I’ve spent the last couple weeks being really impressed by remove.bg. If you haven’t used it, it’s a rather remarkable utility that, well, removes backgrounds from photos. Created by Benjamin Groessing and David Fankhauser, the website’s a marvel: just about every photo I’ve thrown at it has left me with photos of people and only people, isolated against a transparent background.

Two photos of my sister and me. The first photo is the original, and has a background; the second photo has had its background automatically removed by remove.bg.

Like I said, it’s pretty remarkable. Masking photos isn’t exactly the most entertaining part of my job, and seeing ten minutes’ work reduced to a few seconds’ work? There’s no other way to describe the experience: it feels magical.

With that said, it does remind me of two articles I’d read earlier this year, on how Netflix uses a suite of complex tools and algorithms to personalize the artwork or imagery displayed for their titles.

An example of Netflix’s technology analyzing a frame of video for “compelling facial expressions.” (Source: The Netflix Tech Blog)

On more than a few sessions tinkering with remove.bg, I was reminded of this sentence:

As our Original content slate continues to expand, our technical experts are tasked with finding new ways to scale our resources and alleviate our creatives from the tedious and ever-increasing demands of digital merchandising.

“AVA: The Art and Science of Image Discovery at Netflix”

Emphasis mine. Because this line spells it out pretty clearly: Netflix created an array of automated image production solutions because it would have been far more expensive to hire enough designers to achieve an equivalent scale.

As wildly impressive as Netflix’s solution is, as miraculous as remove.bg feels, I can’t help but think of the design jobs that will be displaced by them. Heck, my first design job involved a considerable amount of production work. Adjusting, cropping, and masking a truckload of photos wasn’t exactly glorious work, mind you, but it was a job. And all things told, it was a pretty excellent way to learn some fundamental skills.

In the face of automated technologies invented to “scale resources” more effectively, what does that career path look like now? Our industry has a relatively short history, but it’s filled with attempts to automate solutions to perceived problems. That involves everything from using bots to replace personal assistants, administrators, and customer support positions, to using image recognition and design systems to automate the prototyping process. Maybe it’s time we shift our approach: instead of asking ourselves if something can be automated, maybe we should start asking who’ll be affected once it is.