<aside> 🌟 Deb JJ Lee (they/them) is an independent illustrator and graphic novelist. They graduated from the CMU Design program in 2018 studying Communications and Evironments design, and have illustrated for Google, Domestika, Wells Fargo, Adobe, and NPR among others.

Check out their links: 🔗 Website 🐦 Twitter 📷 Instagram 📖 Book: In Limbo



👼 Could you tell us a little about who you are and what you do?

I am an independent illustrator and graphic novelist based in Brooklyn, New York. I am primarily working in the publishing and commercial space, producing illustrations for brands, and I also recently published a graphic memoir called In Limbo. I graduated from the CMU Design program studying Communications and Environments Design in 2018. During college, I worked at a few tech companies as a UX intern, and after graduating I was at a tech company briefly. They ended up giving me a lot of illustration projects, which encouraged me to actually leave the company to pursue freelancing full-time.

👼 How has AI impacted your practice?

As it is, illustrators get paid very little in the industry and AI threatens the independent creative workforce even more. There was a guide-book for graphic artists in the early 2000s that said essentially that graphic artists in the early 20th century made around $2000 for a single piece of work, and in the past century that amount hasn’t risen with inflation. That comes out to around $30,000 a year before tax, if you’re constantly working. People are already taking graphic arts for granted and pay illustrators next to nothing, and now AI is being used to make that work even cheaper. Anyone can put any prompt into Midjourney and get what you want. What you get from those programs will always be derivative, and while there isn’t much awareness on the limitations of AI art, until those limitations are realized there are a lot of opportunities and value that are being taken away from illustrators and graphic artists.

That’s all to say I do think AI can and will replace a bunch of artists, but the art that results from it won’t be the same on a human level. And on an ethical level, it’s just in bad taste to try and save money. I just keep coming back to the origin. What problem is AI art solving? What need was there for AI art? It comes from a need for automation, but art isn’t about automation. It’s therapeutic, it’s one of the most wonderful things about being human. Trying to make it a push of a button feels like the antithesis of art.

👼 Do you think AI has a different relationship with designers versus illustrators?

Most UX jobs are in-house, and ownership of the work ultimately belongs to the companies they’re situated in. AI in UX may result in the same thing as in illustration and art, you just get the same solutions and the same results. That may be good for some UX applications, but you’re ultimately settling for solving a problem in an existing way, when maybe there is a better solution that simply hasn’t been made yet. With whatever problem you’re researching, you could have the same carousel system or card system as your solution. But if you’re just relying on existing solutions that AI can remix, you’ll never get anything new.

That being said, I don’t think AI is undercutting UX designers nearly as much as it is with independent artists in terms of livelihoods and salaries, but again, if you’re just recycling the same ideas over and over again things will get really uninteresting. You have to use AI very carefully. I saw something online a while ago that said essentially,

<aside> 🌟 “Sure, but has this AI model have the same Asian-American diaspora trauma that I have?”


An AI model can only come up with so much without a human element behind it.

👼 Is there a way to ethically use AI in creative fields? Perhaps in early idea-generation stages? What would that look like?

I have actually seen some AI art come out of CMU that makes sense. It came out of the School of Art, where someone took their polaroids of important memories and fed them through an AI art generator to create new ‘memories’ based on those photos. I think that’s a really compelling use of AI art. It knows as much as you do, and it’s playing an intentional role in the creating process.

In UX specifically, I think that when you feed an AI generator with your own work, then what you’ve created is technically ethical. It’s the same thing in illustration—they say that it’s ethical to closely use reference photos as long as you took them yourself. AI-generated work will give you work that looks like your work, and if that’s what you need, that’s great. But it’s not going to be revolutionary. If I was going to use AI art, I would feed it all of my work, press a button, and be done because I didn’t want to explore that day. Again, I would never take anyone else’s work. I’d source my own pieces, feed it to a generator, and see what happens. Maybe that’s what I needed that day to get by, but at least then it won’t hurt anyone except me. The whole point of being a designer, or being an artist, is to explore and evolve by actually designing or creating.

👼 How you think AI will integrate into creative fields in the future? (For better or for worse)

AI will be there whether we like it or not and its role in creative fields will just come down to regulation in response to it. Something that has specifically affected me personally is the ownership aspect of AI art. In order to make AI art, you have to train an AI on other people’s drawings. I found out recently that someone had taken my drawings and put them through Stable Diffusion to make a large body of pieces that looked like my work, and they refused to tell anyone who’s work the AI was trained on. I’m really hoping that current efforts like the class-action lawsuit I’m a part of that’s aiming to regulate AI art will succeed so that independent illustrators are better protected from art theft. Additionally, I imagine in response to this there will be a culture shift of illustrators copywriting their work.

Broadly though, I think about this project, Humaaans, by Pablo Stanley, where he commissioned a bunch of illustrators to draw a bunch of stock images, and then made it so that you can mix and match for boring corporate filler illustrations. They definitely work, they look fine, but when you spot a Humaaan illustration being used, you recognize it. You know where they got that image from; it’s like seeing someone wearing the same shirt you got from Forever 21. I think what’s very likely is that AI art will be like Humaans, where we start to see AI-generated images everywhere. What’s different is that AI is developing so fast that really soon we might not be able to tell what is done with AI and what isn’t. Long story short, AI will absolutely not only affect the creative world, but every aspect of our lives.

<aside> 🌟 Editor’s note: Learn more about the class-action lawsuit Deb and other artists are involved with here!


👼 What advice would you give going forward for people who are curious about AI in creative contexts?

I want people to think about why they are using AI. Why are they so excited about these new technologies, when there are so many existing issues that are demanding our attention in the world? I think about when Facebook became Meta, and they started focusing on the Metaverse. Their main thing was to “change the world” and “make education accessible to everyone” and “making society better”, but why didn’t they start with problems that have already been affecting people? Why aren’t they improving textbooks or access to supplies? It’s almost like they want to make the cool stuff first and make a bunch of money, and then rebrand to be able to be used to help people. But the root of the idea was based on making money, not helping people. The socioeconomic problems in our world, those are an afterthought. Disadvantaged people are used as an excuse to justify technology that’s actually making disparities between people even bigger than they were. Just look at card-based transactions and digital currency. A lot of places don’t accept cash anymore, and that makes the lives of so many people so much harder. A lot of people don’t have credit cards, or don’t have smartphones. Technology made for money makes it so much harder for people to just get by.

So as people go forward in the hackathon, I hope that they ask themselves: why are you doing this? Is your project starting in the right place? Or are you trying to make something for the sake of making something, and adding a “good cause” to it at the end?