I recently had a job which did not go well.  Eight weeks in, I was mired in sketch revisions and being asked to start over for the fourth time and so I decided to cut my losses and walk.  When I shared the experience, most replies I received were from folks commiserating that, unfortunately, that’s how it goes sometimes.  But one reply was a bit of an outlier in asserting a good practice going forward was to produce my sketches with A.I. as this would have saved me dozens of hours on this particular project and to do otherwise is bad business.

Elsewhere, an artist was recently replaced from some covers when people raised concerns about the work being A.I.  As many noted in the following discussions, the artist in question can clearly draw, so why would they do something like this?

Talking about A.I. isn’t something that I particularly enjoy.  As one of the names on the infamous Midjourney list and somebody who has made a living through commercial art for nearly two decades, the subject is very personal to me. So it is hard to talk about this topic without getting into emotional soapboxing about the ethics and legality of all of it.  I take those things very seriously and I personally feel there shouldn’t be much more to say on the subject.  But I can see that others won’t always share these feelings when they can seek their own benefit instead.  So I’m going to talk about an issue which I think it much more practical and pragmatic and perhaps more neutral.  And that is: I think A.I. is a poison to the creative process.  I think it makes your work worse and makes you less interesting and less employable.  And that’s what I think is worth talking about today.

I’ve spent most of my career working as a freelancer, but I’ve also been an art director and a teacher.  I’ve had practical experience engaging with other folks’ work in different capacities either trying to hire them or trying to help them get hired.  While quality and consistency are extremely important in making an illustrator hirable, having a distinct voice is essential for a robust career. Particularly over the long term.  While style-chameleon artists were common in the era of in-house illustration departments at advertising firms, the current landscape rewards artists whose work is memorable and contributes something unique.  Every artist that you love does something in their work that belongs to them.  That’s why you know and remember them.  That’s why you can spot their work in a crowd.  And that’s why their work has premium value to a client.

Beyond this, all visual solutions begin with answering the “what” and “how” of delivering the client’s message.  Render and surface style tends to take all the credit, but it is the ability to convey message and feeling through design and storytelling that elevates an image and builds a meaningful connection with the viewer.

Some people, in defense of generative A.I., will claim that A.I. builds from influences the same as human beings do.  This is, to me, the first indication that I’m talking to somebody who either does not understand how A.I. works, how human creativity works, or most likely both.  Something that needs to be clearly understood is that A.I. has no intelligence.  It does not “think”.  It is a predictive text program that simulates human expression by ingesting unfathomable amounts of data and trying to replicate that data.  It does not know and can not know what meaning its outputs have.  Further, it has no desire and no emotion to motivate action or decisions.  It simply runs a program and assembles pixels or words to match what seems most like other correct pixels and words in its vast data set.  It aggregates.  It produces averages.

Humans, obviously, do not create like this.  Humans have intentions and purpose to what we do.  These intentions are sometimes deep, sometimes shallow, sometime clear, and sometimes nebulous.  But we always have emotion and thought connected to what we make.  What we create is guided by intent colliding with discovery, and these two states feed each other.  And the influence that we draw from existing work is not an analysis of pixels, but an emotional response to how that work makes us feel.  Even in analytical study of form or anatomy, our brains do not operate like computer programs.  While committing information to memory, we also interpret and seek to understand and this affects how that information is later able to be used.  Because we are each an individual, infinitely complex being, our different physiological, environmental, and cultural variations bring us to infinite different endpoints.  Like it or not, we all see the world slightly differently and our creative expressions reflect this.

It has become standard to describe A.I. as a tool.  I argue that this framing is incorrect.  It does not aid in the completion of a task.  It completes the task for you.  A.I. is a service.  You cede control and decisions to an A.I. in the way you might to an independent contractor hired to do a job that you do not want to or are unable to do.  This is important to how using A.I. in a creative workflow will influence your end result.  You are, at best, taking on a collaborator.  And this collaborator happens to be a mindless average aggregate of data.

To some, the prospect of collaborating with the sum average of all artists is apparently an attractive prospect.  Maybe you feel you are below average in some areas and the A.I. will therefore raise the quality of those areas.  But every percent that you hand over to the A.I. is a percent less of your unique voice, perspective, and intention.  And for folks who use A.I. generations wholesale, that comes out to a 100% loss of anything personal or unique that they might bring.

I’m going to shoehorn in a short sideroad here.  I’ve also been thinking about the disruption business model embraced by tech companies and startups.  Maybe I’m over my skis in this point, but it seems to me that the cycle generally goes: 1. create a tech substitute for an existing industry.  2. Back this with venture capital funding so deep that massive losses can be sustained for years and years. 3. Aggressively compete against an existing industry which can not afford to operate at a loss for extended periods of time. 4. the existing industry is undercut until it falters or outright fails.  5. The disruptor(s), now having captured the market for the given industry, raise prices and reduce services to achieve profitability.  I think about this every time I sit through a commercial on the Amazon Prime account that I’m already paying to use.  Apply this strategy to A.I. and creative professions.  These programs are designed to undercut working artists with fast, cheap, and “good enough” until work is devalued to the point that artists are forced out because they can’t make a living.  After that, with untold amounts of money lost by the tech companies giving away this service to drive actual artists out of business, the companies that own these programs will have effectively bought the industry.  From there, they are then in a position to charge whatever they want for their shitty product because it has become the most viable option, with all of the money now going to them.  It doesn’t have to go this way, but this is the logical path to profitability.

Given all of this, I can not personally see anything attractive about using these programs in any capacity.  Though they might dramatically speed up or replace parts of a workflow, the short and long term costs are appalling to me.  It is removing my own hand, the single most valuable asset I possess, from the creation of my work.  Even used for prelim work or “inspiration” as I’ve heard other folks occasionally say, I see it as contracting out something crucially important to the lowest bidder.  The early stages set in motion everything that follows.  They are what the entire creative work is built around.  To hire that out to a robot is to value the robot’s decisions above my own, existing only to paint-by-numbers a design that I did not create.  And I believe outsourcing segments of the workflow also degrades one’s abilities, making you more dependent on the service.  So if you value your mind, spirit, and vision at all as important components to your work, this should be a non-starter.  And if you don’t value those things, you might consider another line of work altogether, because that is what makes an artist’s career possible.

If there is a button one can push that spits out images and it is available to everybody, why on earth would any creative professional push that button?  Clients don’t need to hire you to push it.  They can do that themselves.  The central lie behind these programs is that they are meant for artists.  They’re not.  We don’t need them and using them only hurts us.  What our clients really need from us is what the A.I. button cannot and never will be able to give: a  human expression in all its flawed, beautiful glory.