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  • Writer's pictureJakob Nielsen

Curating AI-Generated Images

Summary: In an AI-saturated future, true design skill lies not in creation but in the art of choice. This lighthearted case study of human judgment presents 163 UX professionals’ analysis of four AI-generated images.


A few weeks ago, I wanted an illustration for an article predicting that in the future, an extremely important differentiator for professional designers would be their ability to apply good taste or discernment in selecting the best options from the profusion of choices generated by AI. Having design ideas and producing these designs in polished versions will be less important for human designers because both of these tasks can be done at high speed and low cost by generative AI. (Ideation is free with AI, which will give you 10 designs or 20, or as many as you care to ask for in the prompt.)

I easily generated 16 possible illustrations for this point. In this case, I used DallE for all the images, though I will often employ multiple tools. As always, several were too obscure or too ugly to be used, but I narrowed the set down to 4 good candidates. I did select one of these for my article, and I’ll disclose later which one was my choice, and why. But I also thought that this could be a good opportunity to get feedback on AI-generated artwork from my audience of UX professionals. I posted the four finalist images on LinkedIn together with a description of my purpose (to illustrate an article in my newsletter making the claim I just mentioned about the future of design).

In total, I received 163 comments. Thank you to everybody who participated. To start with the conclusion, here are the 4 images and the percentage of votes for each:

Every image had its fans and there was no clear winner. Remember that these were the top 25% of the original AI-generated images, so this is no surprise. However, going by the votes, the group is clearly divided into two strong candidates (#1 and #3) and two weak ones (#2 and #4). Let’s look at some of the verbatim comments provided by people who voted for each of the images, to dig into the motivations behind the preferences. (Percentages sum to 101% because of rounding.)

Image 1: Interior Decorator Selecting from Color Swatches, 39% of Votes

Image 1 was the overall winner, and actually the one I initially preferred myself. It’s fun and easy to understand: she’s very literally choosing the best color for her project. Despite liking this image the most, I didn’t use it simply because of the extraordinarily negative connotations among many UX designers of being thought of as the provider of pretty colors.

  • Imagining myself scanning a newsletter, I think 1 would draw me in the most. I find the illustration to be the most engaging overall. It's colorful and friendly and sufficiently fits the brief of illustrating a designer's work (it may not necessarily scream UX, but for illustration purposes, I wouldn't mind that too much).

  • 1 features a superior illustration style. The cartoony nature of the person draws one in more (See Scott McCloud's book, Understanding Comics). She appears thoroughly engaged. The bright ambient light spot in the center of the drawing pulls the eye in and keeps it centered. The colors are rich and varied and are nicely layered around the central figure. The only issue I have with this one is that there are no UX/UI-related constructs. If she were holding a tablet instead of a drawing pad, this one would totally nail it IMO.

  • The top one has the best composition.

  • I like no. 1. It is energetic. It looks cartoonish yet more human than others. I just have a feeling that they are stereotypically ai-generated designs. They are amazing but with a robotic touch. I am not sure if that makes sense.

  • For style, I would go for 1, even though it seems to confirm the notion that UX is about making things look nice. For theme, I'd go for 3, as it seems the subject is considering different UI patterns.

  • I'm loving the colors in 1! So much excitement! Maybe it's not the best for showing UX exactly, but I just love the vibe with all those lively colors, her cute hair, and that artsy figure. Her face also seems so excited and happy which what we would want to do as UX designers-make people happy with a nice experience 😊

  • It depends on purpose of use; but if we're talking about UX #1 & #2 seem much better, as the first one is so vivid, energetic with human characteristics but the second one is more creative and symbolic for the purpose.

  • I loathe them all. 1 is the least horrible. It’s cartoonish without being absurd.

  • It's difficult to look at these images with a detached eye, between pure visual and your request. The first one is the one I prefer, the one that emotionally engages me the most. But in terms of relevance, I should say the third one. My choice? The first one...emotions first!

  • 1 - has a focal point, engaging colours.

  • None of them are very good, but the only one that clearly conveys a designer of some sort actually making some selection applying their taste is #1, but it’s limited to a graphic design feel as it is only about color palette. 3 shows someone reading/viewing a device, and while there are design patterns in the background, there is nothing that indicates she is actively applying taste to design work. 2 and 4 really make no sense is a UX context. I get that you say any form of design would be acceptable, but putting those images in an article about UX will raise more questions than add any clarity to topic. Context matters.

  • I think the first one has the most personality. I could easily see a comic or cartoon made with this character! 😊

  • 1. Although, it's too hard to pick one of them without considering the real context, I like No 1 because it gives me a good sense (of her red cheek and happy face)

  • I gravitate towards 1. It has a strong subject and focal point where I the others, you seem to get lost in the image. It’s also simple and very graphic. The subject clearly pops out of the background here (like a good photograph).

  • 1 catches the eyes the most (vibrant).

  • 1, it seems like manga story.

  • I go for 1 - a clear focus on the person in the centre and nice set of colours.

  • 1. To be able to choose the best design a skilled designer knows why some design is better that other (theories, history etc) and can articulate the decision and the reasons behind it.

Image 2: Costume Designer Selecting Outfits from a Wardrobe, 14% of Votes

I liked this because of the emoji-like appearance of the character, which abstracts away from the specific demographics of more naturalistically rendered humans. This point is discussed in great detail in Scott McCloud’s classic book Understanding Comics. For example, it’s less apparent (and sometimes impossible to tell) whether a character is a man or a woman when he or she is depicted as an emoji. (My audience is about 2/3 female.) Selecting outfits is also more of an abstraction than selecting color swatches. It would be less likely to trigger the negative reaction of compounding the stereotype that all designers do is to make things pretty.

However, this illustration scored the lowest in my audience vote, possibly because it’s a bit too humorous and abstracted away from the everyday work of UX designers. Even before seeing the vote, I had rejected this one as being too obscure.

  • If I had to choose a style for a project, it would be this one, unless there's a specific requirement in the brief for another approach. More fun, more approachable, more universal, even slightly more gender, age, race, etc. agnostic. It gives an energetic and lighthearted feeling. The more lo-fi, high-contrast illustration style gives us less visual noise to process. Emotion and mood are easier to read via the exaggerated cartoon-style body language. Also, the overall strong centralizing composition of the frame directs attention more quickly.

  • I'm choosing 2, because I think it captures both the value of design and the hazards of conflating personal taste and professional judgement. The value of a skilled designer isn’t their ability to make something “beautiful”. A designer's value is to make an experience make sense and be relevant to the needs of the people using it. DALL-E, ChatGPT, Adobe Firefly, and other ML/AI systems can’t do that. Designing for humans requires people who's judgement is so shaped by experience and expertise that they have an intuitive sense of what is the best choice for a particular circumstance. The best outfit? It depends on where you are going.

  • 2. It actually illustrates a clearly relatable action. The rest are poses of abstract decision making. And in #4 the figure has a drawer on their hip.

  • For just "which one do you prefer and why" I pick 2. It's witty and engaging; clothes are a common way to covey good/bad taste so the concept can be understood by anyone, not just a designer; and lastly, it's more visually appealing to my eyes. When looking at all 4 in a row, 2 stands out from the pack.

  • The second one is best, imho, bc its cute and that is one stylish circle guy.

  • Number 2 is what I prefer because of the happy fella doing its thing!

Image 3: UX Designer Selecting UI Elements, 30% of Votes

This was my choice and the illustration I actually ran with the article. As noted by several of the comments below, this is probably the most boring from a purely visual perspective, but two things made me pick this option: First, it’s the only illustration that comes close to showing UX design. While abstractions and metaphors are certainly acceptable, being literal requires one less leap of insight for the reader and thus helps usability. Second, this is the only illustration that seems to depict the act of pondering or considering several options where it’s not obvious which is the best. In the other pictures, the designers just look happy. If we want to take the claim seriously that discernment will be a career differentiator, then this will only be true when making non-obvious choices, as hinted at in this picture.

  • 3 also works for me, it actually suits the "UX design" context a bit better and, depending on the overall nature and tone of the newsletter, might come across as a bit more professional than 1. However, due to the desaturated color scheme, it comes across as a bit more sterile and, may I say, boring?

  • 3 is more relevant to the UX/UI subject matter, but overall I hate this drawing. The color set is monotonous, and the desaturated blue-green with salmony pink is an odd color choice. The widgets behind the central figure are complicated and complicate the central figure. The stylized realism of the figure appears flat and plasticky. She reminds of a posed doll with a look of pseudo-interest on her face. The finger on chin makes her seem unsure of herself. The eyes gaze off into the ether. Is she deep in thought or just spaced out?

  • I would choose design 3 - because the subject is UX design and I think the images behind the 'designer' show the various components and elements of interaction design the most truthfully and realistically.

  • I'd go with number 3, it really captures the essence of good taste in design!

  • 3 looks professional, clean with good balance between minimalism and detail

  • Number 3 stands out for its simplicity and clarity in design, resonating effectively with the theme of exercising good taste.

  • 3. Looks most professional (not too cartoonish or comic book), and looks to be the most accurate for what designers do when discerning good design (it's not just about pretty colors, like in 1).

  • 3 is the only one that "looks like UX".

  • If the goal is "designers" exercising good taste, I think 3 is the winner. The rest are creativity related and it could be argued 2 is a fashion designer, but especially in the context of UX, 3 fits best. It also seems to have the most balanced color palette. Of course, it brings in the botanicals as well which every trendy designer with good taste needs.

  • 3, as it appears to be more contextually relevant to UX (shows UI widgets in background). The others have elements (clothes, papers, paintings) that don't appear to be as relevant to UX work. One could argue illustration style (cartoonish, vs. closer to photorealistic) is an independent factor. There could also be considerations for color palette (do you really want the pink UI elements), or other factors.

  • 3 - the designer seems to be actually thinking/evaluating!

  • 3 - it seems like it could be used in a website/app while the others look more like random images in a Pinterest search 😂 It also looks the “cleanest” i.e. #1 has paper in the upper right corner cannibalizing each other and the swatches don’t fit the paper 🤷‍♂️

  • 3. "Designer exercising good taste" as a prompt should show a person being reflective with tastes. (#1) merely shows color palette choice and that in itself may have to do with artistry but not design. Design is more than just art.

  • 3. The color palette is visually appealing and the balance between the abstract and realistic elements is well-executed. But Ultimately yes its a subjective decision.

Image 4: Customer Selecting Paintings in a Gallery, 18% of Votes

I loved the colors and style in this picture which aligns with the aesthetic in many of the other illustrations I have been using in my articles. (See my Instagram for an overview of my illustration style.) I was close to using this image, but it also suffers from emphasizing prettifying as opposed to designing something that will be used, which is the goal of UX design. I’m all in favor of art and own many paintings myself, but the defining difference between art and design is that of looking versus using. While not glaringly obvious, this designer has 3 hands (one carrying a briefcase, one holding a book that may be the gallery’s price list, and a third hand leaning on the furniture), which is another reason to avoid this image.

  • Subjectively I ‘like’ 4 but that’s based on its artistry and nothing else.

  • Does the fact that the woman in image 4 has three hands bother anyone else?

  • In my opinion, it's the most sophisticated of the illustrations in terms of complexity, realistic interpretation, composition, and perspective and lighting effects.

  • 4 - because the others would still need some prompting. Whereas 4 is nice art.

  • 4 - not only more artistically interesting as a composition (a.k.a. more tasteful), but invokes an art director in a nicely decorated interior, choosing art pieces for an exhibit. All the others look like standard tasteless cliparts one could easily google. Except maybe for 1 - cute anime-like character! Could add some contemporary next-gen personality to the article.

  • 4. Looks like most artist homes I know. Lots of canvases, some plants, cabinets for supplies and frames lying around. LOL

  • I consider 4 to be the best illustration! Simply because it has most taste! (but also because it seems as if the designer being portrayed has three hands..)

  • 4, the rich brush strokes got me 😅!

None of the Above

Several commentators didn’t think any of these illustrations were good enough. In some sense, the fact that there’s no clear winner confirms this point. A truly brilliant illustration would probably have been a clear choice for me and received an overwhelming vote from the audience.

The art director of a major magazine would have a Rolodex of award-winning illustrators and the knowledge of their relative strengths, allowing him or her to commission something better. Maybe. Sometimes, what you get from humans isn’t a winner either, and you have to go back for changes, eating up time and budget. The beauty of AI is that it’s a matter of minutes to get several good options. Next year, these options will be better, and later, they’ll get even better.

Much as I am in awe of The Economist’s weekly cover illustrations and many of The New Yorker’s cartoons, we can’t all be major magazines with hefty illustration budgets and well-developed contacts with top illustrators. The true beauty of the new world is that it gives voice to an immensely broader range of publishers, such as my newsletter. By cheapening design and UX through AI-driven productivity advances, we expand the number of places they’re applied.

In the old world, only a very narrow set of voices were heard: Hollywood studios, major magazines and newspapers, national TV networks. Most of these people knew each other, and they had similar interests and viewpoints. Now, with the web, email newsletters, and video outlets like TikTok and YouTube, your neighbor’s teenager is a publisher. His or her TikToks of the family cat shot on a smartphone may not have the production values of the BBC nature shows (“but behind that termite mound … lions!”). And my newsletter illustrations don’t reach the level of The Economist covers. However, the explosion in voices, perspectives, and expert insights is worth a temporary quality drop, as evidenced by the statistics showing that young people watch more user-generated Internet videos than legacy television. (And quality will increase, as AI advances.)

In this case study, I guess I confirmed my reputation as a slightly boring usability guy by picking the option that was less exciting visually but more clearly communicated the underlying message.

Completely Different Metaphor

While not part of my original exercise, we can avoid the entire conundrum of whether designers are prettifiers by moving to another field. This example from Midjourney employs a literal interpretation of the word “taste” by having a chef taste a dish he’s preparing. Is it too salty? While this image does visualize good taste, it sidesteps the more important point of my article, which is that the future will be rich in AI-generated ideas and designs and that humans need to hone their ability to choose the best among these.

To conclude, this small exercise proves the original point (which was made by Sarah Gibbons in a podcast). It’s easy to get a wide spectrum of design choices from AI. It’s hard to select the best one. There are multiple criteria to juggle. We must strengthen our curation skills to build strong careers in the AI-dominated future.

Choosing from many options is not as easy as it sounds. Dall-E.


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