The New Yorker ran an issue on AI this month, and one of the articles inside is by a programmer who has been wrestling with what ChatGPT means for his career and balancing the old paradigm of figuring out a problem for yourself through code vs. figuring out how to speak to AI to help develop that code faster. He talks about the steep learning curve he faced when starting out, and how persistence and determination help push through the hardest parts of learning that new language; how rewarding it is to sit back and think through a problem, then be able to write the code properly to solve it. It’s like painting or cooking or any one of a number of difficult skills that take time to master: there’s a particular satisfaction that comes with finishing that artwork or serving that food where everyone appreciates the craft. The successful completion of the struggle is what keeps us going. But now a bot seems to be able to do the same coding work without effort, in minutes.
Bodies of knowledge and skills that have traditionally taken lifetimes to master are being swallowed at a gulp. Coding has always felt to me like an endlessly deep and rich domain. Now I find myself wanting to write a eulogy for it.
The author is rightfully worried that his career will disappear if all we have to do is type a question into a box and have the box write the code for us. But he comes to realize that this new technology speeds up the drudgery of writing the code, and we’re still using our brains to solve problems; the box is helping by speeding up the process—and in that process, we’re learning a new kind of language: the translation. We have to learn the language the box needs to complete our requests properly. And you have to know how to think about programming, and understand what proper output is, to know how to ask the right questions.
I spent a lot of time in the late 90’s learning a couple of different languages through books; the first was a language called Lingo used by an application called Macromedia Director. I started using it after learning the basics in a continuing ed course at MICA and got good enough that my boss at the time (who was smart enough to know that the Web was the future, even if he was a lousy boss) hired me out to make an animated screensaver for a government agency. I read the Lingo book and learned enough to build a primitive randomizer to play different clips so that the screensaver showed something different each time it looped. When I was finished and my code worked, I was quietly stunned. A new world had opened up, the one my Dad had been telling me about (and which I resisted until college, when it became clear that this was the future) and I saw my place in it for the first time.
With that experience, I got my first web design gig. I learned some Perl first, and then PHP as I got further into producing my own sites. I was never completely fluent in either language—I couldn’t sit down and write a web application from scratch—but I could read and understand what things were doing, and I knew enough to fix things that were broken and add logic to change the behavior of the apps we worked on. And most importantly, I could talk to the programmers who could build things, which is a skill all on its own. I was very good at translating the concept to the people making the code.
Had I been a smarter man I would have focused solely on learning and mastering PHP, and I might have pursued a different career path. But my skills were more suited to UI/UX and I made a good living in that specialty for years until I burned out. Around that time I began to notice that the shop I worked for was leaning more heavily on templatized solutions: instead of estimating 80-100 hours for someone like me to generate two concepts, mood boards, and the designs to flesh out all of those requirements, they were finding templates they could modify to suit their needs and banking that extra billing as profit. What had once been a bespoke craft I’d trained myself to do was becoming commoditized, and I was lucky to get out when I did.
I don’t think AI is going to be able to take over art direction or brand creation anytime soon, and ChatGPT certainly can’t walk into a room and convince ten skeptical personalities to approve a concept or mediate a discussion; I’m thankful I’m not walking into programming or web design fresh out of school. And I’m extremely glad I’m not a writer by trade.
I sat down with my ChatGPT account last night and asked it to produce a couple different examples of PHP code to do simple tasks: create a form field to capture several inputs and write them to a text document; build a randomizer to display a different image on a page at reload, and write an AppleScript to resize an image. It wrote simple code that did exactly what I asked and worked flawlessly. I can see how asking it to build something with more functionality would be challenging, and require some iteration to learn how the AI needs to be asked, but it’s frightening how fast and easy the bot did its job. I’m going to practice my translation and see if I can make it do bigger better things.
I spent about three hours last night working on a project for one of Jen’s long-term clients, who’s asked us to help her with something new. Jen met her 22 years ago (!!) while working at a design studio. She’s kept in touch with us and we’ve worked on projects with her over the years, and she brought us a new and interesting assignment which will leverage our knowledge of Illustrator to the maximum. It’s not the most glamorous work but I’m strangely happy to have some side work coming in again. It’s been a long drought since I stepped back from web development but this is different enough that I like the challenge of a new problem to solve. The initial test run was somewhat tedious, but hopefully I can find a way to streamline the process and make things move faster.
Yesterday after lunch I found myself under a highway overpass in Washington DC with a can of spray paint can in my hand. We were doing an activity as part of a team retreat for work, and in one of the more inspired ideas for teambuilding I’ve ever experienced, we hired a guy to meet us with ten boxes of paint cans and show the uninitiated how to use them for street art. I’ve always used spray paint for projects but never really thought about how they work for art, so it was a lot of fun to look at the existing work on the walls and deconstruct how it was created. One big takeaway was that white and black are crucial colors to highlight and outline new work, especially when it’s over older art. it’s a lot harder than it might look, and I left with a new respect for good, cleanly executed graffiti, as well as a newfound desire to go tag something.
When I was a kid in New Jersey we had six channels to watch: the three main networks, the Fox affiliate (FOX 5, before it was Nazis, home of the Godzilla creature feature at Halloween and It’s a Wonderful Life at Christmas), Channel 29 (home of Star Blazers and M*A*S*H reruns), and PBS. One day I caught a show on PBS that had a guy dressed in odd pseudo-military clothing who taught kids how to draw, and the first time I saw it I was VERY interested in watching the rest of the shows. Unfortunately it never followed a schedule that made any sense and so I wound up only seeing a handful of episodes.
Fast forward to college, when my friend Tim and I were talking about random stuff and shared a common memory from youth: the drawing show on PBS. Turns out it was produced here in Maryland by MPT, and turns out he was a guest on the show as a kid for one of the episodes!
Fast forward to last night,when the same subject came up and I was talking about it with my sister-in-law. I had to find it, and the Internet provided: a series called Secret City, where the host tought kids to draw all kinds of different things. Enjoy:
Long ago in 1995 I was watching MTV while making my dinner and saw a clip featuring a scruffy-looking Portland band playing a killer song. I just happened to have a copy of the City Paper and saw that they were playing the 8×10 on a weeknight, so naturally I roped my roommates into going down and seeing the show, where we all had a great time and I bought a copy of the CD and a T-shirt. Any resemblance to my dog’s current name is purely coincidental. But this song rips.
My friend Rosie, who I hired at WRI and subsequently got hired away by the Wall Street Journal, had her very first byline last week, a story on coaching trees in the NFL. Yay Rosie!
Here’s some new tasty font goodness from an old-school design/web hero of mine: Dan Cederholm put up a storefront with some excellent display fonts and design-nerd merch.
When we were in New York before Christmas, one of the things we showed Finn on our way past Madison Square Garden was the big sign on the corner of 7th Avenue and 33rd Street where I’d designed the billboard for Deutsche Bank back in the day. It was blocked by scaffolding when we walked past—we kind of had to point around all the construction to show her—but I think she understood the scale of the thing.
Over the weekend, while trying to replace a power strip behind our office cabinet, I found a couple of Addy programs from 2009 that had fallen behind other books. Figuring we’d saved it for one of Jen’s projects, I thumbed through it and suddenly remembered that we’d won Silver and Gold Addys for that campaign. I don’t see anyplace on my LinkedIn profile to add awards…
In the meantime, I’m about 75 passwords in to a migration away from LastPass and into Keychain. I’m doing it manually because I don’t want to go through Chrome to convert everything, and also because I have to change all the passwords out anyway. And having used LastPass for 7+ years, I have a lot of old records that I haven’t used in years that I’m happy to delete. It’s a slog but I’m telling myself it’ll be worth it.