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Standardisation: The Thief of Creativity?


In this article, fashion design veteran Andrew Dyer sets out to dispel the irrational fear that standardisation leads to the constriction of creativity.

Look these two terms up in a dictionary, or use a thesaurus to find a synonym for one or the other, and you will likely never find them adjacent to one another.  Talk to designers (our industry’s most vocal creatives) and many will react as though the very idea of any sort of standardisation is anathema to their spirit.  There is nothing surprising in that, given the status that we place on creativity and the role that it plays in differentiating one brand from another, and what most people see as the tempering or homogenising power of standardisation.

There is an innate suspicion, then, that standardisation – whatever form it takes – leads to conformity, and that this in turn stifles creativity. The ability to originate and innovate is the very essence of a company’s design capability; good design is the reason that consumers buy garments, after all, and every brand wants to encourage flair and individual thought amongst their design teams.  No one is arguing with that.  But what many designers and creative teams fail to realise is that standardisation is all around them – it just isn’t recognised as such.

So what is conformity? Formally defined, it is working or complying with rules or general custom – working within established practice.  Taken like this, we can explain to a designer that they already conform: they already work to a given set of rules. Every season they conform to a given set of colours in colour charts and seasonal palettes. They conform to a brief; a given set of design parameters, and the dictates of trend, of buyer’s demands, of manufacturer’s capabilities and perhaps most tellingly in today’s climate, price points.

[quote]All had different needs and different questions. All were looking for different solutions to their own problems.[/quote]

Explain all this and the designer would steadily realise and accept that, yes, they create within defined parameters and established patterns of working. But the same can’t be said for standardisation.  The word provokes cries of outrage.  No one wants to work to a standard, the designers might argue, as this invariably means that all designs will wind up the same.  In an industry as reliant on differentiation as fashion, standardisation must be fought, they might say.

I have encountered this reticence and this misunderstandings many times, in design rooms all over the world.  This fear of standardisation is almost universal, but, like many fears, it stems from a fundamental misconception rather than any real threat. And so, at this point, I like to tell a story that I hope illustrates the role of standardisation in modern design and helps to dispel any notions of it constraining or crushing creativity.

“A man was called into a well-known fashion company with the brief to inform the designers and the creative team about the latest updates to an equally well-known drawing application. He also planned to take the opportunity to introduce them to methods of best practice to keep file sizes down, amongst other things.

The crowd he spoke to included garment designers from various disciplines, including woven and knitted products for both sexes, childrenswear and accessory designers, and also graphic designers. All had different needs and different questions. All were looking for different solutions to their own problems.

There was, however, common ground: the drawing application used by all, or so the man thought.  It soon became apparent, though, that this common ground was a bumpy road with many levels. Some students were not as accustomed to aspects of the application as others. That was normal, the man reasoned: there are many reasons why students from different disciplines would not be overly familiar with all aspects of the application. But these differences persisted at virtually every level.

[quote]The ability to originate and innovate is the very essence of a company’s design capability; good design is the reason that consumers buy garments, after all.[/quote]

Could it be a lack of ability, the man wondered?  That would certainly be the first and easiest conclusion to come to – that some designers are simply better at using their tools than others.  The answer, however, turned out to be that while all of these designers (all working within the same company) used the same drawing application, not only did different departments use different versions, there were often different iterations in use within a single department.

He pressed them as to why this was. When asked why, the designers spoke of the cost of upgrading. Not so much a reason as a cynical observation, an indictment on management within the garment trade.  They told of more senior designers being the ones to benefit from any upgrades that were implemented. Juniors or newcomers would just have to make do. Resentment was rife. Not within the creative teams, but directed, again, at management. Furthermore, sharing ideas was challenging, the designers said.  Sending work to one other was fraught with difficulty. Designs created using the latest version of the drawing application would, obviously, include use of the latest tools and techniques. When these documents were sent to colleagues using an earlier version substitution occurred, or, even worse, an inability to load the document at all.

With the inter-departmental differences in application versions, though, these problems were not limited to individuals. When documents were sent to a central server for publication to a stylebook, for example, or forwarded to a PLM solution, these different versions would create difficulties and incompatibilities. Rather than wonder whether there was a better way, though, the designers shrugged their collective shoulders and carried on, assuming that this was just the way things had to be. Wasn’t that how it was in the fashion game? Weren’t all companies the same?

The discussion session now over, the man then took the designers into the room they were going to use for training. There, on the table, were identical top-of-the-range computers, each loaded with the latest version of the application they would be using during the rest of the day. For many, this was the first time they had worked with the most recent revision of the software, despite using it day in and day out.

The designers, without waiting for instruction, dived in and wanted to create and experiment. Now they all existed on a true common ground – something they had not done for some time.

No one was separated by inferior technology – only by the scope of his or her own abilities, which were in actuality far more closely aligned than the morning’s session had led people to believe. The man continued to instruct them on the advances in the application and ways to incorporate these changes into their working practice to facilitate easier working patterns, and the designers came to understand how standardisation could benefit them all.”

The moral of this tale is simple: sharing a common set of tools, at the same level, does not inhibit creativity, but rather stimulates and and encourages it – between departments and between individuals working more closely together.  Creativity exists at the individual and collective level, and rather than being constrained by standardisation, can actually be set free providing the platform for standardisation is the most up-to-date and that each end user is properly educated on its benefits.

In short, standardisation is far from the thief of creativity, and is not something to be feared.  We all live in a world of upgrades (to our phones tablets, televisions and computers) in our private lives, and we all want the latest and fastest, particularly when others can see it and when it allows us to interact with our peers on the best and most-commonly-accepted platform.  It follows that we shouldn’t fear the same in our business lives, and should instead embrace standardisation intelligently and in the interests of being as creative and productive as we can be.

Lydia Mageean Lydia Mageean has been part of the WhichPLM team for eight 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 our PLM Project Pack, or our Annual Publications, 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.