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Changes in CMF

To quote a design consultant responsible for the look and feel of the Microsoft Xbox 360, “CMF is a specialized area of design that focuses on color, material and finish development. This involves trend research, materials and processes R&D, analysis, strategy and lots of creative thinking… A CMF designer to me is someone who cares about the details of a product and how those details can change perceptions or feelings towards the product.” – R.A.M.

Until recently, CMF has been pigeon-holed as a secondary phase in the design refinement process. With the need for brand differentiation becoming ever more critical, however, CMF is currently experiencing substantial growth not only as a critical aspect of the development process, but in some sectors, a distinct career role unto itself; To the extent that, at any given time, we’re running at least one, if not more searches for professional candidates whose primary focus is on color, material, and finish.

Correlated with this trend is an increasing level of sophistication for CMF on the part of brands and designers. Whereas in the past, one specification may have served across the board, brands will often now spec combinations unique to each their retail outlets. This is particular evident if you track brands and their product line exclusives for big box retailers – Best Buy, Target, Wal-Mart and CostCo to name a few. Footwear brands have been doing this for years; developing different CMF collections for each of their retailers, from Modell’s and DSW, to Dicks and Foot Locker.

Retailers themselves are getting into the game by developing their own branded private-label products – for example: Cobalt (Lowes), Black & Decker (Sears), or Husky (Home Depot).

CMF matters – for brand and product distinction from retailer to retailer, as well as within the category for low-end to high-end differentiation.  To this end, developing, sourcing, tracking, and analyzing the effects and success of a CMF library, and maintaining all this, is quite the feat. Not to mention juggling the existing demands of brand language continuity, growth targets, and new market penetration.

Furthermore, the specialty itself is constantly changing – often beyond the scope of even the savviest of industrial design generalists. Case in point, whereas past materials were sourced off-the-shelf, many current developers conceive and design their own materials to keep pace with novel, ever-evolving technological demands such as electrical conductivity, state-changing capabilities, sensitivity to biological outputs including heat, sweat, and salinity, and even on-the-fly camouflage. Such designers occupy a niche off-shoot of the CMF umbrella, dubbed CMD for Color, Material Design.

Simply put, the days of CMF as an added bonus and discrete “step” are long gone and the nuanced CMF skill set that the market is now demanding, demands a design specialist.

So what’s the catch? At first glance, this pipeline of specialists appears somewhat in short supply; that is because, until recently, many designers counted CMF as just one of their many tools; rarely a professional focus on its own.

So what does that mean for designers and design employers? It means a whole new sector is emerging, with myriad opportunities to shape it, guide it and capitalize on… and you might just want to be part of it.