an important distinguishing component in the age of technology, and it needs to be made visible in the design work that we produce. Faced with machines that outperform humans in a variety of tasks, we are forced to re-examine the roles and design methods for the Posthuman epoch and develop radically human creative approaches to pave the way for formal experimentation in the age of the algorithm.
A key component of the Posthuman aesthetic is therefore an insertion of the human element of unpredictability and absurdity into technocratic cultural paradigms. I see Posthumanism as a methodology: a conceptual framework that can be applied to the field of graphic design to develop methods and strategies that allow us to co-navigate the constantly evolving design landscape.
What sparked your interest in this concept?
I have always been interested in issues of gender and biopolitics. In my second year of graduate school, my thesis work began to cohere around the central idea of what it means to be human amid revolutions in biology and big data. While I was puzzling over these questions, the philosopher Rosi Braidotti was invited to speak at Yale and delivered a pair of lectures entitled “Memoirs of a Posthumanist,” and “Posthuman, All Too Human.” In those lectures she said, “We are all in this together, but we are not one. Not until we all can be fully considered human. Women, gay, post-colonialists, animals, plants, all unite!”
While working on my MFA thesis, entitled Posthuman Polymythology, I visited a biogenetics lab. I was motivated by the research on gene editing, and I started working with DNA as an artistic medium, translating the text of my thesis into its unique nucleic acid fingerprint or DNA code. My goal was to, in a way, reverse engineer the process that creates organisms from the genetic code. By creating a synthetic DNA string from the text of my thesis, I was interested in developing a transgenic organism that expresses the information contained in my thesis. I was reimagining a book as a continuously evolving being, rather than its conventional immutable form.
“How would you reenact typography from the perspective of a Black Hole?”
How do you translate this kind of speculative path of study into something accessible and concrete for viewers, both in your class and your own design practice?
No matter how far we venture out in our research we always bring our inquiry into a familiar framework of graphic design: typography, posters, books, video, VR Processing, web, and sound. At the same time, we are taking the opportunity to rethink established formats from a non-human perspective. Some of the examples from the class included visualizing a collaboration between drug-resistant bacteria and artificial intelligence. What does that look like? Can we speak about the possibility of creating new visuals without pre-existing references? Armed with the latest research on gravitational singularity, how would you reenact typography from the perspective of a Black Hole?
In my own practice, I recognize the limitation of a graphic image and the demands and expectations we should make on visual communication. After all, we still function in the original design and education framework set by Modernists. As educators, we are compelled to take urgent action to re-think the pedagogical principles underlying Modernist design, and re-engineer these approaches to adapt to the entanglements and antagonisms within our contemporary condition.
What’s next for you in terms of continuing this class and your own research?
In the short-term future, I see myself continuing to develop a pedagogical methodology with the focus on interfacing art with science at its cutting edge. Further contextualizing my work in relationship to recent biotechnological discoveries through physical objects and materials remains an active pursuit. I am interested in exploring the aesthetics of technologically-mediated bodies through computer generated forms, synthetic materials, and the incorporation of biomaterials into the artistic vernacular.
“For designers, [the classroom] is a space for encouraging radical thought, free from the pressures, coercion, and limitations of commercial design.”
I am also working on developing the next stage of my visual research, based on exploring equipment from a biology lab as a tool and an art object for creating synthetic forms endowed with a kind of life. To this purpose, I would like to integrate a variety of digital fabrication techniques and combine them with biological materials such as proteins and DNA. This will be later applied in a class where students will have the opportunity to examine various ways of materializing this relationship through their work.
As Bell Hooks says in Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, “The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy.” It is safe to add that, for us designers, it is also a space for encouraging radical thought, free from the pressures, coercion, and limitations of commercial design. I am interested in facilitating spaces where we build an understanding of our contemporary issues through a multidisciplinary approach.
I hope to continue to conduct my classes in ways that value research and formal exploration outside of one’s immediate area of expertise. I look forward to inviting thinkers and practitioners from art, design, sciences, and the humanities to invent hybrid collaborative practices that help us face technological futures and new natures, and encourage us to critically participate in the transformative impact design has on our reality.