CMF x Design = Everything

First Of All…What is CMF?

You’ve seen it influence every product on the market, but not everyone truly understands its importance. So, what exactly is CMF? Simply put, it stands for Color-Material-Finish. For designers, it is a tactical step in Industrial Design that gives us a deeper understanding of our target audience and user experience. Understanding this concept contributes to brand recognition, and allows a product to reach its full market potential. 

So, let’s pick the brains of our Industrial Designers here at Hatch Duo, and allow them to explain the “why” behind CMF, and how it influences their approach to product design. You will be hearing from Jon, Blake, Natalie, and Peter.

How does CMF elevate a product and influence value for a brand?

Jon: It definitely influences the brand and perception. CMF can relate back to showing the brand in a premium or playful light. It can give you a brand identity beyond the logo. For example, you can look at a product and know what brand it is, purely based on the look and feel of the color, materials and finishes. The advantage of spending time on it is that it helps set your product apart from ones that care about macro-branding. How does the finish identify with the brand?

Blake: Simply put, it influences purchase behavior, which creates value for the brand. The brand cannot be successful without sales. By evoking emotion, we make the products desirable for people in a targeted way. We have to know who we are designing for, and CMF plays into part of the equation to make sure that the product speaks to our target audience. For example, if someone is buying for an industrial context, the consumer will most likely not buy something that easily blends into the environment–they would want something highly visible. 

Natalie: Successful CMF should reflect the style and priorities of your audience. In other words, in order to capture a purchase, a product’s CMF needs to appeal directly to the values of your (very carefully defined) target market. If done strategically, the colors, materials, and finishes of your product will outright scream “I belong in your life!” to a passerby. As a designer, get to know your audience, then mimic the portrayal of their lifestyle in your CMF choices.

Peter: Essentially, what we do with every product is to convey emotion, and CMF elevates the product by accomplishing that emotion we want to convey. It allows us to choose the colors, materials, and finishes that will compliment each aspect of the product. For example, you wouldn’t want the form language to be aggressive, and CMF to be soft–they all have to compliment each other to complete the entire package.

You guys mentioned that CMF plays a factor in how brands stand out. To expand more on that, how does CMF affect the perception of a product?

Jon: This plays a key role when it comes to startups. If you look at a product that doesn’t have sensitivity to the end-goal, it looks like a development kit. Whereas, if we focus on the CMF, it looks like it is ready for market / for purchase. It differentiates your brand from being a cheap Amazon Knockoff to a serious brand that people can rally behind.

Blake: Let’s take subtle, Matte finishes versus glossy finishes for example. I think part of the reason why glossy finishes are not very popular right now is because many people may perceive them as cheap, whereas a Matte or sandglass finish can potentially “hide” certain defects such as fingerprints. Plus, it just feels more high-quality–you can make it look high quality depending on the CMF used.

Natalie: The same way an outfit affects the perception of someone’s personality. Different outward styling cues will shift perception toward or away from a desired outcome. For example, why do women wear makeup? Why do men get haircuts every month? What are they signalling? Maybe they’re silently saying “I’m thoughtful,” or “I’m attractive,” or “I’m approachable.” And guess what else they’re probably signaling: “I’m looking for a thoughtful counterpart,” or “…an attractive counterpart,” or “…an approachable counterpart.” This is called the psychology of “mirroring,” and it can be applied to products as well.

Peter: I think color plays a huge part in that. If you take a look at the “color theory,” you see that different colors convey different emotions and meanings. For example, red meaning “caution” or “alert” whereas blues, greys, or whites are more calming or relaxing.

How do you think CMF influences your approach to Industrial Design?

Jon: If you think of CMF as an analogy to a brand’s style; for example, we all have different styles. You can dress your product in whatever way you want to convey who / what the brand is. In other words, it personifies your brand. What material would you use for certain personalities? What colors? What do you want to say with the appearance, and the look and feel?

Blake: If we are designing for crowd-funding, it influences different CMF strategies. For instance, if you are going for crowd-funding, you kind of have to go for edgier, flashier CMF strategies to gain attention on such a crowded platform. You want to stand out. It’s a matter of context for the sale: you want to understand that it will be well-received in the end-market.

Natalie: I think about CMF from the very beginning of my design process. I press all my thoughts through a sieve of one question, “Who am I designing for?” If the answer to that question changes, then my CMF decisions subsequently change.

Peter: For me, CMF always comes into play in the ideation process–there’s never really a ‘beginning or ending’ to it. Especially during sketching or CAD modelings, CMF will definitely come into conversations where we think about what colors materials would work best on certain aspects of the product. This derives from the branding research–we try to do a deeper CMF explore later on in the process, but ultimately, CMF is a constant conversation throughout the design process, but not a devoted task until sometime toward the end.

Jon and Peter talking CMF and testing textures

In your opinion, what is the best way to approach CMF? Or, in other words, how do you gather all of the information and research you’ve conducted?

Jon: Getting out into the real world and looking at things physically. I hate when designers only use Pinterest for design inspiration. It’s better to go out into the real world, and look at real materials. You can’t look / experience things through a screen. We also like to use mood boards to collect textures to have physical samples, and use a CMF library to help us with everything throughout the process.

Blake: I agree with Jon. Going out into the real world is the best way, otherwise, you’re essentially just looking at color. When you can hold something in your hand you convey emotion–when you feel the finish, the material, or even the weight, you can see how that impacts you, or how you feel about it, and take it back to your design process. Designers in general should always be taking in information and references that can be wrapped into designs later.

Natalie: First, get to know your target audience. Do the things they do. Find people who correlate with your research. Gather information about their favorite conscious and subconscious brands, organizations, and objects. Compile all noted aspects of your target persona’s lifestyle into an amalgam. Then, the fun part. If you like puzzles, this is for you, because people are crazy complex puzzles. Ready? Find a way to systematize their life into organized piles. Then, from the highest piles, pull tangible information like iconography, colors, graphics, materials, textures, fabrics, etc. Use these to detail your product that fits magically and seamlessly into their life.

Peter: Without a doubt, seeing it in real-life is the best way to do it. Even with color, you can see things in the broad daylight, as opposed to being in a darker room–you can really see how the colors change. Being able to see things in the right environment, or the right time is always the best way when there are certain limitations.

Jon, Mike, and Natalie discussing CMF strategy for Fantany Unbound

CMF is still an emerging part of Industrial Design, meaning not all businesses and brands fully understand this concept. This said, what do you think the future looks like for CMF design?

Jon: I have a feeling we’re going to see a lot more eco-friendly materials, and micro-transparency ingredients. In terms of finish, we’re gonna see things that we thought are more inherent in natural materials–rapidly fabricated for an aesthetic. Lastly, I’d expect to see more innovation in fabric and soft goods. 

Blake: As designers understand CMF more, it will be used more as a strategic means to increase sales, and to potentially reach new markets. Customizable materials, or being able to customize your product on the spot, would be cool to see in the future. We also see a lot of new developments in KeyShot, one of our critical rendering tools. There are multiple tools for setting up different CMF iterations, and rendering them all into one scene, so you can see how the CMF responds in different environments. In terms of material, I’d love to see more eco-friendly materials come into play.

Natalie: I can’t pretend to know the future of CMF or Industrial Design, but I think the digital age has heightened to a point where many people will start to crave old school, tangible, and customized interactions in the future. I think the future of CMF is dependent on color and material innovations, rapid manufacturing leaps, and will lean more heavily on tactile interactions.

Peter: Essentially, being able to see, touch, and feel is super important, and you can never really replace those aspects digitally. This said, with evolving technology, I see AR and VR somehow coming into play for CMF. You might not be able to feel it, but you can see a product with the exact specific CMF within a certain environment you set up. You can kind of set it up now in KeyShot, but I see VR coming into play more down the line.

The Last 10%

CMF study for Aggregate Watches

We like to think of CMF as the final stage that distinguishes between prototype and market readiness. Appealing color schemes sparks interest and evokes emotion. Materials and finishes allow products to reach their full market potential. This goes to say that Colors, Materials, and Finishes all must complement each other to truly design a successful product. By using helpful tools such as KeyShot, mood boards, or even our CMF library, we are able to refer to CMF all throughout the design process. It may still be an emerging part of design, but an extremely important one at that because it supports the emotional, functional, and strategic aspects of it. You cannot innovate or fully understand the brand you are designing for without keeping CMF in mind.

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