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Design X Machina

An interview with designer Doron Baduach-Keren, who embraced AI and machine learning as a powerful tool for creative freedom

Images: Doron Baduach-Keren

Despite what you might think, AI and machine learning have been around for a long time. But with the recent rise of ChatGPT and visual AI software such as MidJourney and DALL-E 2, what was once an abstract concept on the fringe of science fiction has now become an exciting (and somewhat scary) reality. This has sparked debates in many industries, particularly in the creative community. Questions about job security, originality in art, ethics of using AI, and its potential benefits are being raised, yet not yet fully answered.

For Doron Baduach-Keren, the answer is quite clear. He has been using MidJourney to create themed universes in these mesmerizing visual series in what he calls “a true collaboration” with AI. His work includes alien inhabitants, extraterrestrial life forms, and meticulously designed everyday objects, using nothing but his meticulously crafted prompts and software responses.

We sat down with Doron to discuss his approach to AI, his fascination with it, and his thoughts on its future.

You’ve thrown yourself into working with AI, in what feels like such a natural way for you to create. Was that really the case? Did you have any hesitations at all?

“There were concerns, but I'm afraid they were quite different to those of the rest of the population [laughs]. For me it was less about fearing the technology and the way it will affect our world, and more about feeling overwhelmed with possibility and not knowing how to channel it. The first weekend I started playing with ChatGPT, I spent so many hours stuck in my phone that eventually I had to force myself out of the house. I ended up taking a walk on the beach, sitting in a chair staring at the ocean, feeling so overwhelmed. But I was overwhelmed by the vast opportunities this tool can offer me. I had so many ideas, and each one could actually get made. This alone made me realize how impactful this technology is, how fast the pace of the change is, and how the world will never be the same again.”

So you do have concerns about this being a defining moment that will change the world forever.

“I guess so, but those moments are more self-centered. I’m a bit egoistic in my approach to this. I’m not really bothered by the effects this has on the industry or the impact this has on our jobs. I just feel joy about finding this goldmine, because I found a way to express myself. I found this amazing tool to work with and create with, so I just celebrate it and want to create more and more. There is definitely a much broader discourse surrounding this issue and the implementation of AI in creative work. I think that change is inevitable. If you decide that you’re not going to use this technology on principle, you’ll be left behind. The change will happen with or without you. Generally in life, I don’t believe in letting fear be the driving force of your behavior and actions. Yes, this is a huge technology, a total game-changer that will affect our lives completely, but it’s here with me in this room and I don’t want to live in fear alongside it. On the contrary, I say let’s create with it as much as possible, and find out ourselves what's the most ethical and creative way to use this thing, because it’s not going anywhere—it’s only getting more sophisticated and elaborate.”

You described working with MidJourney as if you were working in collaboration with an actual entity. Did it feel that way from the get-go?

“Yes. And it was quite surreal, to be honest, I felt like I was learning to talk to a very specific individual. Learning to write the prompts was really learning how to communicate specifically with that software. I tried working with DALL-E 2 as well, and the results I got were really not to my liking, and not as aesthetically pleasing. That’s when I realized that each database has its own personality really, with its own unique data that it draws from. Learning how to communicate with MidJourney felt like I had really developed a relationship with it and so became loyal to it.

It got to a point where I would talk about our relationship and the way I feel about it with my therapist, that was really funny [laughs].”

What are the similarities or differences between collaborating with an AI as opposed to people?

“It’s unnerving to admit, but I feel like it understands me better. It’s as if it is an extension of my personality, but with infinite intelligence and endless creativity. That was mind-blowing to realize—that it’s creative. For example, I asked Chat GPT to tell me about an alien flower with one eye. He wrote back that the flower uses its one eye to identify potential predators and then hypnotizes them with it. My jaw dropped. It wasn’t only smart, but it was also creative, coming up with that idea for weaponizing the eye in that specific way.

Another aspect of this is that as an introvert, working with others has always been challenging for me. I’m a true soloist—I’m not necessarily proud of it but that’s just the way I am—and here I have this opportunity to feel as though I’m working with a whole team of creatives, producing things I would otherwise never have been able to, but all the while working just by myself and my phone.”

Your first projects were rooted in fantasy worlds—aliens and science fiction. Now it seems you are more interested in producing images of humans and real objects. What's the process behind that?

“It’s correct, yes. I think when I started I was in it for the escapism, imaginary worlds, and traveling far-far away with technology. The more I saw what other people were doing and that it was a bit similar to what I was producing, I started looking for something new. Something in the realism of it started to pique my interest. The point where you’re not sure if what you’re seeing is a photograph or not, that in-between spot. I found it interesting to explore the real vs. unreal, reality vs. fiction.

And with the objects, it was even more profound. With no humans in the image, there is nearly no way to know if it’s real or not. Giving the prompt was like creating a brief for a real object—product design done in a completely new method.“

So it’s basically your way of making your own fantasies come true, the way you’d like your own personal and public space to look?

“Absolutely! I’m just producing things I want to have and own. You know that feeling when you go to a store and just try lots of things on, don’t purchase anything, but still have that sense of satisfaction somehow? It’s sort of similar. It’s the antidote to consumerism! Just create the things you want in AI and you won’t really need to buy them [Laughs]”

There was a lot of criticism and discourse regarding the aesthetics of the visuals produced by these technologies, namely that they seem fake and artificial, and they end up having the same look and feel, no matter who created them. What do you think about this?

“I don’t see this as criticism, because it is true. This is the result of the way this technology works. The shorter and more concise your prompt to it is, the narrower the database the product can rely on. Therefore its aesthetic inspiration and references are very limited, and it will produce that specific style of imagery. That’s where the ‘art of prompt writing’ comes into play. How you describe and define each element you’re asking for—style, lighting, texture, colors—the more information and details you give, the more rich, more elaborate, and unique the result will become. That’s when you step away from the default results and get closer to something different of your own making.”

What is the best part of the process of working with this technology?

“The development of a world I created, when I have the style nailed and then I can get really creative in producing all the other elements and the entire environment. For example, in my Yemenite series, I worked on getting the results I wanted and kept refining the style, the landscape, the right textures, and the right trees, houses, etc. This process is about countless back and forth with the software, research, and changing prompts. As soon as I have that done, it's time to expand to the entire series—that’s my favorite part.”

How much time do you spend getting to that point?

“A few hours. I usually work in bursts, diving into it. I need to complete all these stages on the same day. I get obsessed and need to get it out of my system.”

Do you work on the phone on purpose? Why not on your computer?

“Working on my computer feels like it’s work-related, whereas working on my phone makes it feel like a hobby, my own personal pastime. It feels like a leisure activity. I’m just on my sofa, in my own flow and in my own environment. This setting works well for this type of project.”

Do you think you’ll integrate this technology into your real work later on?

“I think so. It would take much more planning and strategizing than my usual, on-a-whim personal projects. I would need to feel the medium justifies its use.”

It’s interesting, we’re talking about how people fear that this technology will steal our jobs and take over the industry, and yet here you are, fully competent and versed in it, and you still don’t use it in your day job. Only for fun.

“I guess I feel that in my own work, I work with people who are very experienced and bring their specific style and knowledge in order to create something of a certain quality. And with MidJourney, even when I control the outcome, it still feels a bit too amateur to just go ahead and use the visuals as they are. I would need to really figure out what the added value of using this tech would bring to a project—just to save money or time doesn't cut it for me as a good enough reason to use it.”

Do you see yourself continuing to explore this medium?

“I actually haven’t played with it in a while—I’m at a point where I’m ready for the next phase to be more meaningful. Maybe see if there could be an intersection with the real world.

Otherwise, at the moment I think of it as another tool I have at my disposal. And that’s what it is, a tool. It’s not the essence. If something comes up where this tool is a great match, I’ll use it. But I won’t create something, especially for it. I feel like it’s an amazing skill I have now, and I’m looking forward to seeing where it grows and the opportunities it might bring.”


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