weekly feature | Mar 1, 2023 |
How will ChatGPT change the design industry?

Shopping the Modern Antiquarian is like taking a well-curated trip back through time. The site, founded by publishing veteran Margaret Schwartz, features a multitude of beautiful products steeped in history, from a 19th-century French wooden bench to a 20th-century black glass cocktail table. But hidden among the vintage wares is a very modern secret. A casual shopper, upon clicking on, say, this hand-painted Tibetan cabinet, can peruse a 135-word product description of the item’s “hand-painted details,” “rich and deep red background” and “unusual hinges” that bring a “touch of originality and authenticity to the piece.”

That in-depth description was written—at least in part—by artificial intelligence, specifically ChatGPT, a tool Schwartz is using to speed up the process of creating product descriptions. “It saves a ton of time because the descriptions are something that I always struggle with, and I feel like I’m trying to reinvent the wheel every time,” she says. “There are only so many ways you can describe a Louis XVI chest of drawers.”

You’ve probably already heard of ChatGPT. Launched last November by Microsoft-backed startup OpenAI, the free (for now) chatbot has quickly become the most talked-about technology to debut in years, garnering 100 million users in two months—a number Instagram took two years to reach—and earning headlines around the world. Powered by massive datasets of written works from the internet, ChatGPT uses deep learning to create surprisingly sophisticated answers to questions or prompts—like, for example, “write a description of a hand-painted Tibetan cabinet.”

In addition to describing antiques, ChatGPT can compose sonnets in iambic pentameter, debug computer code and write music with corresponding lyrics. It can even dole out design advice. For example, I asked ChatGPT if I should get a bed skirt, and it replied with a thoughtful, three-paragraph answer outlining some pros (good for storage) and cons (difficult to clean).

For years, there’s been a low level of concern in the design industry (like most others) that artificial intelligence could one day put human professionals out of a job. Despite its quick and practical bed skirt advice, ChatGPT is not about to replace the likes of Bunny Williams, at least not yet. But with its ability to generate content, the technology is already having some impact—it may be poised instead to disrupt design writers. BOH took a look at the effect of ChatGPT on the design world, investigating its practical strengths and limitations.

Because ChatGPT is still relatively new, designers are experimenting with the system to see how they can improve processes and increase efficiency. At the moment, the most obvious usage seems to be satisfying the never-ending need for marketing content like blog posts, Instagram captions and email newsletters.

California-based interior designer Shannon Ggem is a case in point. Ggem was an avid blogger from 2010 to 2014, but struggled to come up with new content for her audience. She is currently working on revamping her website and blog, and is using ChatGPT to generate copy about wellness and biophilia—and to target SEO to help it perform better. “I can say [to ChatGPT], ‘Write a blog from Shannon Ggem about biophilia in the kitchen,’ and it’ll spit out a whole thing for me using my very own voice, which is pretty incredible,” says Ggem. “It’s not plagiarizing my old blog—it’s just using words that sort of sound like me. Churning out fresh content that is just versions of the same thing I’ve said over and over in talks I’ve given or blogs I’ve written just to please the [Google] algorithm isn’t how I want to spend my time.”

In addition to writing copy about specific topics, designers are using ChatGPT to field day-to-day requests and mundane tasks around the office. Christine Gentile of New York–based firm Ashbourne Designs used ChatGPT to source a list of concerns parents have when it comes to designing a nursery, a request she received from a furniture company. “It worked out great, and I was able to come up with a concise answer without stressing over it and taking a lot of time out of my day to write something,” says Gentile. Her firm is also using the platform to outline the responsibilities of their social media manager, a task ChatGPT is well-suited for because of its technical nature.

Designers can also utilize ChatGPT for market research, generating information about their ideal client profile based on the current market. On a recent episode of the podcast Designer Discussions, host and interior designer Maria Martin asked ChatGPT what type of person is looking for an interior designer who specializes in new-build construction in Austin; within seconds, she was given a breakdown of her ideal client demographic. “So you can start working through some of your marketing messaging,” says Martin. “Messaging is everybody’s problem right now, and [ChatGPT] can clean it up pretty easily because you can start by saying, ‘Can you rewrite my bio and make it more persuasive?’” Martin explains how you can ask the system to make the new copy appeal to your business’s target audience, reviewing the original content and making it more SEO-friendly.

It’s clear that designers are still in the experimental phase with ChatGPT. But unlike tech’s last next big thing—the complex world of NFTs and cryptocurrency—the tool is accessible for designers, motivating them to actually play with it to see how the platform can improve their businesses. In other words: It’s early, but ChaptGPT has momentum.

All these examples highlight ChatGPT’s ability to save designers time on tasks they would rather not do themselves. But this also raises an age-old debate about artificial intelligence potentially replacing human labor. After all, designers do sometimes hire humans to write blogs, product descriptions and email blasts—will ChatGPT eliminate the need for design writers en masse? For now, it seems like the consensus is no, partially due to the software’s current limitations.

ChatGPT does a great job drawing information from its source data to generate thorough responses to difficult prompts, but the technology has significant blind spots. For one, it sometimes gets simple facts wrong, and it’s not great at analyzing data to draw new conclusions (ChatGPT can’t tell you what color will be hot this fall). But maybe more to the point, the writing that the tool generates—while impressive for a bot—often requires a little finessing to feel publishable.

This was evident when I asked ChatGPT to “write me an article for House Beautiful on why brutalism was coming back into style.” The copy it churned out felt stiff and somewhat generic. It was dense in research and history on the topic, but lacking in concrete examples and of course, ChatGPT hadn’t interviewed any experts on the topic. To turn it into a House Beautiful–worthy piece would take a significant amount of work (and fact-checking). In a similar vein, Schwartz uses ChatGPT to write product descriptions, but she still has to tweak the copy to sound more like herself. “The language can be a bit flowery for me, and I tend to write a little bit too seriously,” says Schwartz. “So it’s actually a good balance for me to edit it and make sure that it makes sense, that it’s accurate and that it sounds like my voice.”

The platform’s inability to mimic a unique human voice thus far has writers like Kelly Dawson, deputy editor at Apartment Therapy, feeling at ease about the fate of their careers. Dawson freelanced for years at publications like Architectural Digest and Dwell, writing up to 40 stories a month, and believes it’s always better to welcome new technology rather than resist it, but she is still confident that her voice as a writer will resonate more than content created by ChatGPT. She also believes there is room for writers to use the technology as a tool when writing stories revolving around lists sometime in the future. “I think there’s a way to collaborate with the technology, and it’s in our best interest to use it when it improves as entertainment for readers, more so than as a way to solely inform them,” says Dawson.

Design writer and freelancer Kathryn O’Shea-Evans tested an AI-writing website and found it lacking. “The resulting article was completely unreadable,” says O’Shea-Evans. “It contained a smattering of SEO keywords and met the word count, but the writing was lifeless and nonsensical—the equivalent of letting your computer decorate a room: boring. I was ecstatic. There is nothing intelligent about artificial intelligence, at least when it comes to writing. My beloved career is safe!”

Designers tend to agree. “I don’t think [ChatGPT] can [replace design writers] unless they’re writing completely dry content that is almost technical-style writing,” says Ggem. “If you already have an established voice, there’s no way this will take that over, but I think it’s going to write a lot of people’s Instagram captions. For someone who doesn’t have time and doesn’t consider themselves a writer, it’s a wonderful and very convenient tool.”

ChatGPT is not going to make design writers completely obsolete, but it will likely shrink their pool of work to some degree. Schwartz is just one example of an industry professional opting for AI-generated copy over work done by a human freelancer—and odds are more and more will start to do the same. “ChatGPT is great because now if I’m drowning [in work], which happens every year, I won’t have to reach out to someone—I can just do it myself through ChatGPT,” says Schwartz. “It saves tons of time—it’s a fraction of the amount of time that I would spend agonizing over a description.”

It’s too early to say how much ChatGPT will impact the interior design industry, but it’s clear that businesses are already using the technology to speed up processes and everyday administrational tasks. And future versions of ChatGPT are only going to get better. The software is currently still technically in beta mode, with significant upgrades (and price hikes) teased for the coming year. The broader AI landscape is also developing quickly, with new tools debuting seemingly every day.

But even if ChatGPT someday can replace human writers in all their skill and authenticity, it may come up against a limitation that stems from human nature itself: Some people still want the content they create to come from the heart, not a computer.

Recently, Schwartz used ChatGPT to write a speech for Modern Antiquarian’s fifth anniversary party, just to see what the AI would churn out. “It was amazing—way better than anything I could have written,” says Schwartz. But she didn’t use it. “I felt it needed to come entirely from me as the most sincere show of appreciation for my guests,” she says. “I threw the party as a thank you; a ChatGPT-written speech was ultimately not from my heart, and it very much needed to be.”

Homepage photo: ©Arnav Pratap Singh/Adobe Stock

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