When I work with clients and speak about ‘process’ often eyes begin to roll. And I understand and respect that. Working with a blank page is what we (as designers) were taught. No constraints. Just freedom to think creatively, brainstorm and design. Innovating without boundaries is easy — when you have millions of dollars and resources. But that isn’t the reality for many people or companies. There are processes and boundaries (costs, resources, time, etc.) that we must adhere to.
Tell me if this sounds familiar.
You are working on the next season’s collection. You have picked out your material and selected a color from the color wall called Arctic Blue. You send your work off for samples and the supplier provides you with several blue samples and none are Arctic Blue. The supplier returns with a new set of dyed blue swatches. This goes round and round, and eventually you land on the perfect Artic Blue. Your team moves forward with the collection. Other groups within the company are also using Arctic Blue for their items in this collection. Thousands of yards of material are dyed all over the world, sewn, packed and shipped to their final destination, stores. Something unfolds as the displays are put together. Each category has a different blue.
Houston, we have a problem.
I have worked with hundreds of people, and after years of listening to thousands of designers, I can say, this is a common experience. One client even calls it a ‘death spiral’.
The intent of the design was good, but the lack of a standard process pushed things off the rails. A process is a series of steps and decisions that occur on a sequential path. Humans in general are very process driven. We follow processes every day, at work and at home.
There are many factors that go into the design, color selection and execution of a product. The material choice, fabric, costs, logistics, labor and more. And the bigger the brand the more complex the supply chain. Without a standard process, it’s easy for things to go wrong.
Product Lifecyle Management (PLM) is a digital form of a tech pack. A tech pack is the recipe or instruction manual for suppliers to make the product. A tech pack goes by other names like a specification pack, bill of materials (BOM), or garment worksheet (GWS). To say it simply, it is an excel file that lists all the components with the instructions on how to build the product in each size.
The suppliers, located around the globe, follow the PLM or tech pack instructions down to the letter. Suppliers are often in regions where English is not their primary language. They rely heavily on visuals. I had one customer who said “if I draw a shirt with the three different arm sleeve lengths: small, medium and large, I will get a three-armed shirt. Each shirt for each size must be drawn and laid out.” These instructions are critical to the product, and suppliers stringently follow the interpretation of the tech pack.
I say ‘interpretation’ because a PLM system is different. The difference between a tech pack and a PLM is that PLM is digital and is connected to people within the brand’s organization and their suppliers. Suppliers upload data, or images, and communicate through the PLM software with their counterparts on the other side of the world. Working with a PLM system is the first step in establishing a successful process.
A PLM is only as good as its users. Case in point to the Arctic Blue. Brands use several color standards, like CSI, Coloro, RAL or Pantone. These brands will also have their own brand colors. These colors may have names like Artic Blue but that is to make it easier to remember. Every color standard has a corresponding number. While color companies may change or repurpose names every decade, the numbers for the color do not change and that is important.
The color numbers are what suppliers use. These standards come with color data, like spectral data, or Quality Textile Format (QTX), a proprietary format used for the exchange of color created by DataColor. There can be an Arctic Blue for CSI, another Arctic Blue in Coloro and the brand owner may have named a similar blue Arctic Blue. But each one of those Arctic Blues will have a different number and system behind it. Each has a different recipe that suppliers follow. If teams aren’t using a standard process, you will get many variations of blue when you see the final Artic Blue collection.
Follow the Rosy Red Road.
Now imagine you have a new season of clothes to design. You are looking for the most wonderful rose color. Instead of starting with a set of Pantone, CSI, or Coloro swatches, you first work with your team to determine the materials being used. Normally you may begin using the company’s material library and pick out materials and start the process.
Instead, you contact your color material team and ask them to set up a meeting and show you all the possible Rosy Reds that can be produced on heather, staple polyester, and a polyester blend with UV brightening agent.
You sit down with the team and review the samples. Some are brighter, another looks wonderful on the poly but not the heather. Eventually you land on a Rosy Red that you like on all three materials. You high five and go back to your desk, filled with energy and excitement.
A few months go by and you bump into your color and material member. She asks how the collection is coming along. It’s great and you are about to send out your Rosy Red to the suppliers. She reminds you that Rosy Red is simply a word you use, and not something the supplier uses. You thank her and go back to your desk. You open up your PLM system, and look at your digital tech pack. You validate that the Rosy Red is actually being called out as a CXF, LAB or another specific manner the material team provides. It is all updated, and your samples come back exactly as you expected.
The samples are shared on the mood board and passed around. Everyone likes the color consistency across the materials. Your boss nods, impressed; you achieved your new Rosy Red in the first round.
Guardrails make you a better designer.
By putting up boundaries, a process in which to work from, everyone works effectively and efficiently. There is less churn of the samples, fewer meetings and more time to be creative.
Choosing your material and colors together, early in the process, sets everyone’s expectations. Each team in each category works in a manner that allows each part of the design to manufacturing process to communicate effectively.
You may be asking, “how big a deal is this?” I can tell you it quickly adds up to thousands of dollars and is more sustainable. Some brands lose millions on rework, and waste. We talk about sustainability and being good to the environment. It is estimated that 200 tons of fresh water is used per ton of dyed fabric. Working within a process removes waste and that has a significant impact on the planet.
Implementing standard processes requires no new technology investment. It does take education and training to ensure that everyone follows and communicates digitally through the process.
With a process in place, the Rosy Red collection is off to great start. It may not have been easy to find the right color and materials for the season, but I can tell you it will be a lot easier and more enjoyable than sitting in that death spiral going round and round.
Products go to market faster, expectations are set and defined early, your boss is impressed, and you are the hero. Time for a victory lap.
In her latest post for WhichPLM, resident Expert Shoshana Burgett explores the bad reputation ‘process’ has been given in our industry, and how we can combat that. Shoshana has held positions at X-Rite, Pantone, Xerox and currently runs colorkarma.
Originally published at https://www.whichplm.com on March 30, 2021.