The Nike Making App: Pushing the Fashion Industry Forward

Last month a new app quietly appeared on the Apple app store. Created by engineers and designers at Nike for apparel designers and driven by their cradle-to-gate Materials Sustainability Index (MSI),[1] The Making App represents a new development in sustainable design.[2] One that is designer-focused and user-friendly. Intended as an educational tool that works using comparisons between materials, version 1.0 has only 22 to choose from. These range from silk to grass and corn-fed leather to spandex, all materials currently used in today’s fashion industry.

The app looks wonderful and operates smoothly (some reviewers claim it crashes the iPhone 4). A designer will want to know (and will immediately see) how the materials stack up against each other within an impact category, but will have to go through several steps to reach an informative aggregate dashboard which shows how the material ranks across all impact categories and another panel showing its specific MSI totals.

Nike reminds the viewer of the Nike Materials Sustainability Index and in fact expects enlightened designers to visit the website [1] which houses it for further research. The MRI site actually shows a list of 46 materials, which allows toggling between impacts but lacks the organic and recycled category found in the app. The people at Nike have spent around 8 years researching their own materials library [1] and they have integrated about 75,000 entries into the Higgs Index, which is managed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC)[3]. However, this is not reflected in this version of the app. The intention is that the user will be introduced to using comparative indexes through the app and will want to delve deeper.

At the very heart of this system are potential limitations. First, the MSI only covers cradle-to-gate data. In a full life cycle analysis, it may become apparent that certain materials with wonderful MSI scores may have terrible end-of-life data overriding any of the gains made in the early phases. It may even make certain material less suitable than materials with extremely low MSI rankings. For instance, some materials are almost certainly cradle-to-grave substances. On the other hand, some substances are endlessly recyclable and enjoy a high rate of reclamation. Other factors are chain-of-custody and transportation. Most designers understand that transportation has an impact on the sustainability of an item, but what people don’t necessarily understand are the processes performed in between the raw material processing and manufactured good. This is generally where things can get sticky and legal troubles can arise. An example being the claims around rayon viscose made from bamboo.[4]

While there is much to be improved, this is a wonderful project that creates a tangible way of connecting design ideas with real impact. Through awareness, traditional Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) information will become less daunting. Also, the people at Nike are open to user comments and criticisms in the quest to improve the system with each generation.[5]

As the lines of design continue to blur and designers from all disciplines continue to explore new methods and substrates with which to communicate, a tool like this would be valuable for any industry. Understandably, the task is daunting. But, what could the payoff be? In Gage’s Mitchell’s article, Where Graphic Design is Failing, he cites failures in education and a lax attitude in the industry.[6] Perhaps this is a way to “start making real change happen?”

Nike’s Materials Sustainability Index site. Explains the logic of the Index and how it integrates into the Higgs Index.

Apple’s iTunes store page for the Making App.

Cradle-to-Gate data resource for the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.

Special micro site on action taken by the Federal Trade Commission in handling the use and misuse of bamboo in the textiles industry.

Homepage of the Nike Makers projects, from which the Making app developed.

Gage Mitchell’s recent article on graphic design’s continuing lack of broad enthusiasm for sustainable design.

Pushing Production to the Front of the Line

In today’s graphic design process, sustainability is born of the creative minds of the art directors and designers, early in the concept phase. But the top-down management model of today’s graphic design studio, branding firm, or ad agency is not always compatible with the demands of sustainable design. To change this without jeopardizing jobs, the first step to turning sustainable concepts into sustainable results is to ‘push production to the front of the line.’

The production team should be part of the creative process, from tip to tail, rather than brought in at the end. This is often proposed, but rarely implemented. It’s not a surprise because typical studios use a top-down model where orders are passed from one stage on to the next. This process resembles a traditional product assembly line and there is little incentive to disturb a workflow already in motion.

But, creatives make decisions often lacking the research required to insure sustainable solutions. Proper production techniques, material sourcing, and life cycle analysis are usually solely in the domain of the production department. Bringing them into the earliest stages opens the team to research and execute based on the goals of the project. This is every bit as important as beta-testing or client demographics and the results could be significant.

For example, by researching production options before a business card concept is designed, a design team could reduce their cardstock consumption by about half.[1] This is an easy way to address the Creation metric (EN.02) of the Living Principles scorecard.[2]

500 standard sized business cards printed on 130lb card stock can be printed on 63 sheets of letter-sized paper; that weighs about 2.95lbs. By eliminating bleeds the same number cards can be produced on 50 sheets, or 2.34lbs of cardstock. Bleeds are waste and by eliminating bleeds, paper use is already reduced 20% (metric EN.06).[2] Further, by changing to the standard 26” x 40” sheet size, only 4 sheets of paper (2.08lbs) would be needed. This 30% reduction in material use is already well above the “Material Value” requirements made by Walmart in their packaging scorecard.[3]

But, what is the need/use (PE.04)2 of a business card today? Does the size matter? Because taking the last 0.5” off the end of the business card would reduce the paper use to 3 sheets (1.56lbs). In three minor moves, the same 500 cards are produced using 52% of the paper. When expanded to an entire company’s workforce, this could significantly impact the budget for business cards (metric EC.03).[2]

Integrating production thinking early in the design process can bring some big changes, even on small projects. With production sitting in it’s usual spot in the process, it is usually too late to justify such changes creatively or economically. By inviting the production team in at the beginning, there is a far greater likelihood that concepts will be vetted and survive implementation.

But the results go deeper than creative solutions. Production teams are expected to be apathetic to a project and its outcome, only to engineer the final product. A production artist creatively invested in the design enables the Long View metric (PE.05) and its outcomes to flourish. When positively engaged, they will perform better, work passionately, and create a better environment for all.

According to the Living Principles site, A Production Artist is “an unsung hero” … “saddled with the logistical responsibilities of sustainable communication design.”[3] Imagine what could happen to sustainable projects, if their input was considered at the beginning.

Tweaking the traditional design process to bring production into the beginning of the process. Production artists have solutions for many of the design challenges sustainability brings. The earlier they are involved, the better.

The product calculator gives an estimate of how much paper it will take to produce a given print project and gives suggestions for minimizing waste. Re-nourish members can also catalog and reference their calculations for subsequent projects.

The introduction to the Framework and Roadmap of The Living Principles.

A press release from 2006, detailing the various metrics for Walmart’s sustainability initiative to reduce packaging across its global supply chain by 5 percent by 2013.

Different frameworks and theories in sustainable design, plus a handy dictionary of terms on the Living Principles site.