With our social media feeds awash with weird and wacky computer-generated images of superyacht designs, Julia Zaltzman explores the perils and prospects of robot-led design....
Imagine a fleet of concept yachts straight out of Tolkien’s Middle-earth, or a jellyfish-inspired sailing boat with billowing tendril-like sails. In the world of computer-generated yacht design, artificial intelligence (AI) is less blue-sky thinking, more DreamWorks Animation, executed in the blink of an eye. What once took months now takes seconds.
Yet, for all its endless creative possibilities, some question the grey lines around AI’s morality, copyright infringement and lack of original thought. As the maritime industry continues to embrace technological advancements, does AI have a place in the highly skilled arena of superyacht design?
“I think it has enormous potential, but it’s not there yet,” says Martin Francis. “It gives you wonderful-looking things that are absolutely seductive, but it doesn’t understand basic yacht design.”loading...
The British designer has been dabbling with Midjourney, a generative AI programme, with varying degrees of success. “It does fanciful things that just don't look right – a Mercedes-Benz-inspired boat with wheels, for example – and it has no idea what an inverted bow is.” Wheels aside, he delights over the possibilities and “can’t wait for it to get easier to use.” Francis belongs to a veteran pool of designers who honed their craft using tracing paper, splines and weights. “It used to take me months to produce designs for a client. Now I can create something in five minutes.”
Efficiency and speed are two reasons why Rob Armstrong, creative director of ThirtyC Yacht Design, uses Midjourney for idea generation. “It's another tool that gives us more scope to explore different ideas quickly,” he says, citing clients’ demanding expectations as a motivator for using AI to speed up the design process. “When I first started, you could get away with a hand sketch or one visual of the interior. Now clients expect visuals of every space, which puts increasing pressure on us to get it done quicker.”loading...
Armstrong uses AI to explore different creative avenues based on his own sketches. “It can take you down some interesting routes that may not have naturally occurred to you, like a tiny chamfer that comes all the way forward or the tonal contrasts of an interior,” he explains. “But it still requires us as designers to know what will and won’t work.”
Marnix Hoekstra, co-creative director at Vripack, agrees. “I can't stress enough that AI is just another tool of the trade,” he says. “Alongside our pencil, computers and virtual reality, we use AI to give our clients a visual representation of a sketched concept in a quicker and more efficient way.” Computer-generated designs require sketches or text prompts to kickstart the process. Certain keywords, such as ‘hyper-realistic’ and ‘ultra-detailed’, will deliver more enhanced results, while AI algorithms can simulate or optimise renderings to produce larger detailed images or highlight aspects that aren’t working. For many, the premise of a yacht concept is to push the envelope with unconventional designs. For Simon Rowell, creative director at Bannenberg & Rowell, no new and discernible integration of AI technology has proven alluring enough to find its way into the studio’s workflow, yet.
“Excitable and frankly grim Instagram posts are neither threatening nor assisting yacht design,” he says. “However, crucially, this is machine learning, so an ever increasing bank of imagery and feedback might help to build a more sophisticated response to design problems in the near future.” “The real crossing of the Rubicon will be on the field of true origination,” he adds. “Designers and architects already take the sum of all their knowledge and research to create meaningful, original designs. Machines will get there, and then it will be useful, and then it will be dangerous.”
Copyright infringement is perhaps the largest area of contention. Whereas Adobe and Canva pay contributors a royalty to upload content, platforms like Midjourney scour the internet to form an image without any licensing requirements. For Tim Heywood, the online harvesting of designers’ ideas is nothing short of plagiarism. “Creating a design of originality is the aim and there are no shortcuts of any value,” he says.
Hoekstra argues it’s less about shortcuts and more about reshaping the landscape in which yacht designers work. “I don’t need my team to spend three weeks creating an automated video as I have an AI for that,” he says. “Instead, we focus on producing original designs with better manufacturable areas enhanced by 3D printed prototypes.” While attempts to strike a balance between human endeavours and technological efficiency continue to muddy the waters, advances in AI continue at breakneck speed.
“You've got to adapt and change with the world around you, and that includes using the tools that are available to you,” says Armstrong. “It’s about getting people to use their expertise more efficiently,” adds Hoekstra, “and harnessing AI’s useful and powerful potential in the creative domain.”