Organizations big and small, as well as individual creators, are – we hope – pondering the ethical and legal implications of AI. But what about AI as the source of creative inspiration? Is that a slippery slope or a safe bet? What if an organization doesn’t have the resources to outsource and is tempted to turn to AI for help? These are questions we ask ourselves every day at GRAPHEK, and while we don’t use AI for creative purposes, we know that some of our colleagues and clients are considering it and may be curious as to how we – tasked with being our clients’ creative inspiration every day – view AI.

For GRAPHEK Art Director and Data Visualization Specialist Sarah Gaydos, the irony she finds in looking to AI for inspiration is that it could easily lead to things all starting to look the same; if two people type in the same search terms to the same AI generator, what will the result be?

“Just as a Google search pre-populates as you’re typing – and lets you know you’re not the first to search that question,” Sarah said, “I fear the same with AI. My work is so dependent on making an impact on an audience through emotion, and I don’t believe AI can emulate emotion. For topics that could be more controversial or sensitive, I don’t think AI is capable of capturing the nuances and intricacies of what an organization needs to convey.”

Deborah Zak, communications and engagement senior manager for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP), shares similar concerns and, as a result, hasn’t turned to AI for inspiration or creation. Remembering the “garbage in, garbage out” mantra of computer scientists, she sees the information source as a primary problem with AI; while there is a lot of good, factual information online, there is also a lot of incorrect junk, and AI processes it all the same.

“For every communication, there’s an audience, the person who’s writing the message, and the message itself,” she added. “Being an effective writer depends on having empathy for and understanding of your audience – and while AI could take in data about feelings, it cannot be on the pulse of the moment. What my audience thought and felt about a topic yesterday may not be where they are today.”

So where do we turn instead? At GRAPHEK, we lean on team brainstorming; sharing and defending insights; investigating visual attributes that apply to target audiences; experimenting with patterns, textures, and photos; testing viability of use and application; and checking word clouds and synonyms for connections, visiting Pinterest, or looking at stock patterns and photos for concept ideas. Topical research can also provide a lot of insights into how and where an issue has been covered and illustrated, as can scanning news reports – from both conservative and liberal sources – for projects with heavy-hitting topics, like #MeToo or Black Lives Matter.

For NABP, a recent cover story focused on the opioid epidemic and the shift in this decades-long health crisis. “We wanted to convey its serious tone but not in a defeatist way, and I had far more faith in the team at GRAPHEK being able to connect with our audience than I would have with AI,” Zak added.

Our designers also sketch fledgling concepts on paper, but even if you don’t think of yourself as artistic, getting some rough thumbnails on paper can uncover what might work far more quickly than digging too deeply into one not-quite-right concept. Ultimately, you don’t need a perfect illustration; you just need an idea that can be supplemented or manipulated ethically, legally, and easily with stock photography or illustrations for which you purchase the license and rights.

Prior to chatting with us about AI, Zak decided to “test” AI by asking for an overview of the NABP Annual Meeting. The result was certainly fast, but the text contained several factual errors and left out the main focus of the meeting. Further, it was written in a style completely unlike the one her association uses.

“Rather than having to rewrite such text, I’d rather brainstorm with my team, using our annual meeting theme and reflecting on our association president’s priorities for the coming year,” she said. “For article headlines, maybe we’ll dip into an online thesaurus for word ideas or see what we’ve done in the past. I may use a stock photograph that inspires me to change a headline, but I stay true to my tone and message in a way I don’t believe AI can. If time or budget is short, one option is to refresh and revamp something we’ve produced in the past; repurposing with a fresh interpretation sometimes just makes more sense.”

Looking forward, Zak asks a question we should all be considering: What happens if we all rely so much on AI that we stop contributing new, fresh content from which AI can pull?