Before I started my first job as a design intern at Burberry, I wondered how all of the brands knew that The color that year would be burnt orange, leopard stripe or sherbet pink. How could they foresee this I wondered naively? As a consumer you may marvel at this too, seeing brands all have similar colors, trends, or print themes that align, even as they compete for your dollars.
Later when I attended Rhode Island School of Design, one of my professors called upon a quote of unclear origins which demystified innovation; “the best way to predict the future is to create it.”
And essentially this was true for a while. Trend forecasting companies, like Stylus and WGSN, brought together color and trend specialist from around the world and wrote up elaborate reports for each season and category, forecasting the future. These reports and memberships were expensive, but this only helped to align the future, and brands unwillingness to step outside of these trends, which then manifested the forecasts as truths. The reality is a slightly more complex version than the brutal summary given by the Anna Wintour like character, played by Meryl Streep, in The Devil Wears Prada.
After design school I moved into innovation design, also known as white space or blue sky, every company has a different spin on the same goal. We are leapfrogging the current designs and aiming for 3-8 years out. Trend forecasting and street fashion are not relevant, it is challenging and risky with a high failure rate, which is a big part of why designers thrive in this space. It is hard meaningful work, which allows us to predict, and in some ways therefore shape futures.
Why do we bother to develop and design so far out, especially if it fails so often?
Many material developments, technologies, or partnerships in this area take years of research and development to fine tune so innovation teams require a long runway. And because of the long timelines constant course correction, much like space navigation, is required. Best bets are made based on qualitative and quantitative knowledge about the brand, user and the market, as well as partnering technology and lead times, but as the project progresses and more is known about these aspects, as well as the future market, the projects evolve.
Current examples of products from innovation type teams which reached the market include Synthetic Spider Silk “Moon Parka” by North Face, Adidas FutureCraft Biofabric shoe, Tierra’s 100% biobased jacket fossil fuel free Deterra Jacket, Pauline van Dongen designs solar-powered windbreaker for nature reserve guides or Patagonia’s Yulex Natural rubber wetsuit, Nike Flyknit to name just a handful.
These are generally costly long term projects, and sometimes they result only in concept cars; expensive high level products which don’t necessarily create huge revenue, or may not go to market at all. Having worked on more than a few projects in this space this can be painful to designers, who strive to create impact through innovation. But concept cars can create enormous media hype for a brand, and in turn sell pull downs; simpler more affordable versions which have a broader reach than an expensive innovation product's pricepoint. Pull downs are often where revenue is gained from the innovation investment, ironically, and hopefully where the brand deploys some of the advancements in a more widespread, impactful manner beyond the initial splash of media hype.
Although large corporations are chasing innovation as hard as they can, as that edge which will keep them front of mind and center of hearts with consumers, the increasing reality is that start ups and satellite groups are more nimble and can disrupt with less capital. It is the heart of startups today, all one has to do is look to silicon valley, although as I was painfully reminded in a business fellowship largely with tech classmates, scaling up physical goods is quite different than digital. Still increasingly, game changing design innovations, materials, and even manufacturing moves, even those adopted by the big companies, are created by start ups.
Looking back to my early days at Burberry where color forecasts were the driving future forecast seems like 100 years ago not 15. Today the rules are entirely up to those bold enough to write them.