Exploring the evolution of Design into AI: a Conversation with Ilaria Merola

Only a couple of years ago, the computer age has influenced many artists to transition from analog techniques into digital software they could manipulate with a few clicks of a mouse.

Fast forward to 2024, and we stand at the forefront of the Artificial Intelligence era, asking ourselves a crucial question: do we ultimately integrate AI into our creative toolbox or resist its influence altogether? As artists and designers, what is our evolving role in this space of super brainpower that encapsulates the entire repository of art history?

In this exclusive interview, we sit down with AI artist and renowned designer, Ilaria Merola, who has experienced the evolution from analog to Artificial Intelligence. For Ilaria, AI isn't a threat but a tool that amplifies her creativity, pushing the boundaries of what's achievable.

For professional creatives, designers, and artists alike, join us in this inspiring conversation with Ilaria to uncover the possibilities of art and technology in this new era.

From the beginning...

Ilaria, can you tell us where are you from? Where did you grow up?

I come from a small and charming town in the province of Rome, Italy! From a very young age, I nurtured an insatiable passion for drawing, which led me to create characters inspired by Japanese anime and manga. These fantastical worlds fascinated me and drove me to unleash my creativity.


How did you first get involved in art and design? What first attracted you to it?

Towards the end of the 1990s, I began to explore the world of the Internet thanks to my family's involvement in computer sales. From a young age, I had access to machines like the Commodore 64 and the Amiga, which were the latest technology available at the time.

My curiosity pushed me to delve into the potential of this new digital world. Through chat platforms like MIRC and Messenger, precursors to modern messaging apps, I started to navigate this emerging technology.

When it was time to choose my educational path after high school, I sought to combine my two passions, drawing, and the Internet, to create something truly innovative. That's when I decided to study Virtual Digital Design at the European Institute of Design.


AI Art | Ilaria Merola

What design-related activities do you enjoy the most, and why?

During my educational journey, I had the opportunity to immerse myself in the world of web & graphic design, experimenting with cutting-edge tools like Dreamweaver and Macromedia's Flash (later acquired by Adobe). Additionally, I explored the art of graphics and 3D, expanding my skills and enriching my education in the field of design. It was an exciting journey that contributed to shaping my artistic career and my passion for technology.


What are the key changes you’ve seen in technology happening throughout your career?

Throughout my career, I've witnessed significant technological changes. I started as a web designer and graphic designer in 2007 at one of the leading advertising conglomerates, Saatchi & Saatchi.

In 2013, there was a turning point in my career as the concepts of UX and UI emerged for the first time. Working in technology consulting agencies, I learned to design with a user-centric focus, particularly on digital services for mobile devices, where I experienced this new user-centered approach.

This experience opened up new horizons, as the paradigm had completely shifted towards addressing the needs of users across various devices. Over the past decade, this became my primary role, during which I worked with some of the largest brands, including SKY, Wind, Bulgari, Eni, Fiat, Bally, BNP Paribas, Mediolanum, Vodafone, Enel Global, and many others.


UI Mobile Apps | Ilaria Merola

Over the past two years, I have led an innovative project for the Italian public administration, specifically for the INPS, the main welfare agency that manages over 300 different services for more than 40 million users. We created their first design system, with a strong emphasis on accessibility, a cornerstone of our approach. This project has received significant accolades, including the IF Design Award last year. For a detailed exploration of the work done, I invite you to visit inps.design.


How have these changes impacted your career and work overtime?

I've always been fascinated by these technological changes and innovations. In fact, I consider myself a pioneer in this field, such as in the realm of UX/UI. I still remember when I worked on such projects, the terms weren't as commonly used, and explaining my work to those outside the industry was often a challenge.

My constant pursuit of technological changes has driven me to develop new skills. Furthermore, in recent years, while working for the public administration, I felt that I made a significant contribution to my country by simplifying the use of important digital services for Italian citizens. This made me truly feel like a designer who has done something genuinely important for my nation.

Your journey with AI

How did you get started with AI?

My first encounter with AI happened with the release of OpenAI's GPT-3.5. Although I wasn't an expert in the use of machine learning algorithms, I was aware of this technology's application in digital services for data-driven profiling and automation, and my designs had considered such usage. The emergence of this new generation of artificial intelligence, especially the advanced language models, introduced a completely new way of interacting. Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, has stated that the intention is to make artificial general intelligence (AGI) accessible to everyone, for the benefit of all humanity. This goal has been realized, enabling even those without specific development skills to utilize this technology.

Additionally, as a big fan of science fiction, I had always dreamed of being able to converse with an AI, as often depicted in such films. I never thought this experience would become a reality during my lifetime. I still vividly remember the first chat with GPT and the incredible enthusiasm of experiencing it. Following the release of OpenAI, I began to explore other generative AIs and discovered an incredible world where new features were being launched every day. These new technologies, like text-to-image and text-to-video, excited me greatly as a visual designer and aesthete, as they allowed me to create in ways I had never imagined before.

Neural Metamorphosis | AI Art | Ilaria Merola

What tools do you use and why?

I use various tools, but my favorites are undoubtedly those geared towards creativity. I rely on GPT-based chat for text, Midjourney for images, and Runway for video creation.

Additionally, I'm beginning to explore some Stable Diffusion models. I immediately recognized the potential of these tools in my work as a Product Designer (UX/UI). I use them for research, concept creation, and mood board development for interfaces.


What are your thoughts about creating artwork with AI vs. traditional media?

I believe such tools empower creatives and artists to enhance their skills and expedite the creative process. Unlike traditional art, I don't see these tools as something to be compared; they represent a new way of expressing creative ideas, even for those without technical skills. It's all about the thinking process rather than the execution.

Can anybody be an artist now?

I don't think anyone can become an artist; I believe artistic ability still lies in the hands of those with a creative mindset. It's all about generating ideas, not just executing drawings.


How does the use of AI impact your artistic style? Or is it the other way around?

I don't believe that generative AI influences my artistic style. I think that style is something that develops over time through the study of art, cinema, and all the various forms of art. However, it does provide the opportunity to create something tangible based on the images generated by your imagination.

AI Art | Ilaria Merola

Your creative projects

What projects are you currently working on with AI?

I'm currently working on several AI projects. One project that's particularly close to my heart is "Neural Metamorphosis," where I use generative AI to express a fusion of nature's beauty and human elements. It combines biological aspects of nature with the perfection of forms and the ecstasy of women. I've even created an Instagram page dedicated to this project. Additionally, I enjoy incorporating music as an inspirational element in my works.

Neural Metamorphosis | AI Art | Ilaria Merola

Neural Metamorphosis | AI Art | Ilaria Merola

Is there any specific creative process you like to follow?

My creative process always starts with research, and as a designer, this initial step is crucial to me. I brainstorm with GPT-based chat to stimulate my creativity. Once I've identified the concept, I experiment visually to convey the narrative of that concept, using tools like Midjourney in this case. Furthermore, to create a complete story, the final stage of my work involves encapsulating everything through visual storytelling and video editing.

One of my smaller projects was "Genesis Reborn," a kind of science fiction movie trailer inspired by my interests. I generated everything from scratch, including the story, images, and narrative, in a very short amount of time, something that would have been impossible before. Of course, the skills I've acquired over the years have been crucial in packaging it all together.

Genesis Reborn | AI Art | Ilaria Merola

Genesis Reborn | AI Art | Ilaria Merola

What are the things, people, and stories that inspire your projects?

As mentioned earlier, science fiction, music, aesthetics, fashion, and art are certainly the primary sources of inspiration for my projects. Living in Rome, I'm surrounded by incredible architecture, paintings, and sculptures that represent the pinnacle of human creativity.


What are you hoping to communicate with your artwork?

My creations aim to express beauty and communicate through images, which is what inspires me the most and I believe it's the same for people who, like me, appreciate aesthetics, nature, and the significant challenges that humanity will have to face.

Neural Metamorphosis | AI Art | Ilaria Merola

Looking into the future...

What are you hoping to accomplish with your artwork and courses?

As previously mentioned by Sam Altman, I hope that these new forms of art can inspire people and democratize the design process. That's why it's important to pass on this knowledge to the new generations. I do this through courses, and in addition to being a creative and experienced designer, I also engage in teaching activities. This year, I have been a lecturer in generative AI at the European Institute of Design, the same school where I pursued my education. It's truly incredible!

Fashion AI Art | Ilaria Merola

What is your prediction for the future of AI? Does it include or exclude artists? Should we feel threatened by it? Are there any ethical considerations you believe we should cater to as a community?

I firmly believe that, as in every great advancement of humanity, this new tool must be used ethically. It is essential to raise awareness about the ethical use of these powerful resources. I foresee that this tool will change the world incredibly fast. It is up to us to use this tool in the best possible way, turning it from a potential threat into a significant evolutionary advantage in the history of humanity.

We can draw a parallel with the advent of the Internet, which opened the doors of human knowledge to the entire world. Just think that today, with an Internet connection, one can obtain a degree, making accessible what was once the privilege of a few. However, it is undeniable that, over the years, due to human actions, the Internet has become a double-edged sword.

Social media, in particular, have harmed education and fueled feelings of hatred and division. Ultimately, we must understand that we, through our actions, shape the future. The tool itself is just a means. It is up to us to decide how to use it and in which direction to lead our path.

How can we find you?

Where can we support your work? Are there any upcoming events or workshops we should know about?

I'm currently in the process of designing my AI hub, which I expect to launch by the end of February. It will be a place where you can explore my work, and request personalized services guided by generative AI, such as creative direction, advertising, campaigns, and AI-based UX/UI design. You'll also be able to book my courses and workshops to learn how to harness this extraordinary technology.


Where can we find you on Social Media?

Stay tuned to my professional LinkedIn profile at https://www.linkedin.com/in/ilariamerola for updates on when I'll embark on this journey. Additionally, I've created a dedicated profile on Instagram @ai_ilariamerola, where I've initiated the "Neural Metamorphosis" project, dedicated to representing artworks where human beauty blends with the beauty of nature.

Neural Metamorphosis | AI Art | Ilaria Merola

What message or advice would you like to share with the artist community or anybody in general who’s getting started with AI?

My passionate advice for anyone looking to seize this new opportunity is to start as soon as possible. Like every major advancement in humanity, we shouldn't be afraid or hesitant but rather understand this tool and actively participate in this change.

In the years to come, the use of these technologies will be crucial for everyone. Those who don't learn to use them risk falling behind. This is a new skill that offers a significant competitive advantage in many professions.

AI Artist | Ilaria Merola

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