13 June 2018

What's Going to Save You From the Robots?


Turns out it's that art degree, creativity, and emotional intelligence.

As a lifelong creative, or as anyone doing much of anything, it’s hard to escape the focus on STEM in education, the gloom and doom of “automation, and artificial intelligence will steal all jobs,” as well as the general reverence of “tech above all else” (which is a whole other blog post, but I digress.) With a worried look at our 401(k)s it’s hard to not wonder if we will soon be as obsolete as a freestanding car GPS or Case Logic CD holders (younger friends, call me, I’ll explain.)

michael douglas

While no doubt STEM is a worthy endeavor and you won’t hear me discourage my kids from taking coding classes in school, technology without humanity is useless. How can we build things that meet human needs without understanding what innately makes us human? All this technology will need to be built on a foundation of skills that even AI cannot easily reproduce.

So what type of skills are those? Creativity, emotional intelligence, and knowing how to lead and motivate people, to name a few. See where this is going? That BA in public relations with minors in engineering and graphic design doesn’t look so dumb now does it? (Those are my degrees. I regret nothing.)

Erik Brynjolfsson, Director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, breaks it down in this NPR interview from September 2017:

Well, there are three big categories that machines are really bad at. They've made tremendous advances, but they're bad at first off doing creative work. The second big category is interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence. And the third one is actually manual dexterity and physical mobility.” 

A creative mindset is not a special, magical thing that only designers possess. But if you want to think of me as more magical than I really am, by all means go ahead. You find it everywhere, not only from designers, but across the board of professional roles. This mindset and way of looking at the world will help protect you from becoming obsolete in the next 10-15 years. Here’s to art and English majors.


However, there is a difference between being in a creative field with narrow, specific skills, and having an innately creative mind. Just as automation and artificial intelligence have limitations, so have creatives with too narrow a skill set and a mindset to match. I have seen professionals who feel that going beyond their idea of creative expertise is somehow diluting the pureness of their talent. Being a designer of the future means you will innately be a strategist, be able to design things visually, and possess a user experience mind. How is that not really exciting? Put away that imposter complex and embrace the layers of intertwined expertise that comes with a creative profession.

A very talented art director I work with, who has a solid user experience head on her shoulders, recently sent me this FastCo article about the design jobs that won’t exist in the future. “This is so depressing”, she wrote. As I read it, it wasn’t really depressing though. It was similar predictions around the hazards of narrowly existing in small boxes (visual design) or in buckets so large they have come to mean anything and everything to the point of meaning nothing (ux).

The definition of creative is partly relating to or involving the imagination or original ideas, and what is more creatively powerful to relate to than change, people’s evolving needs, and how their humanity relates to the technology around them?

The need for creative thinkers is not just limited to advertising. The lack of creative skills often hampers the accuracy of economic models, as well as big data sets. In the Harvard Business Review’s “Liberal Arts in the Data Age”, Christian Madsbjerg, Strategy Consultant and author of Sensemaking, argues that “unless companies take pains to understand the human beings represented in their data sets, they risk losing touch with the markets they’re serving.” In the same article, Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro, professors of the humanities and economics, respectively, at Northwestern University, argue that “when economic models fall short, they do so for want of human understanding. Economics tends to ignore three things: culture’s effect on decision making, the usefulness of stories in explaining people’s actions, and ethical considerations.”

So please, read that great book. No, not just the one that teaches you how to code or is related to your specific field. The one that brings you away from your profession and into the magical world of vivid characters. It helps you become more desirable in the economy of the future. I even wrote a blog on the importance of passions separate from work and how it will make you better at it a while back. You can find it here on Medium.

Beyond what most people consider “creative work” sits the art of managing people and the emotional intelligence and empathy it takes to enable their growth. There is creativity here too and this is an area where machines are, well, horrible.

If you are into the numbers and statistic game (which of course you are because you are a multi-faceted creative mind, not some tired stereotype of a tortured artist brooding in a corner) here are some numbers from MckInsey to further ease your augmented reality fears:

The hardest activities to automate with currently available technologies are those that involve managing and developing people (9 percent automation potential) or that apply expertise to decision making, planning, or creative work (18 percent).”

It’s good to know that our humanity and ability to tap into it is what keeps us not only marketable and employed, but encourages us to be better people in the midst of rapidly evolving tech. That those degrees that might have been dismissed as useless and “not serious enough” by well-meaning guidance counselors in reality set us up for the future. The innate curiosity that comes with a creative mind will continue to be priceless, perhaps even more so now than ever.

And that emotional intelligence still beats artificial intelligence any day.

Pernilla Peterson is Associate Creative Director at Rightpoint. Follow Pernilla on Twitter.