Role: Creative Director
Location: New York City
Salary: $105,000 USD
Size of Company: 300-500 Employees
Total Years Working: 10 years
From 2018 to 2022, I worked at a trade publication that, over the course of my tenure, became a SEO-content mill of a larger financial company. This meant I needed to produce multiple artworks every day for stories read by an aesthetically-uninclined audience and parent company. Though I had risen from assistant art director to creative director over the past four years, I still had the same responsibilities — to produce artwork and manage freelance illustrators — without any more team members, creative freedom or institutional support. In fact, my team was shrinking, and the only reason I became creative director was because my predecessor was let go due to financial constraints and the company wasn’t going to replace him. I don’t say all this to justify my actions (I don’t think they require justification!) but rather to provide context for the situation I was in.
Earlier this year I started hearing about the progress of AI illustration platforms, in particular one called Midjourney, and my interest was immediately piqued. The technology was getting to a place where you could combine complex phrases and the algorithm would understand, to some extent, what aesthetic you were trying to achieve. While I immediately saw its usefulness in my work, I also heard the critique, fear and disgust leveled against Midjourney by my illustration community.
On Twitter, I saw that a friend of mine, an illustration instructor teaching an online course, had proudly shared their student’s artwork only to have it pointed out by the community that the final image looked like it was created in Midjourney then submitted as the student’s own work, all without the instructor’s knowledge. While my friend expressed confused frustration and wondered publicly about what they should do (the course had concluded already), I just couldn’t help but feel disappointed that the student wasn’t smarter about the whole thing. I saw on the student’s Instagram that the assignment was in a style they hadn’t worked in before, that was such an obvious tell. I thought that if they had done a bit more work to make the art more consistent with their previous style then this wouldn’t have had to be such big and scary thing.
As that story made its rounds it ended up in the group chat I have with a different set of illustrator friends. Beyond the deceit of the student, it was their use of Midjourney that immediately caused a divide in the group. A friend of mine, who still works in pen and ink, seemed angry and a bit threatened. To him, Midjourney was destroying the integrity of the discipline. I know this friend very well and I know his drawing setup so I understood his perspective. There was simply no place Midjourney could fit into his workflow. But for me, I enjoy working smarter not harder. If I can get away with only using my mouse to complete something for work, that is a win in my eyes. I recognized the platform as a tool in my toolkit rather than a cheat and I wanted to explore what value it could bring.
About two months after first hearing of Midjourney, I began borrowing my friend’s subscription, which was $30 a month, and using it for my work at the magazine. Since the artwork is generated by communicating with a bot on a Discord server, I texted my friend the prompts to send to the bot. The story I had in front of me was about crypto, specifically about the new Ethereum Merge platform, and the writer was casting doubt on whether the shift was really worth all the noise. The keywords I used were “Ethereum symbol centered in a swirl of colors in the style of Jackson Pollock” and the results were pretty interesting. Midjourney always generates four options, and each of the four were quite different. While they all followed the same general layout, some had different styles like black and white ink splatter, rainbow colors, or a 3D effect. We also tried changing the keywords to reference a couple other artists’ styles, but the first four referencing Pollock were the best. I brought those four into Photoshop, cut them up, made a collage, and then I drew an Ethereum symbol in the middle. I sent the artwork to my editors, they signed off, and that was that, it was done.
Over the following months I continued to use Midjourney for my work with the magazine. I figured out that it fit best in my workflow as a way to help me spend less time noodling with the less important parts of a piece. I often use Midjourney to create a background and a layout, and then I'll then add a custom drawing of the subject in the middle, say, the person at the center of a particular story. And that way I felt that it was apparent that I still had an involvement in the production of the final piece.
One of my contemporaries in the industry has also found a use for Midjourney in his workflow, he uses it as a way to develop early thumbnail ideas that he shares with clients before creating a final. With the click of a button he can get four different riffs on one brief and save himself a bunch of time in the concepting stage. After a direction is picked he draws the final himself. Interestingly, in one project, he actually was transparent enough to share the Midjourney-generated concept art on Instagram after the final work was published. I applauded him for doing that because at the end of the day, he's still drawing that final image in his own style.
While I have grown deeper in my usage of Midjourney, I have also developed boundaries around it. I never use it on my freelance clients, especially those with a more discerning audience, like publications where the circulation is huge and the artistic integrity is extremely scrutinized. I also don’t use it for work that feels really personal to me. I'm drawing a series of abstract butterflies right now and these are extremely unique to me; they're my trademark. I'm not using Midjourney with that work because I want there to be no doubt that it is 100% created by me. To an outsider, this may seem like a slippery slope, but at this point in the technology’s progression my Midjourney use feels quite simple and clear. For me, Midjourney is not a crutch, it’s a tool. And I only feel okay using it because I have an art background, and I've spent over 10 years of my life drawing in the traditional sense. It’s because I understand composition and principles of design that I feel I can use Midjourney and not abuse it.
That being said, when I look to the future of my career and my industry at large I do have some suspicions about whether the line between distinguishing AI art from my own art will become increasingly blurry and how that will impact my work. But, overall, I think for clients who really understand the value of design and art, we can all agree that this technology is still in its infancy. It's more mature than we could have imagined, but it's still not at the point of wide scale adoption. When it comes to the future of Midjourney, and platforms like it, I do feel it will be better if we, as illustrators and artists, join in and influence where it goes, rather than remain on the sidelines. Because whether or not we like it, this is going to take over more and more, and computers are going to get stronger and more intelligent. As technology evolves, I think things will work out better for all of us if we are knowledgeable about platforms like this and how we can use them for good.
[Editor's note: We attempted to make the artwork for this story on Midjourney, the header image shows a sampling of our hilariously bad results.]