In conversation: design journalist Sarang Sheth on what sets creatives apart in the AI age

7 minute read

When immersing myself in the world of design for the first time, Sarang Sheth’s reviews and opinion essays were some of the first few I read. An industrial designer by education and design journalist by profession, Sarang is the Editor-in-Chief at Yanko Design and writes for the publication (and for himself) with the aim to propel good design to the forefront of any conversation. His work results from thorough research and carefully-cultivated opinions on a smorgasbord of topics, from NFT and AI art to music and cooking.

In this interview, Sarang takes a looking-glass to his career and the larger design world: poring over his winding path to where he is now, his creative process, and the design myths he’d like to bust.

(This conversation has been condensed for length and clarity.)

What is the genesis of what you think of as your professional career?

My career dream really came full circle because I started as a 15-something kid collecting tech and gadget magazines dreaming of writing about them one day. When I was 17, someone introduced me to design as a profession and the idea of actually designing those products completely enchanted me.

Cut to a decade later and I’m a designer who discovered a unique niche in the form of ‘design journalism’: a profession that pays well, gives me a great deal of satisfaction, and allows me to drive good design into the forefront of the conversation. When people ask me about what I do, I usually tell them “You know how a picture is worth a thousand words, right? I’m the guy who writes the thousand words…”

What are some things you learned at design school that you still use, vs things you wish you were taught there?

A professor in design school said something rather insightful back when I was in my first year. She said, "Good design is knowing when to stop designing."

You can keep adding to a product, entirely clutter its experience and destroy the original intent behind it, or you can choose the right time to lift up the pencil and stop adding to it.

The one thing I wish design school taught me is also the one thing I wish regular school taught me: Finances. Pricing your design services, being smart with money, knowing how to invest, and how to move capital if you’re trying to develop a product or build a studio. It would also help if design school gave us a bit of a primer on how to protect our intellectual property.

What’s a trend in the design world that you’d like to see more of?

Independence. Whether it’s the advent of 3D printing, crowdfunding, or even just NFTs, I love the idea of designers reclaiming ownership of their ideas and using it to build businesses and make money. Designs that started off as student projects 10 years ago are now being turned into viable businesses, giving designers a chance to be the entrepreneur they’ve dreamed of being.

In the age of AI tools, many creatives wonder how to bring something unique to the table. How might they?

Honestly, this is the best time to pick up those skills and gain that strategic advantage. Dall·E and Midjourney are tools, not designers. They methodically work with what they’re given, which makes them pretty valuable to designers who know how to use them. Not everyone can use Dall·E to make a logo for their business; there still needs to be a trained creative who does their share of fine-tuning and brings their thoughts, ideas, and strategies to the table.

Owning a typewriter doesn’t make you a prolific author, and owning a DSLR camera doesn’t make you Annie Leibovitz.

I also think it’s a good time for designers to really pick up their networking skills (even though I absolutely suck at it). People trust people. Not AI. These AI engines can deliver results in their specific area of expertise but aren’t quite capable of anything else. Designers, or creatives, rather, are capable of a lot more.

Out of all the products you’ve covered on Yanko, what’s your personal favourite and why?

I’ve covered well over 5000 projects, so there’s absolutely no way of remembering any single product! It’s also a lot like asking someone for their favourite song of all time — there can’t be just one!

That said, my personal favourite category is tech concepts. I really love the idea of designing without constraints and envisioning ideas that have the potential to be built maybe 5-10 years down the road. We covered folding phones probably a decade ago when the technology didn’t even exist. I remember writing about (and even designing) a Vivo phone based on a patent they issued, which had a drone that popped out of the phone to take selfies. That was quite wild, to say the least!

Outside of writing for Yanko, what do you do to stay creatively inspired?

Music and cooking: they’re both so similar to designing in their creative processes! I’m a big fan of fusion as a musical and culinary concept. My parents both have an affinity for Indian classical music, but at the same time, they didn’t hesitate to buy me my first guitar or my first Beatles cassette. As far as food goes, my mum’s a big proponent of experimental cooking. Don’t tell the Italians this but I’ve seen her put amchur in pasta sauces to give it some zing. Needless to say, all that really keeps those creative juices flowing.

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What belief do you hold that you’d recommend to creatives of any kind?

I somewhat subscribe to Tim Brown’s philosophy of building a ‘T-shaped’ skill set, or a combination of depth as well as variety.

If you’re a designer or developer, know enough about the disciplines/professions ancillary to your line of work. Being an ‘I’ shaped individual (or having a singular, linear skill set) makes you rather disposable in today’s day and age. If, however, you can make yourself more indispensable to your boss or client, chances are you’re more likely to stick around and even be promoted. Moreover, having a broader understanding of stuff adjacent to your primary skill set just adds to your ability to delegate to and manage other people.

Do you have a ritual you perform before sitting down for creative work?

I have this somewhat terrible habit of procrastinating. Does that count?! Rather, I find that my best work (most of my informative IG posts) comes in bursts over a period of time.

I let the idea-grapes ferment in my mind-vat and pull the sludge out just when it’s got the perfect level of boozy appeal. Any longer and it turns to vinegar.

What myth about design needs to be debunked immediately and why?

Designers (and I plead guilty to this too) have this sort of ‘god complex’ that they’re changing the world, one product at a time. We aren’t. We’re not helping consumers, we’re helping businesses help consumers. Big difference. The modern design profession doesn’t exist without capitalism, so the sooner we realise this holier-than-thou approach that many creative professionals leave school with is nonsense, the better.

Our job is primarily to aid other professions and streamline them. Design isn’t absolute and it can’t exist in a void — or rather, doesn’t exist above other professions. A T-shaped developer with an eye for design (and no traditional design schooling) can be just as effective as a designer with 4 years of education.

This leads to my next point: focusing on actually changing the world.

When I asked some creatives to name the most prolific industrial designers they knew, two names made a constant appearance: Karim Rashid and Jony Ive… Karim’s title [bestowed by Time Magazine] happens to be ‘the Prince of Plastic’. Jony Ive was infamous for asking that iPhones and MacBooks be made so thin, that they couldn’t be pulled apart or repaired.

But through just subtle actions and nudges, designers can help move markets to be much more sustainable. It helps for us to look beyond plastic or beyond single-use mindsets because there’s no other group of people that’s there to push clients in the right direction.

Catch more of Sarang’s hot takes on Yanko Design’s website. In his favourite editorials, he talks about

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