When The Grid first unveiled its grand vision of creating “websites that design themselves”, it caused quite a stir. Some industry observers saw the startup’s goal of using Artificial Intelligence (AI) to build websites as the next step in the evolution of web design.
Others – especially experienced web designers – were quite skeptical. Web design, they argued, is a combination of skills that are too complex to be fully automated. As such, they viewed The Grid’s vision as somewhat farfetched.
Even technological alarmists weighed in. They saw The Grid’s vision as a manifestation of something they’ve always warned us about i.e. that one day AI will take over jobs.
Well, that was April 2014. The Grid was released as a private beta to early adopters in June 2014, and currently has over 53,000 such users. For over a year, ordinary people, expert designers and even skeptics have checked it out. Both believers and doubters have given their feedback.
As such, this is a good time to pose the question: how intelligent is The Grid’s AI? Well, a good starting point is to briefly recap how The Grid actually works.
How It Works
In a nutshell, The Grid works by automating the web design process. This means that aspects like layout, positioning elements, selecting colors, cropping images, etc. are carried out by its AI. A user simply focuses on submitting content e.g. text, images, and videos.
As the user adds content, the AI automatically redesigns the webpage to suit the content. For instance, it can reposition a video to make room for text, resize an image or change the text background to give it prominence. All this is carried out without any effort from the user.
The only input a user makes towards the design process is giving a basic description of the goal of the website e.g. social engagement, e-commerce, sports, etc. The AI then selects the layout, color schemes, font styles and other design attributes that suit the website’s purpose. The user can then focus on providing content, and the AI does the design.
Is It Actually AI?
The Grid is built based on a concept called constraint programming. In a nutshell, constraint programming uses a mathematical algorithm to solve problems. In normal programming, a developer tells a computer what to do and how to do it. In constraint programming, a developer states what she wants to do, and the computer uses the mathematical solver to figure out how to do it.
This is exactly how The Grid creates its designs. A user supplies it with content (tells it what she wants on a web page), and the platform figures out how to lay it out on the page. This is quite different from normal design where a developer not only inserts content, but determines precisely where it appears on the webpage. As such, the Grid’s approach is actually AI.
The platform is built on the basis of Grid Style Sheets (GSS). GSS is a revamping of Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) which was designed by Dan Tocchini – The Grid’s founder and CEO. GSS is an open-source project which uses the Cassowary Constraint Solver to layout the website. Cassowary is the same algorithm used by Apple for the Cocoa Autolayout found in OS X and iOS.
How Intelligent Is The AI?
Most of The Grid’s early adopters report that it works quite well. The designs it creates are quite appealing to look at. Some people with no knowledge or experience in web design claim to have created some attractive looking websites. The creators of The Grid point to their own website, https://thegrid.io/, which was built entirely on the platform as an example of what their AI is capable of.
However, it isn’t all perfect. Some users claim that the AI sometimes uses layout, images or colors in ways that don’t make sense (and don’t look great). This is especially common for obscure color combinations.
Leigh Taylor, creative director at The Grid, agrees that sometimes humans have to step in to correct the design glitches from behind-the-scenes. “The designers are in-the-loop with the AI”, he told Fastcompany. “They interact with it, guide it, shape it …”
Some web design experts criticize the design approach used by the AI as being archaic and old school. A quick glance at the source code of The Grid’s website shows a usage of CSS that isn’t considered best-practice in professional web design circles. The website uses embedded and inline styles on every page. This approach is inefficient because it causes the webpages to be bloated and load more slowly. It also makes them to use up lots of bandwidth – a clear disadvantage for those who have to pay for their internet.
So, how intelligent is The Grid’s AI? Well, that depends on the benchmarks you set for it. The AI certainly accomplishes some amazing things well, but it isn’t perfect (yet). This shouldn’t be much of a concern, though, as it is still in beta. Perhaps, by the time it is fully released, it will be much better.
The good news is that The Grid offers several ways to control the AI. Besides its programmers who guide it in the background, users are also able to override the AI. The Grid also recently released an API to provide experienced developers with programmatic access to its platform. All this adds up to one thing – a combination of the AI with human intelligence that has the potential to make The Grid sparkle.
In a nutshell, thanks to its AI, The Grid offers a simple platform through which people can build a website without knowing anything about web design or coding. Its only weakness is that the AI isn’t perfect. Also, its automation means that users don’t have full control over it.