Using Emerging Technology to Reimagine How We Design
BY Claire Mirran
An Interview With Safir Bellali: Senior Director of Advanced Digital Creation at VF
In a world of fast-moving innovation, it’s easy to get left behind while caught up in buzzwords like, “digital transformation” or “digital acceleration”. So, in an effort to gain a deeper understanding of emerging technologies, the Kinestry team sat down with Safir Bellali, the Senior Director of Advanced Digital Creation at Global apparel company, VF Corporation. Together, we went over Digital Product Creation and its applications, what his role looks like, and of course where he sees the most exciting opportunities for innovation.
Q: So, what is Digital Product Creation?
Digital product creation is the process of designing and building virtual products as digital twins to their physical counterparts or as their own using digital tools. This is a process that enables team members to collaborate and co-create in an immersive way with the assistance of tools like Virtual Reality and Real-time visualization. These types of products can be created relatively quickly, and at a significantly lower cost as you bypass the need to create and ship physical samples halfway across the world. Customers can also view virtual products directly from your website or acquire products that remain virtual from digital marketplaces dedicated to products of this type. Some of the earliest digital products you could buy were Ebooks, but emerging technologies such as Virtual and Augmented reality are making room for an entirely new way of experiencing physical products using their digital twins as well as virtual products that might actually never be produced.
In the case of our brand, we have been pitching this type of systematic change before COVID-19. In fact, the first-ever virtualization project for Vans was actually in 2011! And last March, many parts of the manufacturing and selling process were disrupted. Luckily, we already had plans in place to rise to this challenge and make the necessary changes in real-time.
Q: What did these changes look like?
Take the example of product samples. These samples had to be sent by the manufacturing partner to the brand teams to be reviewed, discussed, and validated. Because of Covid, teams could not gather in one location so only one individual actually got to see the samples in person at a time, which made group decisions difficult, especially when you consider the size of a seasonal collection. With Digital Product Creation tools, the teams can simply review virtual samples on their devices or in their space using Augmented Reality (or even put on their VR headsets) and discuss the product together in real-time, making on the spot changes that could save the organization a good amount of time and money.
Another incredible application of Digital Product Creation tools that we use is virtual showrooms. When COVID-19 shut down “business as usual”, the VF team was already in the process of virtualizing a number of assets. As a result, we were able to scale our ability to create virtual assets and virtual showrooms for even more brands. Because we were already many steps into the Digital Product Creation process this allowed us to unlock new ways to improve the selling aspect — leading to the creation of virtual showrooms and of course a game-changing virtual sell-in experience.
Q: What are some common misconceptions of Digital Product Creation?
We hear time and time again that not all businesses and business leaders are ready for digital transformation. So, let me help you visualize Digital Product Creation by telling you what it is not.
“Many believe that digital product creation is taking away from the physical design process, but ultimately the purpose is still the same; to create better products.”
For digital product creation, this means making better decisions earlier in the design process and responding quickly to changes and expectations from the consumer — emphasis on being more “responsible”. By no means is the physical creation piece being taken away altogether, rather other dimensions of the process are being optimized.
As mentioned above, developing apparel and footwear products can be arduous with samples getting sent around the world — these aspects can all be made more efficient, leaving the physical design process intact but streamlining the decision-making process and accelerating the go-to-market process. In regards to the concern over designers and buyers’ needing to see and feel their products, we should also consider that consumers are shifting their behavior rapidly to buy products on their smaller smartphone screens. And the mobile component of purchasing is bridging the gap to understanding more about what is being sold. Not to mention, Digital Product Creation does allow the experience to be more interactive and close up to the material. Overall, adopting unfamiliar tools can be daunting and that remains a big challenge for brands everywhere. But the shift is already in play and powerful change management is the key to unlocking the potential of emerging tech.
Q: What does the future hold for Digital Product Creation?
Digital product creation unlocks a future full of creative opportunities. In the case of apparel brands, virtual show rooms and optimized design processes are just the beginning. Not to mention, the application in gaming.
Just in 2019, Fortnite sold an estimated $1.8 billion of in-game purchases, consisting of battle passes, outfits (skins), and accessories. This reflects an emergence of designers who are putting products on the market, like Fortnite skins, that will never be made physically.
Think about that for a second… Digital designers selling intangible products successfully!
The boundaries between fashion, gaming, visual effects, and interactive experiences are blurring together — becoming indistinguishable. And the overlap of innovation opportunities in between all of these spaces is truly exciting.
Q: Where do we go from here?
By digitalizing the product creation process, organizations will experience end-to-end transformation — reaping the benefits in planning, creation, manufacturing, and selling processes. Designers have the power to make decisions much earlier and quicker and the storytelling process will be supercharged with better-communicated concepts, more engaging consumer experiences and product that resonates with the market at a more granular level. The opportunities are truly endless.
How can you join in the conversation?
Join in the Advanced Digital Product Creation conversation with Safir and ask some questions of your own in our exclusive ‘Innovation, #Augmented’ LinkedIn group, where we host panelists and guest speakers from our events to talk about their work in innovation.
About Safir Bellali
Born in Casablanca to a Moroccan father and a German mother, Safir grew up in a multicultural environment in Luxemburg, Europe. After getting his engineering degree in Computer-Aided Design and Manufacturing, he secured an internship at Mercedes Benz in Stuttgart before being accepted to Art Center College of Design’s Transportation Design program.
With over 20 years of combined experience as an automotive engineer and industrial designer, Safir has been able to leverage his strategic thinking and creative problem-solving skills to tackle a wide range of innovation challenges. Safir was an early adopter of 3D design and prototyping tools and carried his experience from the automotive world into the fashion and footwear industry. As Head of Innovation for the industry’s leading Action Sports brand, Vans, he oversaw a number of initiatives that spanned across product and experiences. In his new role, supporting VF’s Apparel, Footwear, and Accessories brands (amongst which Vans, The North Face, Timberland, Dickies and most recently Supreme) with their Digital Transformation, he aims to explore the opportunities offered by digital tools and workflows and imagine the future of digitally enabled product creation and experiences.
He is an Aspen Institute First Mover’s fellow, heads up the 3D Retail Coalition’s Education Committee and teaches Design and Innovation at Art Center College of Design as well as at University of Southern California’s Iovine and Young Academy (founded by Dr Dre and Jimmy Iovine). He sits on the board of advisors of several startups and is working on two stealth projects involving an experimental educational program for the unprivileged as well as an autonomous living technology.
An advocate of purposeful and responsible design, Safir believes that today’s designers and innovators have an incredible opportunity to harness their collective creativity and today’s technological affordances to tackle the world’s social and humanitarian challenges.