grids
Artificially intelligent web design sounds great in theory, but unfortunately The Grid doesn't deliver PHOTO: Andrew Childress

The rapid evolution of artificially intelligent technology has been impressive, and we can only speculate at the industries AI is set to change forever.

One of those industries may be the web design space, where San Francisco-based The Grid is one company that’s trying to change the landscape with its AI-driven website builder.

Test Driving The Grid

The Grid claims to leverage AI to design websites so developers don’t have to. This naturally plays into the hands of businesses looking to deploy microsites and landing pages at speed and at scale.

While AI website building isn’t unique to The Grid (hey there, Wix), The Grid seems to offer a classier experience and a potentially more powerful AI engine, which is helping it pique the interest of large brands looking to employ microsites and landing pages faster and smarter.

To see if The Grid is worthy of being used in such situations, I took it for a spin.

The Grid: First Impressions

“Wouldn’t it be better if websites just made themselves?”

That’s what The Grid asks in its promo video, which was one of the ways the project gained so much attention and generated so much hype immediately after its conception back in 2014. The Grid spent the better part of two years in beta before launching in 2016.

Today, The Grid is out of beta, and its AI bot — which is called Molly — has already designed “over 200,000 websites” according to Jeff Woods, The Grid’s Chief Evangelist.

The Grid: Getting Started

As with most website builders, The Grid asks you for your name, email and desired site title during the signup process. Then, you can either choose your desired color palette, or upload an image — like your company logo — and let Molly select the right colors for your site.

The Grid: Colors

The Grid’s dashboard itself looks clean at first glance, but after tinkering with it, I couldn’t help but feel that it was incomplete. Most of the buttons, for example, are lazily designed and poorly positioned. 

The Grid: User Interface

I was expecting to be shown some templates to choose from, or at the very least, be asked some questions about the purpose of my site in order to give Molly some clues to act upon. But there was nothing of the sort.

Instead, I pushed on by embedding a YouTube video into the header, creating a call-to-action button, writing a short blog post and uploading a blockquote.

I then checked out the front end to see what Molly had done with all this new activity, and I wasn’t impressed.

The Grid: Design

It seems as if the only way The Grid lets you have any input, as far as design goes, is by choosing that initial color palette. After that, The Grid just seems to go ahead and choose a design for you, based on almost zero input from you, the site owner.

Unimpressed by what Molly had done with my first site, I decided to set up a second. This time, I opted for a black and white palette before throwing a Twitter feed and a bunch of images at her. Here’s what she came up with:

first blog on grid

The website itself is okay looking, but there just doesn’t seem to be much use for it outside of serving as a portfolio. Once again, the layout was chosen entirely by Molly, without my guidance or consent.

And although I like her work this time around, it’s not really what I wanted. To make matters worse, there’s absolutely nothing I can do to change Molly’s artificial mind.

What’s more, this blind and pseudo-intelligent process really is all The Grid seems to offer.

The Grid: Core Features

As for the features found on the dashboard (which looks better than most of the websites I’ve seen Molly generate), they include:

  • Multi-site management from one dashboard
  • Favicons
  • Google, Facebook and Twitter analytics integrations
  • GitHub syncing
  • Mobile editing
  • Custom domain names

As for the AI technology itself, Lovisa Johansson’s investigation into the inner workings of Molly’s artificial brain gives us a pretty good technical insight into how everything comes together:

“All computationally intensive work at The Grid; such as image analyzing and image processing, are off-loaded as jobs in RabbitMQ. Instead of having a web server waiting for a result immediately, it is free to keep processing other requests. All jobs that are added to the queue are consumed by Heroku workers running with MsgFlo.”

Molly’s AI comes into play when she decides how your content should be displayed, which exact colors to use and how to crop images, based on her recognition of faces and other focal points. However, that seems to be all she does, making for bland — and often identical —websites.

This became apparent when I browsed through some of the websites produced by other customers. The website pictured, for example, uses the same layout as my first attempt, while it took me no time at all to find a replica of my second attempt.

The Grid: Pricing

Starting from $96 per year, The Grid’s price is immediately difficult to defend, adding yet more disappointment to the mix. 

The Grid Pricing

A large brand looking to produce multiple microsites and portfolios might be tempted, but from what I’ve seen from The Grid, it will struggle to attract any users from rival website builders that are not only cheaper, but far easier to use.

The Verdict on The Grid

The Grid’s AI technology supposedly works hard behind the scenes to select colors, crop images and design websites — but sadly, I couldn’t see the fruits of its labor.

Based on the few sites I created, and my research on what other customers have been saying and producing, building websites with The Grid feels more like throwing content into a machine that simply applies it to a few set templates with varying colors, rather than intelligently using it to build a custom site.

Artificially intelligent web design sounds great, but when Molly makes major design decisions based on nothing more than your chosen colors and the images you upload, it feels like you’re taking a gamble with every new site you create. Will I like it? Will I hate it? Either way, there’s no going back to change it.

In fact, the only way to change what Molly produces is to renege on your color and image selections, throw some new content up and — once again — hope for the best.

Unfortunately for The Grid, I’m not alone in having reservations about the quality of its software. Many Reddit users have publicly aired their disdain, with some asking for refunds and others calling it a “borderline scam”.

While The Grid is certainly not a scam (The Grid is definitely a tangible product whose CEO, Dan Tocchini, recently announced that the company is working hard on The Grid V3), it makes sense that customers would feel that way, mainly because of how dramatically The Grid falls short of its own hype.

Pros

  • Going from the signup page to having a fully functioning website is extremely fast
  • Multi-site management is easy, making The Grid ideal for hosting microsites and landing pages

Cons

  • The Grid has an unpolished and sometimes buggy user interface
  • The Grid produces poorly designed websites by default, with a few exceptions that can be described as mediocre at best
  • All the websites produced by The Grid seem to bear similarities
  • You have almost no control over the design of the website. And if you don’t like the design, you’ll have to start all over again

Not Today, Molly

To conclude, my answer to The Grid’s (admittedly rhetorical) question, “Wouldn’t it be better if websites just made themselves?” — is going to be a resounding maybe, but certainly not with The Grid’s shoddy and expensive technology.