Why service design is the new black — Intel’s Todd Harple on fashion tech

The Adrenaline Dress is a collaboration between Intel and fashion designer Becca McCharen. It responds to the wearer’s stress levels and adrenal function, and changes shape accordingly. (Image courtesy of Intel.)

The world of fashion is becoming increasingly digital — and not just wearable devices, but with clothing made from fabrics that actually integrate sensors and technology that can monitor and measure the wearer. As fashion starts to go beyond outward appearance, fashion designers need to broaden their skillsets, to make sure that new technologies offer a great user experience as well.

We talked to anthropologist and Director of Innovation & Pathfinding Strategies at Intel, Todd Harple, about the fusion of fashion and service design, and how fashion tech could change people’s lives.

How is soft computing and smart apparel changing the fashion industry?

We learned early on from user research that what people wear, hold or carry often has meanings that inter-relate fashion, style, functionality and beyond.

What this means for consumers is the possibility of a frictionless way to capture detailed, increasingly accurate contextual information about their bodies, behaviors, and contexts.

In the near term, many of these capabilities are being honed for athletes to improve workouts, body efficiencies and more. In the long term, it is quite possible that our garments will form a sort of “black box” that will inform us of risks to our health and that of others around us, ranging from understanding basics like heart-rate and activity to more detailed information about hydration, blood sugars, muscle performance, and even cognitive performance. These capabilities may well transform the future of healthcare and human well-being in general.

As an anthropologist, I’m driven by understanding how to generate an empathic connection with people who might use whatever we might make, but at the same time I’m well aware of the tech constraints and business concerns that need to be balanced.

Soft computing, combined with miniaturization of technology, is bringing new tools and capabilities into fashion that enable designers to transform the way we look and perform at work and at play. It’s not just dresses on the runway featuring robotics or biosensors. Nor is it simply clothing and accessories that can seamlessly improve our fitness and prevent injury. Soft computing and smart apparel will increasingly leverage the intimate contact between our garments, accessories and our bodies and motions to bring new data, experiences, and understandings to the world. In some ways, one might consider fashion designers the “developers” of the future. Empowered by soft computing, designers and fashion houses may well be poised for a dramatic pivot as arbiters of the world’s largest databases of personal data.

In research on fashion technology, we found many cases of fashion designers trying to reconcile a desire to manipulate aesthetics and functionality of garments initially for artistic expression. On the one hand, we learned how materials and materiality influenced and inspired design. On the other, how for an emergent group of designers, traditional processes and expertise around things like sketching, pattern making, cutting and sewing were in part giving way to things like digital sketching, 3D modelling and printing and assembly.

You’ve said that fashion tech should be “smart, but not trivial”. What will “smart but not trivial” fashion be like? What kinds of technology and features will it offer us?

Triviality may well be in the eyes of the beholder.

In the best of cases, smart fashion will help us become the best versions of ourselves. Helping to compensate for our weaknesses, accentuate our strengths and ultimately to connect with one another and our world in meaningful ways. In some ways, one might think of smart fashion as “super powers” –things like the ability to focus, to perform, to feel confident, to eliminate the stigma of congenital scoliosis by invisibly or fashionably correcting posture. In the workplace, this could bring the ability to “see through” solid objects with the aid of smart glasses, to enable a tradesperson to locate wiring or plumbing junctions to improve their efficiency.

We are on the cusp of a dramatic shift in what is possible at the intersection between fashion and technology. A headband that measures brainwave activity to enable lights on the bodice of a dress today may seem trivial, but when integrated into a stylish cap to enable an occupational therapist to help train a child to overcome the impact of attention deficit disorder, it may well prove transformative.

Today’s sports shirt that reads heart rate and captures muscle activity and body motion may become the undergarment of tomorrow that limits risk of back injury in the work place while at the same time serving as a diagnostic device that can track not just heart rate, but blood flow, hydration, and muscle performance.

What’s more, the marriage of traditional manufacturing techniques like embroidery with encapsulation of electronics is transforming our ability to create functional and fashionable integration of electronics — endowing fashion designers with an entirely new set of materials and tools with which to design. Sensors, lights, and other electronics will continue to take on the same materiality of traditional fabrics and materials.

How can a service design approach help us to improve fashion design?

The systemic approach of service design can and will impact the entire fashion industry. Already designers and fashion houses are experimenting with the delivery of new services and experiences that integrate technology at nearly every stage of the product development lifecycle: development of new fabrics and materials using both organics and synthetics, development of fibres that take on new capabilities like color or phase change or conductivity and new tools with which to design (sketching and prototyping virtually with such resolution that visions will be bound only by the imagination) and manufacture and so forth.

Co-creation and mass customization as services that tie design, manufacturing and purchase more closely together are the early sentinels of service design’s utility in fashion. Already emerging in the footwear segment, it will extend across all garments and accessories. Traditional analog is beginning to find a comfortable relationship with digital partnerships (think the likes of Tag Heuer and Intel).

What are the main ways you have observed service design entering the fashion world in the last 1–3 years?

Service design can connect the consumer, design, and manufacturing journeys more strongly. This can be seen in the emergence of mass customization and personalization — things like Shoes of Prey and Feetz.

In terms of business models, we can discover creative ways to make use of “sharing economy” models — for example, offering people the experience of trying high-end fashion (e.g. Rent the Runway) and simultaneously creating an economy to get maximum wear and recycling.

This can also lead to radical re-thinks of products, focusing on a circular economy/cradle-to-cradle service design, to respond to criticism around “fast fashion” (think Patagonia).

What would you consider to be opportunities for the fashion industry to integrate service design into garments and fashion?

Reduction of waste and environmental harm seem like the loftiest of goals that service design can make incrementally attainable. Consider things we purchase today that require an “end of life” practice — recycling of batteries, phones, consumer electronics, and light bulbs. Imagine a future where whatever you purchase has a plan for its end of service. Service design can be integral here.

We can improve connection across the experience lifecycle — design, supply chain, manufacture, distribution. From our first knowledge of a product onward, service design and technology have the ability to intertwine social and environmental ethos into the lifecycle visible to the consumer.

Where are the biggest innovations in “fashion service” coming from currently?

Mass Customization: Things like Feetz, Nike iD, and Shoes of Prey are leading the way in challenging norms of design, manufacture and distribution. Feetz goes a step further and allows for a truly custom design based on 3D models of a consumers’ foot. How long before 3D scanning becomes accessible and standardized to the point of extending this to other garments?

Rapid Design and Prototyping: Software like V-stitcher combined with rapid production techniques like 3D knitting and printing are going to make rapid design and prototyping a reality — shortening development cycles and improving time to market. Some companies will emerge at the intersections of the hardware and software to smooth this out and make it a reality.

New Materials: Increasingly companies are challenging long-held understandings about materials, their production and usage. Organics like leather are now in the early stages of being grown for production, kombucha has shown potential for making an organic material similar to leather or vinyl, silver-fiber threads and patches once used for their anti-microbial properties are becoming sensors and circuits, academics are developing fibre and thread-based circuits and batteries. 3D printing is showing promise in adapting not just synthetic materials, but also integrating graphene, carbon nanotubes into polymers to add functionality. Others are experimenting with mycelium as a printing medium. New materialities of sensing, computation, and materials for construction have the potential to enable a dramatic shift in our understandings and expectations of fashion supply chains and environmental impacts.

Todd Harple poses with the Adrenaline dress.

Bio Dr. Todd Harple is an anthropologist in Intel’s New Devices Group, based in Oregon, USA. His work focuses on wearables and the future of computing. He has worked for 11 years at Intel as a researcher and innovator, and is currently the Director of Innovation & Pathfinding Strategies. He lived in Turin, Italy for four months in 2013.

Todd has been working for several years in the field of “soft computing” (as in understanding what it takes to make sensors and technologies conformable and soft to the touch and the body, often integrated inside fabrics) and smart apparel. His activities began with building an understanding of the people who were already actively integrating technology into garments, understanding what people were trying to achieve, what was working, and what wasn’t before moving to integrate those findings with new materialities of sensing and computation made possible by new materials and miniaturization of technologies that could form the foundation of an emerging data economy.

Experientia Experientia is an international user experience design consultancy, with offices in Italy, Switzerland and Singapore.