DISEGNO #18

Trend or Foe?

London

3 July 2018

Around the turn of the 20th century, sociologists such as Rudolf von Jhering, Georg Simmel and Thorstein Veblen argued that trends trickled down from the élite to the masses. The highest-ranking members of society sought to differentiate themselves through their leisure activities and conspicuous expenditure on goods and services, and the middle and lower classes then emulated them, compelling the élite to change again to set themselves apart. “In modern civilized communities[…] the members of each stratum accept as their ideal of decency the scheme of life in vogue in the next higher stratum,” Veblen wrote in his 1899 text The Theory of the Leisure Class.

That theory doesn’t hold up so well in 2018, when traditional social hierarchies are less entrenched and our range of influences far more diverse and complicated. In 1980, the anthropologist Grant McCracken, author of Culture and Consumption (1990), pointed out that social groupings had become more complex and that such groups tended to appropriate the fashions of others selectively, rather than straightforwardly emulate them. In his 1975 essay ‘From Élite Fashion to Mass Fashion’, the academic R.T. Horowitz argued that mass fashion had supplanted élite fashion, while Charles W. King’s 1963 essay ‘Fashion Adoption: A Rebuttal to the “Trickle-Down” Theory’ posited that media exposure had allowed trends to be adopted simultaneously at all levels. Today a craze such as “millennial pink” or “glitter tongue” (a beauty fad that is exactly what it sounds like) can spread across the world through millions of Instagram feeds, which is why major fashion brands court millennial social-media influencers in addition to pursuing mainstream celebrity endorsements. (Of course, today’s élite has influence in this world too – in February, the social media app Snapchat lost $1.3bn in market value after socialite Kylie Jenner tweeted that she didn’t use it anymore.) Meanwhile, as streaming and on-demand video have become more prevalent, television adverts have nowhere near the impact that they did when everyone clustered around the same prime-time shows. A 2010 survey by YouGov for Deloitte revealed that nearly 90 per cent of television viewers always skip through adverts. Audiences are unlikely to have rebounded since then.

Against that backdrop, the influence of traditional tastemakers – magazines, big-name brands and the select individuals who visit catwalk shows and design fairs – is waning. Meanwhile trend-forecasting consultancies offering reports and analytics have emerged as a powerful, yet relatively invisible, force. In January 2011, the media business Emap (now Ascential) reported that WGSN, the trend-forecasting company it bought in 2005, brought in around the same amount of revenue during the previous year as all its magazines put together. The division, which advises Starbucks and Nike among others, has since launched a range of global summits, modestly subtitled “creating tomorrow”.

Of course, trend-forecasting is not new to fashion and design – Dutch design consultant Li Edelkoort has offered her wisdom to brands such as Coca-Cola, Nissan, Estée Lauder, and Galeries Lafayette since the 1970s, but Edelkoort is primarily lauded for her personal instincts and experience, as much as her research-based insights. “I listen like a slave to intuition,” she was quoted saying in Dwell magazine back in 2016. In contrast, technology-driven trend forecasting of the kind promised by WGSN – long common in the worlds of finance and economics – is relatively recent within consumer fashion and design, newly facilitated by the availability of online data and communications technology. More powerful than focus groups and marketing surveys, data-driven insights allow brands to directly and precisely target markets. WGSN’s Instock division, launched in 2013, predicts bestsellers using past sales figures as well as tracking what people click on as they browse online. London-based agency Edited uses AI to aggregate and analyse sales, opinions on social media and other information. “Every time you see a product on discount, it’s because the wrong decisions were made,” its co-founder Julia Fowler told The Business of Fashion. “This leads to a lot of wastage in the industry. I wanted to fix that problem.” Meanwhile, the neologism-laden “tribes” listed on the website of The Future Laboratory’s LSN Global division – “young Vietnamese luxurians”, “fastronomic foodies” and “identity sharders” (those who “are using social media to channel multiple voices or find their own”) – reveal the detail to which you can drill down in today’s connected world. Of course, the best of these agencies combine technology with human nuance and analysis, but it’s easy to see why hard numbers appeal to businesses: rather than taking a risk by developing a line of products based on intuition, why not leverage huge amounts of information to spot patterns, then tailor your offering to people’s exact desires?

Franklin and Till built their practice on their backgrounds in textiles and materials research, using these disciplines to develop their forecasting models.

The danger, of course, is that research presented without substantive interpretation can result in banal conclusions. “We’ve been to so many events where trend forecasters present the latest seasonal trends and make sweeping statements without any justification,” says Kate Franklin, who together with Caroline Till has run the Franklin Till design consultancy in East London since 2010. “We heard one big agency say, ‘Pastel camouflage will save the world.’ Another might say, ‘Next season we’re all going to be eating flatbread and everything is going to be flat,’ and then put together some beautiful images and abstract, poetic statements. But where’s the ‘why’; the context; where it’s all coming from?”

Based in a compact space in a cavernous converted industrial building in Dalston, Franklin Till premises its practice on providing exactly this kind of contextual research and analysis. Prior to establishing their studio, its founders spent years working in trend forecasting, notably at The Future Laboratory – a “futures consultancy” that provides “trends intelligence, strategic research and innovation strategy” to the likes of Google, Ernst & Young and BMW – where Franklin served as creative director and Till design trends editor. Prior to this, Franklin worked at the retail and brand consultancy Fitch under former Cos director Rebekka Bay (“probably the biggest influence on my career, in terms of introducing me to trend forecasting”), then as part of the lifestyle trends team at Marks & Spencer. Till, meanwhile, divided her time between research at The Future Laboratory and academia at Central Saint Martins, as well as designing for shops such as Liberty and working for global interior-design-sourcing agency Li & Fung (“an important experience to visualise the reality of the commercial design industry,” she says of her trips to visit mass-production sites in India and China).

Franklin Till bears many of the overt characteristics of a trend-forecasting agency. It has a large roster of big-name clients (Ikea, Pernod Ricard, Caesarstone, Humanscale and Samsung) to whom it “[provides] futures information to help future-proof their business”. Like many fashion-trend forecasters, Franklin and Till’s primary interests are materials and colour, and, again as with many of their counterparts, the Franklin Till name rarely crops up in relation to any tangible output. The aesthetic of the studio reflects this discreet approach and the secretive nature of many of the company’s projects. Except for a table scattered with a few of the colourful props and materials used to create still-lifes for Viewpoint and Viewpoint Colour, the two trends-orientated magazines the agency publishes, there are few design objects to be seen. Instead, pictures and magazine cuttings on the wall and a shelf full of books reflect the theoretical and curatorial, rather than physical and practical, nature of its work.

In spite of their business’s similarity to other such agencies, however, Franklin and Till cast themselves as the antithesis to the constantly changing, seasonal approach of much design and fashion-trend forecasting. “We’re more interested in the bigger picture – what socio-cultural and political shifts and technological innovations are influencing people’s mindsets and lifestyles, and therefore what design movements they are giving rise to – and then actually applying the research we’ve done,” says Till, who generally acts as the studio’s spokesperson. “Increasingly, [brands] want to have a quantitative picture [of the future], but we tell our clients that the value of data is so dependent on the level of human analysis and it can only give you a picture of behaviour to date – what our preferences and actions have been up to this point.”

These observations about society’s increasing dependence on data feel pertinent. As the philosopher Byung-Chul Han warned in his 2017 book Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power, “Big Data is supposed to be freeing knowledge from subjective arbitrariness[…] [but] data and numbers are not narrative, they are additive[…] Now, numbers and data are not just being absolutized – they are becoming sexualised and fetishised.” Translated into the physical realm, the commercial pursuit of short-term trends and visible patterns can have a homogenising effect – the tendency, for example, for hipster-orientated cafés, bars and hotels around the world to conform to the same exposed-brick, Scandi-modernist and brass-accented aesthetic (a phenomenon so ubiquitous that in 2016 the online publication The Verge coined the term “Airspace” in reference to the effect of Airbnb on the style’s development).

Titia Dane, design editor at Franklin Till, prepares an installation.

Franklin and Till aim to eschew this “what’s hot and what’s not” model of forecasting associated with data fetishisation, however, and have a fraught relationship to the word “trend”. “To be honest we try to avoid it,” says Till. “For me, it perpetuates ‘newness’, and in the context of diminishing resources and environmental challenges, that constant search for the new and next is not a positive thing.” Indeed, they believe they differ from more conventional trend forecasters in three main respects: in their focus on longer-term socio-cultural trends; their interest in solutions rather than just predictions; and their notion of themselves as communicators, whose role is to translate grand ideas into accessible form for a wider audience.

Overarching all this is a contention that consumption need not be unsustainable, provided that the model behind that consumption moves away from the rapid churn of products that characterise fashion weeks and furniture fairs. The studio’s latest work – which spent three years in the making – is something of a manifesto for this approach. Launched in March 2018, Radical Matter is a Thames & Hudson coffee table book that suggests society “may be on the brink of a materials revolution”. It looks at eight macro “trends” in design – including “co-creation”, “living materials” and “designing to disappear” – then, through interviews and case studies, explores how innovations in these areas might help society adapt to changing global and ecological circumstances.

One chapter is titled ‘Shit, Hair and Dust’. “In contemporary societies, shit is no longer used in design simply for its shock factor[…] Excrement exists in huge quantities and, as long as life on earth continues, is infinitely renewable,” the book reads. This section looks at projects such as the Museo della Merda in Lombardy, Italy, which transforms cow dung into tiles, pots and tableware; and The New Age of Trichology by designer Sanne Visser, who transforms human hair into yarn and rope for use in product design and is looking to apply the process to thermal insulation and building materials. An accompanying essay by Zoe Laughlin of University College London’s Institute of Making considers issues such as conquering disgust surrounding shit and scaling up production. Other chapters explore the future of geology and the changing idea of what constitutes the “man-made”, given that we may soon be mining a strata of human-generated plastics and industrial waste. “Geologically speaking, the fruits of the Anthropocene are yet to be witnessed,” write Franklin and Till. “Geological material of the future will bear witness to man’s domination over nature and will be human-generated[…] mined from the strata of man-made mineral and plastic composites, and fished from shifting ocean islands of waste.”

Franklin and Till have run their agency out of a compact studio space in Dalston since 2010.

Throughout Radical Matter, a tone of optimism and faith in the human ability to solve problems is prevalent, in contrast to the dystopian ideas that normally emerge upon discussion of society’s environmental future: “In the quest for improved sustainability and enhanced performance, makers become alchemists, designers become scientists and artisans become social entrepreneurs.” Franklin and Till’s emphasis on solutions to society’s problems also sets them apart from the field of speculative design, usually more concerned with asking questions and provoking debate. Instead, Radical Matter’s fusion of science, design, art and philosophy is in keeping with the anti-disciplinary approach championed by research bodies such as MIT Media Lab, which seeks to blur the boundaries between previously isolated fields such as artificial intelligence, digital technology and synthetic fabrication as they become part of everyday life. The pair’s background in textiles – itself an area that combines science, design, art and anthropology – laid the foundations for this. It is, however, a discipline that – along with its close cousin “colour” – has historically been sidelined in design, and regarded as a trivial afterthought or mere decoration. It seems no coincidence, either, that textiles is one of the most comprehensively gendered areas of the industry. In 1920, for instance, Walter Gropius informed one applicant to the Bauhaus that “it is not advisable, in our experience, that women work in the heavy craft areas such as carpentry and so forth. For this reason, a women’s section has been formed at the Bauhaus which works particularly with textiles.” Anni Albers, perhaps the most celebrated textile designer to emerge from the school, summed the situation up: “Fate put into my hands limp threads!”

Thanks to the work of Albers and contemporary designers such as Hella Jongerius, however, colour and textiles are now starting to be taken seriously. In 2017, Jongerius launched both Breathing Colour, an exhibition at London’s Design Museum, and a 10-year compilation of materials and colours for the furniture brand Vitra, for which she serves as art director for colours and materials. Such contributions have made strides towards divesting both areas of their superficial image and gendered connotations. But Franklin and Till still believe textiles generally lacks the rigour of industrial design. They intend Radical Matter to show that this need not be the case. “Textile training is very much focused on self-expression and craft execution – often, if you look at traditional textile courses, the work could have almost been produced any time in the last 20 years and you’re not asked what the context is, how it fits within the world now or in the future,” says Till. “But textiles are heavily entrenched in material manipulation and it’s one of the most fractured industries in the world – if you look at the geographical movement of textile into a final product, it’s immense. Starting from a problem – that’s what is traditionally missing in textiles training.”

These ideas reflect the philosophy of the pioneering Material Futures (originally Textile Futures) master’s programme at Central St Martins, on which Till was course director until 2016 – she changed the name when she took charge in 2009 to “acknowledge and celebrate the value and role of textile, material and tactility beyond more confined origins often related to fashion, interior or domestic applications”. The course reflects a burgeoning discipline that fuses design, science, philosophy and communications. Recent student projects range from the immediately useful (Apilada Vorachart’s small baskets and architectural materials created from waste generated by northern Thailand’s corn industry) to the wildly ambitious (Angela Mathis’s collaboration with scientists and surgeons to explore the potential of plant tissue for organ transplantation). Radical Matter presents work like this clustered together in themes and their implications for our future.

Franklin Till takes a similarly multi-disciplinary approach to the field of colour theory. “The science of colour and how people use it in design is under-explored – for example, the importance of red or blue to our circadian rhythm,” says Till. “We’re interested in unearthing these insights and helping to analyse and translate them for design opportunity.” The first issue of Viewpoint Colour focused on the increasing preference for shades that evoke nature amid growing ecological concerns and rapid urbanisation, while the studio’s work as the research arm for 133-year-old paper brand GF Smith saw it involved in a 2017 initiative to discover “the world’s favourite colour” (a greeny-blue) through online polling. Informed by research conducted by the Sussex Colour Group at Sussex University, the project yielded insights into how tastes are largely consistent across locations and cultures, rather than reflecting individual personalities. “We assumed colour preference was about your sense of self-expression and your identity, but actually it’s inherent,” says Till. “There’s a bell curve, which people typically fit within – browny yellow is generally the least favourite and a blue is the favourite.” Theorists, she says, have traditionally believed that this preference relates to blue’s association with cleanliness – the sky and water. However, more recent work from the Sussex research group has argued a connection to scarcity – blue is a relatively rare colour to see on natural objects.

Models and materials displayed in the studio.

Despite its theoretical references, Franklin Till’s process is closer to journalism than academic research, insofar as it focuses on extracting themes from and collating expert opinions and existing studies around major social concerns, rather than generating original theories. For 2017’s Imagine: The Future of Manufacturing, a publication for Ikea and Space 10 that explored the potential of the maker movement and digital fabrication, Franklin and Till interviewed the founders of Opendesk, an online retail platform for independent furniture designers, on the movement from mass-scale manufacture to localised micro-production. They also spoke to Maurizio Montalti of Officina Corpuscoli, a design agency that explores generating biological materials and manipulating fungus. “Our process is to ‘gather’, ‘analyse’, ‘translate’ and ‘activate’,” says Till. “The gathering part is really broad research scoping and it involves anything from reading historical information in a library, to reading articles in the media, to attending conferences, to finding visual correlations [in images]. In the process of analysis, we extract key themes and topics, then work out within each of these which key innovators we need to speak to. Then we go broad again to interrogate their practice and process.”

Franklin and Till describe their analysis as being guided by the objectives of a client or target audience, rather than led by specific philosophical or conceptual models – finding opportunities rather than research as an end in itself. They may position themselves as a counterpoint to the short-termism of most trend forecasting, but they are nonetheless operating within, rather than outside, the world of commercial production. Their work for GF Smith is an example in which research into the “relevance” of particular colours – for example, how green resonates at a time of environmental concern – is closely linked to curating the brand’s core Colorplan range of papers and preparing a written brief for their marketing material. “We are not just gathering information but finding the potential in it – the areas that have relevance to a specific brand or the audience we are seeking to target,” says Till. “On a consultancy level, we’re working with large-scale companies that realise there is a lot of money at stake in getting a decision wrong in relation to a product launch so they come to us to help make better decisions and minimise economic risk.”

Yet in their role as consultants, they see an opportunity to insert an ethical, sustainable agenda into the world of commercial design, as brands become aware of consumers’ increasing disillusionment with short-term predictions and self-fulfilling fads. “[People realise] that trends are about perpetuating newness as a marketing message [to make them] buy new stuff,” says Till. Meanwhile, brands recognise they are operating in an increasingly diversified market, and that scientific and technological change are happening at an exponential rate. “Marketing is about getting people to want stuff, but our process is about helping clients make things that people want. We’re not about perpetuating seasonal trends and a throwaway culture but presenting a bigger picture that resonates with consumers in the long term.” This embrace of sustainability by commercial brands might be seen as a cynical attempt to appeal to the changing ethics of consumers, but this pushback against the new is increasingly on designers’ minds too. In their 2015 manifesto ‘Beyond the New: A Search for Ideals in Design’, for instance, Hella Jongerius and theorist Louise Schouwenberg wrote: “It is absurd and arrogant to begin the design process with an empty piece of paper[…] Otherwise the designer is merely embracing newness for its own sake.” Franklin and Till can be seen as working to introduce this kind of thinking to brands on a strategic level.

Certainly, sustainability was a theme that ran through one of Franklin Till’s first major projects – for the VF Corporation, which owns apparel brands Eastpak, Timberland, North Face, Lee, Wrangler and others. The studio spent two years studying the company and overseeing the production of 80 market-ready items “in line with future consumer needs”, often pairing material scientists with designers. “We created six themes, looking at things like ‘simplicity’ – for example, how your garments can help streamline your lifestyle, from shopping and wearing to laundering – ‘sustainability’, ‘health and wellbeing’, ‘personalisation’ and ‘co-creation’,” says Till. The product prototypes, ranging from self-cleaning clothes, menthol-scent-embedded outfits to improve runners’ performance and biodegradable garments, to an augmented reality system that explains the technical complexity of mosquito-repellent garments, were displayed as an exhibition and an app intended to reach VF’s 60,000 staff spread around the world. “Most of the exhibits were either developed by the brands and taken on board, or the designers and material scientists were commissioned to develop them,” Till explains.

This final stage – communicating to the public and commercial organisations through publishing and events – seems to be Franklin Till’s primary strength. While the work of conventional forecasting agencies is largely hidden, until the trends they deal in start to become apparent in the world of commercial design, Franklin Till’s business is orientated around making visible complex phenomena and the overarching forces changing our lives, whether through exhibition, publishing or physical products. “There is some amazing research being done at academic institutions, but it often remains behind closed doors,” says Till. “We see our role as translating its potential and making this information accessible and inspirational, taking these huge topics and making them into bite-sized accessible chunks of information.”