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AI and Surface Pattern Design

What are the benefits and drawbacks of using AI (artificial intelligence) in pattern design?

Published on:

May 18, 2023

AI and Surface Pattern Design

Artificial Intelligence, aka AI, is currently a hot topic in the creative world. Many artists have voiced their concern over the use of AI and images produced by it, due to being a completely new technology and what some might also say: ideology. Despite those concerns, there is also an increasing number of people who are embracing this new tool and excited about the possible prospects it may bring into creative industries.

My name is Heidi Vilkman, I am a licensed freelance pattern designer. In this blog article I am looking at the pros and cons of using AI as a design tool in surface pattern design and discussing what implications this new technology may have on our industry.

Dream Forest pattern by Heidi Vilkman

The benefits of AI in design

Undoubtedly the most obvious benefit of AI is its ability to create images incredibly quickly, and therefore cheaply. By referencing existing materials available in the public (and sometimes private) domains, AI creates new images using the given (text or image) prompts as its brief. A company, which is on a tight budget may be tempted to use AI instead of a professional designer, because of cost implications and the speed of production. Considering the billions of reference images available on the web today, there is always the chance of AI coming up with a perfectly usable pattern design for one’s intended purpose. AI can also be used as a tool for creative problem solving, or for a concept exploration, to save time in terms of the final project, although this is far less useful for pattern design than for some other creative industries, such as photography and game design.

The disadvantages of AI in pattern design

There are several drawbacks with AI on surface pattern design. Here are a few points to consider.

Copyright issues

Due to unclear legislation, it can be difficult to establish a copyright ownership for an AI image. As the pattern design is referenced from various sources, it is difficult to claim full ownership of an image, when it hasn’t been created from scratch by one person. Many companies, who buy and licence pattern designs, want their legal bases covered when printing and selling their products to the public, and currently AI is in the grey area in regards to copyright. Having said that, I am certain that some companies and countries that are already ignoring copyright, won’t have a problem in utilising AI generated images for their financial gain. To them, if it makes financial sense, it will make sense. A pattern produced by AI from a copyrighted image (which can be used with some paid services) can violate the copyright terms of the original creator, and it is important that any use (reference or otherwise) will need to be cleared by the copyright owner - and properly compensated for. This is why more clarity and robust legislation is needed, if AI is to be used for commercial purposes in the industry in future.

Style and quality consideration

Even though AI is constantly developing, its process currently relies on accurate prompts or correct reference images in order to create a successful pattern design. Even when one references an existing image or style as a starting point for AI design, the process is far from perfect and oftentimes the results are wholly unsatisfactory. For example, AI assisted pattern creation apps like StarryAI and PatternAI claim to specialise in professional, seamless patterns for commercial use, in any style and colour one requires. However, here are a few pattern examples produced by the PatternAI app with my prompts, and you can immediately see the issue here.

AI generated pattern (by text prompt)

AI generated pattern (by text prompt)

Both examples are pretty unimaginative as well as poor quality renditions of the prompts, as well as actually having mistakes (badgers and foxes bodies merging or no tails on foxes) and would not work well in a professional application. Of course, it is possible to experiment with the prompts and improve the designs by feeding the AI more accurate information, but the results produced will still be more of a pot luck, rather than an informative choice or a result of a meaningful interaction.

In comparison, here are a few of my own designs on similar briefs. Beside the variety of the hand-drawn motifs, the majority of my patterns are also layered, which means that the colours, details and composition can be accurately and precisely altered if needed. This is what AI is still very much lacking in technical terms in pattern design. The precision, details, colour harmony and accuracy.

Fox Meadow repeat pattern by Heidi Vilkman

Under The Sea repeat pattern by Heidi Vilkman

Pattern making (and art) is a collaborative process

Perhaps one of the biggest problems for me personally about AI patterns is that the production completely dismisses the collaborative element of design. When I create custom patterns for my clients, the interaction between me and my client is a crucial part of the creative process. From the initial research and brainstorming session, to selecting motifs and colour palettes and eventually to assembling the pattern, communication and collaboration is at the centre of it all. I cannot see how simple writing of prompts into a computer can ever replace this magical process. Good pattern design tells a story, as it is born out of a creative process that has meaning, for both the designer, the client, as well as the end consumer.

Human creativity is part of our evolution

The organic hand drawn line is what makes us humans. From the earliest cave paintings, humans have used their desire to depict the world, regardless of their artistic ability. The current creative society is an evolution of thousands of years of knowledge and learning. Every artistic era and movement is part of our art history, which wasn’t created in an isolated bubble or a vacuum; every new piece of art references the art of the past. AI, despite its name, doesn’t have intelligence;  it does not consider or understand this evolutionary process. All it does is data processing of billions of reference images. It doesn’t care when, how and who created those artworks or in what context. It just processes data into images. Just writing that sentence leaves me all cold inside, and not how creating, or experiencing art, should make one feel.

Hand drawn equals unique work

We are all unique in our creativity; our way of interpreting the world comes from our own learning and life experiences. Every designer has their own creative style, which evolves and often changes during the span of their creative career. This style could be minimalist or maximalist, geometric or loose and organic. Some designers work with watercolours, some with digital stylus. But each creation is part of a unique process inside a human head, each line drawn informed by our personality. The line can be wobbly or straight, thick or thin, depending on what we are thinking and trying to achieve, and even who we are. This is completely unique to us humans and possible because of our capacity for intellectual and emotional thinking. AI can currently only reference existing materials, not create its own, completely original (drawn) line. There is no person behind it, there is no actual paintbrush.

Ethics of AI design

Obviously the ethical aspects of AI in the creative world raise questions. As often is the case, the technology is created first and the (ethical) legislative code afterwards. Our desire to make huge technological advances surpasses our desire to work in a holistic and ethical way. When there is a chance to make financial gains from a particular technology in a consumerist world, it is difficult for some people to see why ethics should matter. However, to have a fairer world, where designer’s profession and skills are properly valued, the ethical considerations of AI are crucial, particularly when it is still in its relative infancy. I am sure the legislation will develop and become clearer, the more prominent role AI design will have in the design industry.

The Future of AI design

Regardless of my and other designers’ feelings about AI, it is here to stay. The advances in artificial intelligence and related technology are part of human evolution and exist due to our constant need for expansion and exploration. It is impossible to foresee how useful AI will become and how much it will eventually affect the design world, including pattern design.

As history has shown us, every (creative) industry goes through changes; nothing remains the same for very long. Pattern design itself has changed a lot since the founder of the Arts and Crafts movement, William Morris, created his beautiful wall paper printing blocks out of wood in the 19th century. I’m sure Morris would be turning in his grave if he saw the CAD technology used in pattern design industry today and how easy it is to create patterns on the fly on an Ipad. There is no way to stop development of new technology and all we can try is to embrace it and use it as a tool for our benefit rather than to our demise. And speaking of Morris, his gorgeous, timeless repeat patterns are still in high demand, even with all the computer assisted designs flooding the market today.

I believe that even though AI will undoubtedly become more dominant in the industry, there will be a divide between companies that want cheap and quick AI produced patterns, and companies that appreciate human interaction, unique style and handmade quality in their products. Just like William Morris wanted quality art to be accessible to all, it is our challenge as designers to educate the public to understand what is involved in the creative process, and the importance of preserving the ideas and skills of the professionals in the industry.

Despite all my reservations, I believe we must learn to coexist with artificial intelligence in the design world. This can happen amicably, as long as we use AI as an assistive tool (rather than means to an end), are aware of its drawbacks and ethical issues, whilst we also protect and value the work, skills and the intellectual property of professional designers.

Hibiscus repeat pattern by Heidi Vilkman


Further reading:

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More blog posts:

Scandinavian Christmas Pattern Design
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