chasem.co

Figma announced a host of new AI-powered features this week at their annual conference, and they have been received by designers with both cheer and dismay.

Tools like the ones that were announced are showing up across the industry, but as the most popular tool for modern product design, Figma will make them commonplace, and we’ll soon be taking them for granted just like any other advancement in design tools over the past several decades.

Some folks are panicked, some are excited, and some are indifferent. I’m somewhere in the middle, but I do have concerns that are exacerbated by these new tools and capabilities.

To explain those concerns, I’ll draw a distinction between two types of AI-powered features that Figma announced this week:

  1. Using AI to eliminate or reduce the time spent on constructing designs and prototypes in Figma.
  2. Generating UI designs from scratch, based on a text prompt, using models trained on common product interfaces (and, in the future, the work created by Figma users, unless they opt out).

I’m excited for and have very few concerns about type #1, because the job of product designers is not to create Figma mockups—it’s to solve problems and ship software.

To the degree that new features allow us to spend less time creating ephemeral artifacts that are merely a stop on the way to a final destination, I’m sold.

Those features involve things like automatically wiring up prototypes, filling in a mockup with fake data, translating strings into other languages, automatic layer naming, generating placeholder images, etc. These are all good and helpful, and are geared towards saving designers time to spend on things that they are uniquely positioned poised to do.

But what about type #2, the feature that Figma labels in its UI as “Make designs”? This allows anyone to enter a prompt and have Figma create a mockup from scratch. In the future, the company plans to train their models on designs created by users.

Some are concerned that this type of feature might take jobs away from product designers, and some see it as simply another way to automate away the tedious parts of a designer’s job in order to give them more time to do what they do best.

I think it’s both, and/but I don’t think it’s because of AI.

There are many companies, and the number seems to be increasing, that are more than happy to turn the jobs of designers over to folks who are able to wield tools to produce a facsimile of what a designer is actually capable of.

For those that see the primary value of designers as producing interface mockups, the advent of new AI tools in the vein of Figma’s “make designs” button will absolutely seem like a viable replacement for the work of a designer. And this isn’t limited to AI—as design tools become more accessible and approachable to everyone (which I consider a net positive on the whole), the barrier to creating something that looks, on the surface, like the work of a designer is lowered.

Canva is an excellent example of how this is not strictly because of AI, but might certainly be accelerated by it. The commodification of design as a practice began long before the widespread availability of generative AI.

Product managers, engineers, and others are now able to produce designerly artifacts easier than ever before, and too many companies are willing to accept the sub-par solutions that result in order to cut costs and move faster.

Machines will not make our jobs obsolete, but corporations will, and they’ll use smarter and smarter machines as an excuse to do so.