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Redesigning the Creative Toolkit

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In his first guest article for WhichPLM, Matt Forman, Director Fiery DesignPro at EFI, talks creative design. EFI is redesigning the creative toolkit with its range of affordable, fashion and textile-focused Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop plugins.

Creative design is the beating heart of the fashion and textile industries. Only great design can invent new looks. Only real creativity can turn the wildest catwalk inspirations into street-ready styles. And only a combination of both can deliver the kind of on-trend, on-cost products that keep the commercial engines of the world’s favourite brands running.

But despite being essential to the success of every product and every collection, core creative design has either been overlooked or slow to embrace new opportunities when it comes to the crux of digital transformation: making lives easier with technology.

Mission-critical platforms like PLM and emerging technologies like IoT have transformed other parts of the product lifecycle – from technical development to sourcing, and manufacturing to marketing. Across all these different activities, new tools and workflows have revolutionised collaboration, connected people on different continents, and replaced labour-intensive processes with seamless automation.

While that has been happening, though, the way fashion and textile designers work has remained fairly static. After moving from manual sketching to drawing vector artwork in Adobe® Illustrator®, the process of putting virtual pen to virtual paper to create silhouettes, build patterns, or assemble colour ranges has barely changed. After shifting their raster graphics work to Adobe Photoshop®, designers have mostly continued using it as-is, with little evolution or adaptation over time.

From the outside the lack of technology adoption in design might be difficult to believe. After all, 3D is currently hitting its stride for fitting and market testing, and digital material printing is bringing sample creation back on-shore. From that point of view, it looks like the digital side of design is undergoing the same technology-led revolution as the rest of the product lifecycle.

But there is an important difference. These new technologies are only being applied around the day-to-day work actually creating new styles. Essential design tasks like sketching new styles and components, designing prints and artwork, pitching colour ranges, and creating complex patterns and weaves, have been left mostly untouched.

The same goes for integration between Illustrator and PLM. This is now common in every well-organised retailer or brand, but while it makes it easier for designers’ intent and information to percolate to other teams, it does little to improve the way that designers generate that information to begin with.

And this gap between the way technology has streamlined other activities and core creative design’s reticence to adopt entirely new tools, has a real-world impact. Market pressures are forcing brands to lean on their designers to create more styles, be more inventive, and do it all faster than ever – but those designers are not equipped with the right tools to produce their best work under that kind of pressures.

In this article, I want to make the case that carefully introducing new technology and solutions – or making better use of existing ones – can help designers to reclaim lost creative time and improve the performance and profitability of your business at the same time.

But before we reach those benefits, I want to talk about where the problems in creative design originate, and why they have persisted when technology has provided solutions at other stages of the product lifecycle.

Adobe can be an awkward fit.

The major disconnect between the demands placed on designers and the environments they work in is that, as powerful as Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop are, they are not ideal fashion and textile tools out of the box.

Illustrator is a multi-industry solution that can be adapted to fit specific niches – which is why its plugin and extension marketplace is thriving. As sold, Illustrator may be the gold standard for vector design, but it is not tailored for fashion and textile workflows. Photoshop, similarly, is intended to be used as an image editing and compositing tool by everyone from professional photographers to print designers. It does not ship with ready-made fashion and textile tools, actions, or training.

For instance, creating new colour ranges for a style is an arduous process in off-the-shelf parts of the Adobe Creative Suite®. A designer has to create a series of squares and then manually fill these with colours that may only be a percentage point different on a single colour channel.

Designers also need to manually create line sheets to present their collections, and preparing files to be sent for production is another labour-intensive task. Both of these are usually done in Illustrator, using home-grown templates.

And this is only scraping the surface. Designers who create repeating patterns, or who need to manage knits and weaves, are being asked today to do all this by hand. And the same designers might spend hours focusing on a single design, creating symmetrical or asymmetrical looks, or building and manually distributing a collection-specific colour palette. Illustrator and Photoshop do not automate any of this.

Creativity is a hard thing to change.

So, with all this manual effort and administrative work keeping them from spending more time on creative tasks, why do design teams keep working this way? And why have technology project teams not made it a priority to find the right tools to lift some of these burdens off their designers’ shoulders?

One reason is simple inertia: gaps between seasons are vanishingly small, and it is often easier for designers to do the same thing again than overhaul a process that technically still works. Because as time-sapping as their current, broad-brush tools might be, they do not have the luxury of acclimatising to different ones when their jobs need to be performed a little bit faster every day.

Another explanation is that design and project teams do not necessarily realise that compelling alternatives to basic Illustrator or Photoshop exist – or do not know where to find them. And where they have identified new tools or technologies that could streamline or automate designers’ day-to-day tasks, they have come with downsides or barriers to adoption that have outweighed their potential benefits or made them too time-consuming to implement. They might have been priced too highly, for example, or have demanded too much adjustment and re-training compared to the environments designers already know and love. Or they might have been rich, fully-featured platforms with the drawback that taking full advantage of them would require designers to migrate their workflows to an unfamiliar environment.

A problem for design is a problem for everyone.

Understanding the challenges facing creative designers, and having some idea of why their uptake of technology has been slow, it is no wonder that there are bottlenecks in the product design process. Without a comprehensive, comfortable working environment, and without the benefit of automation, designers are spending a lot of time on non-creative tasks that need to be completed according to a constantly-accelerating calendar.

But it is also important to remember that the effects of these bottlenecks are felt far beyond the designer’s desk. The overall efficiency and profitability of any brand begins with creative design, and from sourcing strategy to store layout, every upstream and downstream process relies to some degree on data generated or inputted by the designer as part of their creative process.

Working in the wrong design environment, then, is not just a problem for designers. It can (and does) manifest itself in longer lead times, less variety in an assortment, slimmer margins, and compromises on fit, brand identity or quality.

Or to look at it the opposite way, the entire business stands to benefit from fashion and textile-specific functionality that can be added to the environments that designers are accustomed to – Illustrator and Photoshop – without requiring too much money or time to be spent on either the software itself, or the training required to make the most of it.

Designing the right creative environment.

I have spent a lot of time working with garment and textile designers around the world, so I know from experience that the same challenges and the same potential benefits are common. Rather than replacing the design software they have grown comfortable with, or adding more complexity to an already demanding job by learning entirely new tools, designers around the world want to bring a broad suite of additional functionality into the environments they already use.

So I believe the solution to the chokehold that administrative and procedural tasks have on creative time is to make Illustrator and Photoshop fit the needs of designers, rather than the other way around.

With the right alterations and additions to their working environments, designers’ day-to-day lives can run so much smoother, with no additional learning. And by selecting the right tools to make those alterations, that environment should also be able to evolve as the quickly as the fashion and textile industries do – helping your creative teams to seize new style and market opportunities without additional headaches.

Automating the process of creating colour ranges can turn a multi-hour job into the work of a couple of clicks. Rather than building complex pattern and drops by hand, designers could let software handle the repeats and create scalable designs at the same time. And instead of taking hours to get a single design to an approval stage, a designer could trial several possibilities in the same span of time – choosing their favourite to move forward with.

And the benefits of better tailoring the tools your designers already use (rather than overhauling them completely) will be business-wide. More innovative styles; better data governance; cleaner and more accurate technical specifications; and quicker time to market.

By making the right investments in technology, at the right scale, and ensuring they come with the right level of ongoing support, we can super-charge the engine that drives the entire industry forward.

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Lydia Mageean Lydia Mageean has been part of the WhichPLM team for over six years now. She has a creative and media background, and is responsible for maintaining and updating our website content, liaising with advertisers, working on special projects like the Annual Review, and more.Joining mid-2013 as our Online Editor, she has since become WhichPLM’s Editor. In addition to taking on writing and interviewing responsibilities, Lydia has also become the primary point of contact for news, events, features and other aspects of our ever-growing online content library and tools.