Since the introduction of DALL-E 2 and ChatGPT, there was a good amount of hand-wringing about AI technology – a few of it justified.

It’s true that the technology’s future is unclear. There is great debate about the ethics of using existing artwork, images and content to coach these AI products, and concern about what industries it’s going to displace or change. And it seems as if an AI arms race between corporations like Microsoft and Google is already underway.

And yet as an industrial designer and professor, I’ve found AI image generation programs to be a unbelievable option to improve the design process.

They don’t replace the priceless insights and significant considering skills I’ve accrued from years of experience. But they do spark creativity and expand the range of what’s possible with the products my students and I design.

A peek behind the design curtain

Industrial design involves creating on a regular basis objects, with a specific deal with their form and performance. Industrial designers have a hand in anything from furniture and consumer electronics to accessories and apparel.

A typical design process involves numerous research and talking to consumers about their needs. From there, designers brainstorm ideas and sketch them out, followed by the prototyping and fabrication stage. Finally, the objects get refined and manufactured.

During the early stages of brainstorming, designers spend lots of time with their sketchbooks, getting inspired by their immediate environment, by history books and by their very own experiences. The web also plays a giant role – it’s where designers collect a lot of the pictures they use to create inspiration boards. Famously, Jonathan Ive, who designed many iconic Apple products, checked out luxury watches as inspiration for the Apple Watch, using the “crown” – normally used to wind a mechanical watch and set the time – as an input device to permit users to scroll through content.

AI has given designers like myself the power to generate images just based on an easy text prompt. Tools like DALL-E or Midjourney allow us to input abstract concepts and switch them right into a flood of images.

Enter any sentence – regardless of how crazy – and also you’ll receive a set of unique images generated only for you. Want to design a teapot? Here, have 1,000 of them. Some could have a dinosaur shape; others could also be made from mashed potatoes.

While only a small subset of them could also be usable as a teapot, they supply a seed of inspiration that the designer can nurture and refine right into a finished product.

From nostalgia to a tissue box

Perhaps a handful of those 1,000 teapot images allow a designer to conceive of a brand new, unexpected shape that is simpler to carry, more economical to fabricate or more beautiful to have a look at. Generative AI can facilitate the brainstorming process, however it’s still the designer’s responsibility to make the alternatives that ultimately result in products that enrich people’s lives.

Recently, I actually have found myself using AI image generators like DALL-E and Midjourney to explore complex ideas that could be difficult or time-consuming to articulate and channel right into a physical product. For example, for one project, I desired to create objects that basically connected people, in a deep way, to a spot they’d visited or lived in – versus the refrigerator magnet souvenirs that tourists often find yourself buying.

So I made a decision to design a set of small household objects to be sold to tourists visiting the small colonial town of Antigua, Guatemala, just a couple of miles from where I grew up. I wanted the objects to elicit nostalgia concerning the town – and maybe encourage those that purchased them to need to return.

I started by prompting DALL-E for tabletop objects that were nostalgic. The results were hilarious and unexpected. I received images of objects that looked sad, like erasers and a tissue box with a frown. It had taken my prompt very literally.

Then I got more specific, inserting “Antigua” into my prompts. The results began including iconic symbols of the town – the volcanoes that surround it, the cobblestone streets, the colonial architecture.

In the left column are images generated by OpenAI’s DALL-E when the writer prompted it to provide you with nostalgic desktop objects. The middle columns represent refined inputs for tabletop objects that represent town of Antigua. The column on the suitable are composites created by the writer before proceeding with the standard design process.
Juan Noguera, CC BY-SA

After somewhat sketching, I narrowed down the outcomes further by inputting “tissue boxes” and “eruption of tissue.”

From there, I continued fooling around in my sketchbook and eventually created a Photoshop mock-up of a tissue box shaped just like the Volcán de Agua, or “Water Volcano,” which lies south of town.

I then used my traditional design skills to create a 3D computer drawing of it – also referred to as a “CAD model” – using actual terrain data from the volcano, and fabricated a completely functional and manufacturable object.

3D model created of a volcano-topped tissue box based on the AI-generated images and the author's own sketches that resulted from them.
A 3D model of a volcano-topped tissue box based on AI-generated images and the writer’s ensuing sketches.
Juan Noguera, CC BY-SA

Continuing with the volcano theme, I made a decision to create a companion object of the neighboring Volcán de Fuego, or “Fire Volcano,” which is continuously lively and erupting. Fire made me consider matches, and I prompted the AI to generate images of volcano-shaped matchstick holders.

The results weren’t great. But they were adequate to assist me imagine a small cast-iron object that might hold some stormproof matches, which I selected because when placed on the holder, they evoked a lava-filled eruption.

To me, the tissue box and matchbox holder are perfect homages to Antigua and all of the memories this place holds for me, good and bad. The fire volcano matchstick holder conveys excitement and adventure, while the tissue box evokes tears, longing and nostalgia.

Even though I made all the design decisions, the AI generator helped me navigate my abstract design goals.

It’s hard to say if I’d have landed on these prototypes by myself.

Prototypes of a volcano-themed tissue box and matchstick holder.
The tissue box, Agua, was modeled using the the terrain data of the actual volcano of the identical name.
Juan Noguera, CC BY

Opening recent creative doors

AI technology shouldn’t be going away anytime soon. As an educator, I consider it could be irresponsible to not explore, with my students, the ways during which it could possibly improve the design process.

In the autumn semester of the 2022-2023 academic yr, I had my graduate students on the Rochester Institute of Technology use AI image generation to develop their very own products. The results were impressive, with students creating an electrical violin, a chair inspired by fruit and shoes made out of fungus. They all used AI another way, but all of them noted the way it led them down an unexpected path.

Prototype of a furturistic-looking electric violin.
An electric violin designed by Rochester Institute of Technology graduate student Jayden Zhou.
Jayden Zhou, CC BY-SA

When I read alarmist articles about this recent technology, I’ll sometimes think back to the early days of 3D modeling systems and the way some people thought they might replace designers and artists. Those fears were ultimately dispelled, and designers never went back to the big blueprints and drafting boards of old.

Just as Google could make it easier for a journalist to conduct research for an article or find someone to interview, I consider AI can function a priceless wellspring of inspiration within the designer’s toolbox.

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