John Maeda Talks Art, Generative AI and Creativity

Phillip Maggs
Creative Director of New Horizons
Published4 Jan
TL;DR

How is AI influencing creatives and the industry as a whole? John Maeda, VP of Artificial Intelligence and Design at Microsoft, shared his experience and predictions about AI's transformative effect in an exclusive keynote at our /PROMPT Summit. Get a few quick takeaways and watch the entire session. You're in for a treat.

How will generative AI impact creativity?

If you work in the creative industry, chances are you’ve given this question some thought over the past year. Chances are you’ve been through a gamut of emotions too, from fear and skepticism to intrigue and excitement.

And you’re not alone—at our /PROMPT Summit, only 15.2% of attendees had no concerns about AI and the creative process, while 39.1% felt uneasy about privacy and ethical issues, 34.8% worried about the loss of human touch and emotional resonance, and 10.9% feared job displacement.

Thankfully, the legendary John Maeda, VP of Artificial Intelligence and Design at Microsoft, walked us through some of these concerns and shared advice to thrive as a creative in this new age.

Maeda is a Seattle native who's a blend of graphic designer, visual artist and computer scientist. Initially, a software student at MIT, his fascination with modernist master Paul Rand and designer Muriel Cooper led him to blend computational expression with traditional bookmaking—creating Reactive Books—now recognized as digital design classics that were some of the first explorations of interactive design.

I sat down with Maeda to get his thoughts on AI and creativity. Here’s an abridged Q&A from the session.

AI and Creativity: A Q&A With John Maeda

You’ve worked at the bleeding edge of art, design and technology for over 30 years. What keeps you interested and engaged?

I like to think of artists as innovators. It’s something I used to believe in, and now because of AI, I have to believe in it even more.

John Maeda
John MaedaVP of Artificial Intelligence and Design, Microsoft

I'm interested in why artists make art, especially right now. Artists make art in reaction to things. Artists are that kind of a contagion or that shell that creates a pearl once in a while. I like to think of artists as innovators. It’s something I used to believe in, and now I think because of AI, I have to believe in it even more.

Do you think the threat of disruption from generative AI—real or perceived—will lead to a reaction like a new renaissance? Have you seen anything like that emerging?

If you're in the business side of art, that's one thing. But for artists who make art, they're either going to be in the camp of, “Wow, I can make so much more art. I can sit here and use Midjourney and do all these things.” Versus, “I was making things that look like Midjourney artwork and now I don't get any jobs anymore as a commercial artist.”

You have the super artists, too, who are in a rare privileged position to make things for the Guggenheim or MoMA or whatever—and they get to play. Maybe someone will buy it, maybe someone won't. But it doesn't matter because they are living off of it.

For the people who think they need to evolve or fall behind—that is the growing category.

Your career has straddled academia, enterprises and small businesses. Where are you seeing the greater rates of innovation or excitement?

I think innovation is relative to what people believe they should be innovating. I think if you're in the pure tech sector, you're wondering what you can do with a few more trillion parameters or a few fewer trillion parameters.

Then, in the art world, you're waiting for Midjourney, version "whatever." It's like Photoshop. Photoshop 3 just came out, and you gotta have it. 3.5 comes out, and you have to get that. There’s that kind of thing happening.

I'm hearing from small business owners who are excited because they’re time or capital-strapped. Now they can use AI in their workflows to help them do work they can't afford to pay people for. The regular person trying to make ends meet and getting value out of it is a story I haven't been able to see so clearly.

There’s still so much confusion around generative AI. Could you help us demystify it a little bit?

I think what's hard right now is that this is a new kind of AI—pre-trained models like ChatGPT. We've never had access to this before.

So the way I explained it is that this new AI sensation, this new kind of girl band or boy band that suddenly arrived that people are screaming about. What is it?

Well, it's very simple. Two models have arrived at the same time at a mature level—similarity and completion. When you combine them, you get something very special that's close to the way humans work.

You fulfill Herbert Simon's prophecy, who described intelligence as two blades of scissors: Cognition and context.

The two models were never available together until last year.

  • The completion model (cognition) completes the sentence. When you let it complete the sentence without any grounding, it'll just give you a sentence, but without any context.
  • The similarity (context) model can search through unstructured data and find similar things that match my favorite food. It'll find all the different kinds of favorite foods and restaurants.

These two models are now working together at the same time. Currently, the similarity model isn't as popular, but it's probably where people should spend the most time.

Will AI eliminate entry-level jobs in the design industry?

A lot of entry-level jobs are going to go away like they always do with every new advancement. The question is how will we evolve and answer that.

John Maeda
John MaedaVP of Artificial Intelligence and Design, Microsoft

The phrase “entry-level jobs” is funny because it keeps changing. I remember entry-level graphic design might have been cutting up photographic paper and using an exacto knife and rubber cement to put it together. That was an entry-level job that changed because of desktop publishing.

A lot of entry-level jobs are going to go away like they always do with every new advancement. The question is how will we evolve and answer that. I like the phrase by retired General Eric Shinseki, ”If you don't like change, you're going to like irrelevance even less.”

We're in that world, which I have trained myself to be okay with. Laurels are okay. Rest isn’t. That’s something I live by.

How can creatives educate themselves to thrive?

Look for jobs where you can learn how to use AI to become more fluent because those will be the new entry-level roles. This is the problem with education today. It’s really good if the thing you’re learning hasn’t changed much. If you’re an English professor, you’re pretty good.

If you're a computer science or an illustration professor, these will get hit directly. The sad thing is that you're being paid to teach students with all your energy, so you're too tired to learn something new.

I noticed this in the digital era: You would hire a professor who was good at Photoshop 3. Four years later, they can only use Photoshop 3.5, not because they're lazy, but because they're tired. But all their students want to use Photoshop 7. Their education drains the people who are teaching and also limits the students who aren't getting the most advanced stuff.

Watch Maeda's Full Session on AI and Creativity

Personally, I could talk to John for hours, days even. But at the summit, we only had 30 minutes. For every intriguing detail, here's the recording in its entirety:

 
 
Catch All the /PROMPT Summit Sessions
Catch All the /PROMPT Summit Sessions

Catch All the /PROMPT Summit Sessions

Tune in to talks on AI strategy, leadership, workflows, collaboration and more with world-class creative experts from brands like Jasper, Wistia and Wise.

AI and Creativity Takeaways

If you watched the video, you’ll know I was blown away by what John had to say. I also need to book a time for that next tattoo. I keep returning to what he said about the potential loss of entry-level jobs—but you should only be concerned if you're not changing.

As creatives, we need to:

  • Embrace the change. We can’t put the genie back in the bottle. AI is here. It’s up to us to find ways to keep the humanity in how we do our work.
  • Learn by doing. Whether it’s Midjourney, DALL-E or another tool, be open to using AI in your workflows and design projects.
  • Make time to learn. If you’re managing a team of designers, they depend on you not just to lead but also to teach. Make time in your schedule for experimentation and upskilling.

Learn more about the future of AI

Like I said, there's so much to learn. We held our summit in the spirit of learning together. In the same spirit, here are a few more resources to explore:

Let's navigate this change together

The hand, the mind and the heart working together can create extraordinary things.

John Maeda
John MaedaVP of Artificial Intelligence and Design, Microsoft

In his SXSW speech, Maeda said, "The hand, the mind and the heart working together can create extraordinary things.” Right now, we're all learning how to blend these creative gifts with AI.

But there's only so much any one team can do on their own. Our AI experts can help you execute creative needs with AI, saving you time and resources in developing custom stock photos, creating brand illustrations and much more. Let us help you navigate this change.

Explore Superside’s AI-Enhanced Creative Services
Explore Superside’s AI-Enhanced Creative Services

Explore Superside’s AI-Enhanced Creative Services

See how our top-tier creatives can deliver high-quality, on-brand assets 30-60% faster with a little AI assistance.

Phillip Maggs
Phillip MaggsCreative Director of New Horizons
Phillip Maggs is the Creative Director of New Horizons at Superside. That means he's charged with developing cutting edge creative services, like our augmented reality (AR) and 3D design offering and our pilot program for AI-enhanced creative. In his own words, Phil is "good at new things." With decades under his belt as a creative technologist, there's no one we trust more to push Superside in new and exciting directions.
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