A version of this article first appeared in Graphic Design USA on November 7, 2018.
Getting color right – the first time and consistently over time – is still a challenge. The ways in which people communicate about products and ideas change depending on the context and the knowledge of the people communicating, as well as the technology available for us to use. Pantone reduced this challenge to simple numbers with the Pantone Matching System and X-Rite has made specifying even more specific with multi-point spectral color data (16-31 numbers). But as changes persist, the color challenge has actually grown. Designers need more than just color specifications to adequately communicate with the people producing their products. They also need increasingly powerful visuals to inspire retail customers and end-user consumers to purchase their products. Companies who can be early leaders in presenting imagery to consumers that gives buyers confidence, compelling them to purchase, will realize clear advantages over their competitors. Here are four shifts I see that have increased the demand not just for specifics about color, but about the appearance of material. Getting color right is no longer enough. Now the challenge is to get appearance right.
1. Materials Are Changing, Have Become More Complex
Paints and other finishes have become more complex, with multiple layers of application, dimensional flecks of iridescence, even responsiveness to heat. Single fiber, organic materials like cotton and linen that were unchanged for hundreds of years have given way to materials that blend different fibers together. More synthetic materials have become more popular in the past few decades due to their durability and low-maintenance consumer benefits. More recently, due to people’s changing lifestyles and the corresponding athleisure trend (the primary driver of growth in the apparel industry (according to NPD group), polyester has become so mainstream that Pantone has created swatch standards using the material to meet demand. The more complicated the material gets, the harder it is to represent it virtually, and the less that color on its own can truly represent the fullness of what the eye can see. Color is only one of many aspects of appearance, which includes other components such as texture, gloss, translucency, effects (at minimum). As marketplace competition increases for brands, the need for differentiation becomes more important. The uniqueness of material is a differentiator and it needs to be more accurately communicated visually to the digital buyer.
2. The Virtualization of Design Is Transitioning From Art To Science
What we now call “virtual,” or a representation of a possible reality, is not really new. Designs used to be sketched by hand on tracing paper for easy iteration, in a very manual, time-consuming process. Designers now are expected to incorporate more variables into the design process, so they are designing in digital virtual environments where they can quickly change their view of the product, the color, the material and the lighting, for example. In the past, people didn’t approve things digitally, it was done artistically. Then, virtualization was achieved with artist renderings. Now, virtualization is a demanding science. If you’re only representing the material in your digital 3D design with its color, you’re not getting an accurate representation. It’s a poor digital twin. Designers need to be able to trust their monitors, to trust that the material they see on screen accurately represents the actual material. High fidelity representations help designers make design decisions and obtain stakeholder approvals. And, without ever spending energy and resources on making the physical product, designers can even get feedback from potential buyers earlier in the design process as well. The more real and lifelike the product image looks, the more certain you can be that the approval version is very close to what the final product will look like. This virtual design process can help to de-risk the overall product development process.
3. The Way People Shop Is Becoming More Screen-Based
Because people are shopping more and more on their phones or on other types of screens, the way that products appear online must match exactly the way they appear in real life. This requires companies to capture the true appearance of a product in online renderings – and this requires a shift beyond just color. If they don’t, they run the risk of having a lot of returns without more specific representation of the product. Capturing appearance also better enables marketers to virtually place products in lifestyle imagery without photoshoots. Technology has moved beyond virtualizing the ‘white sweep studio photo’ to virtualizing the entire environment. Instead of asking an artist to render the materials, software can accurately render the products, which gives everyone involved more confidence when selling using virtual images. Consumers want tools similar to what the product designers used in the design process. Why shouldn’t an e-commerce site allow visitors to preview the product beyond a hero image, enabling them to rotate their view of the product and zoom in to inspect the texture of the materials the product is made of, move the material to see how it drapes, even change the lighting to different times of the day.
4. Computing Power Is Exponentially Increasing
The pervasiveness of digital is always increasing, and so technology advances faster and faster. If you’re unfamiliar with Moore’s Law, it is the prediction that computing power, the speed of computer chips, will double every two years. The prediction has become more of a ‘law’ as it has held true since 1975. This increase in computing power has changed the way we talk about computer hardware. We have moved from talking about CPUs to GPUs (computer processing units to graphical processing units), and we have created new file types to encode graphics, color and now appearance (.AXF). Until now, companies couldn’t go beyond color, especially in one device. The separate devices that captured data about color, gloss, transparency and other elements of appearance are converging. The ability to store all this data, to transform it from spreadsheets into visual representations and to communicate it to all the internal teams that need it: all of this is only possible because computing power has grown so dramatically. People in this industry are always pushing against the computational power of the machines. Ten years ago, if we had proposed .AXF, everyone would have laughed at us, it would not have been feasible. No one had the space, the power or the time to accomplish what we can do today, and if you tried, you’d cause the system to fail. Think about it: you’d never take a bi-plane to Mars. It’s just not feasible. Technology advanced to meet the intentions of designers and materials renderers, who always knew that the faster you can compute, the more often you win by reacting to changes in consumer preferences faster, keeping your products relevant. We collect 16-220 gigabytes (GB) per material measurement in anywhere from 6-76 minutes. And, of course, this will change in five years!
But What Has Really Changed?
Though these shifts have increased the demands on appearance by businesses and designers, and the computer’s ability to deliver more dimensions of appearance has increased, the consumer requirement really hasn’t changed. Consumers always want to know what it is they are buying, with as much specific product information as possible. These shifts mentioned above have been driving the seller’s ability to communicate about the product. We used to tell the consumer: “it’s red,” and we’d show them a brochure or a photo (taken after the item was actually made). Now, many companies can show buyers a 3D, computer generated image of a product’s appearance. And there are additional tools available now, that take this further, sharing with consumers an experience that is dynamic and virtual, in which the exact materials in exact form with the exact lighting they wish have been rendered, all BEFORE the product has actually been made. Beyond pursuing the holy grail of just-in-time manufacturing, companies can extend the time during which their products are differentiated from rest of market. They can improve the result of product launches with more and more accurate testing points. Capturing appearance and presenting it to buyers helps brand leaders evolve consumer communication in line with the way people shop today online, in apps, in video, in CGI advertising, setting more accurate expectations consistently, across media. Brands using appearance-accurate digital materials in their design, supplier communication and consumer engagement are disrupting the status quo and gaining an advantage over their peers. Those who adopt and master this technology first will continue to drive the demand for the increased efficiencies within the company and better experience for the consumer.