CMF Framework Project

Constantly creating
fresh emotional value

CMF is the field of design that centers on defining the color (C), material (M), and finish (F) of a product’s exterior.
At Sony Design, CMF is all about moving people deeply—and to gain essential insights for reaching that goal,
designers are constantly doing field research in cities all around the world. Every year, they use those findings
to create a "CMF Framework" that identifies upcoming CMF trends.
We had a chat with the team members about the process behind the 2019 edition of the project.

This interview was conducted prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2020, we are exploring a new approach to online research in light of the impact of the pandemic.

The core members of the 2019 CMF Framework Project:
(Photo, from left) Simon, Senior Creative Designer / Omata, Product Designer / Kosaka, Product Designer /
Murai, CMF Art Director / Takuma, Creative Director / Rikke, CMF Art Director /
Kanada, Communication Designer / Suzuki, Senior Producer / Kimura, User Interface Designer

How do people
in the world feel right now?

What role does CMF play in Sony Design? What kind of content goes into the CMF Framework, and how do designers create it?

TakumaCMF determines the first impression the product makes. It has emotional value for users, too, which makes it an extremely important element for Sony Design. The thing, though, is that the value changes depending on context and social background. A color or material that looks elegant in one setting can come off looking bad in another; we need to observe consumers all the time to know how things are going to come across. One way we do that is through our Design Vision Project, an annual project where we comprehensively research worldwide trends. Another initiative focuses on CMF-specific research, which delves further into consumers and drills down to deeper psychological levels to understand how people in the world are feeling right now.

The goals of the research project are twofold. First, instead of focusing on what’s new on the surface, we take a top-down view of trends from the past few years and concentrate on the fundamental seeds of change that could sprout into new trends. The second goal is to probe the subtle changes that appear in different cultures and communications worldwide when global trends make their way down to the local level. For us, the most important thing was that the designers doing the actual work would take charge of the project, travel to the actual locations, and experience things firsthand. The background informing that approach is the Sony Design creed: only what you grasp for yourself has original value.

RikkeWe call this research project the "City Safari." As the name suggests, the designers on the project travel through cities around the world like hunters, more or less: sharpening their sense of smell, closely observing cities and residents, and tracking down the faintest breaths of change. The results help us decipher the consumer’s state of mind, which we base the CMF Framework on.

The CMF Framework consists of keywords, visuals, color palettes, and sample materials that foresee what could lie ahead. At first, the framework served to unify Sony's brands and guide CMF for future products. In recent years, though, people have started to realize that the Framework can also be a predictor from a design point of view. We’ve gotten comments from people in other departments, like space design, saying that the clues in the Framework have generated new ideas. For this year’s project, then, we decided to go a step further and challenge ourselves to make a CMF Framework that’d inspire creativity across the whole Sony Design landscape.

MuraiThe first thing we changed was the team structure. Teams used to consist mainly of designers from the CMF and Product Design departments, but this time we added members from the User Interface (UI) and Communication Design (CD) departments. That came out of our aim to broaden the scope of the Framework: by incorporating viewpoints and sensitivities from other departments, we figured we could make the Framework more applicable in more areas.

We wanted to make our work as effective and pertinent as possible, too, so all the members went to their design departments and related business departments and asked questions: what business issues they were facing and what they expected from CMF, for example. After doing that legwork, they came back and shared their findings with the rest of the group. Then, we got to work on careful simulations of the research we’d need to perform. When everything was ready to go, we headed out to cities around the world on our "City Safari" in search of new trends—and also to gauge whether our current CMF direction was right or not.

Sensing changes in the air
all around the world

This City Safari took place in three cities: Shanghai, London, and New York. Project members broke into teams, explored their city, and did field research. Their trips sparked a variety of emotions and discoveries alike.

Shanghai

RikkeWe went to Shanghai, which is pretty mature from a social-development standpoint. Instead of pursuing Western values, the youth in China right now are beginning to reexamine the value of the traditions they’re steeped in. One thing that stuck out to us was how a lot of people were embracing a dynamic fusion of the traditional and the ultra-modern. There was a business that’d recreated the interior of a centuries-old building from the Ming Dynasty in the Shanghai old town as a modern lifestyle store, for example.

We also paid close attention to the fusion of traditional crafts and the latest technologies. We found a store where they were using cutting-edge machine tools to make traditional Chinese ceramics. The work they did was so meticulous and refined—and the core role of the technology was to maximize the beauty of the ceramics that Chinese society has inherited through the years. That gave us a fresh perspective on how we can blend CMF with technology. The products in the store we visited, meanwhile, featured the kinds of chic colors that harmonize with indoor environments—not the bold, vivid colors China is known for. Seeing that, we realized that we might need to rethink CMF for the Asian region.

London

KanadaLondon is a city Sony Design always keeps an eye on. The mood of the visit this time was a bit different, though. Brexit has made for many unrest and confrontational tension; people are really concerned about their futures. In that kind of social climate, local residents are trying to create communities for themselves and reclaim genuine connections. There were so many different activities going on. Inclusive public art that anyone could take part in highlighted the liveliness of the community. There was experience-based dining, allowing people from different backgrounds to share the same space and time. An upscale, high-end brand that can come off as a bit hard to reach for some audiences held a workshop for the community in one of its street-level shops. To us, it all spoke to a desire to create individual bonds and communal connections through self-motivated efforts.

The idea of bonds between people paralleled the relationship between people and products. At select shops, we saw lots of one-of-a-kind, fine-crafted objects and rough-hewn handicrafts that almost seemed incomplete. There was cutlery made by an artisan from Arizona, and there were traditional tools that Japanese fishing villages have used for centuries—but with bold, gorgeous finishes. All of it was together, in a shared space, and a background story accompanied every item. It made me realize that people are going back to paying close attention to the crafting process itself. As the rising tides of nationalism create new walls around the world, the "handmade feel" that foregrounds the real warmth of interpersonal connections is going to become even more important. The concept of diversity—the idea of accepting one another—is going to become an even more crucial theme for CMF, too.

New York

KosakaThe research we did in New York transformed the way I thought about materials and processing. In the city, we did more than just visit trendy stores. We also stayed at hotels designed by up-and-coming architects and interior designers, looking for clues about CMF from the rooms and interior decorations. The lobby of one hotel featured rough, unpolished wood, but a closer look revealed even more: I noticed that every single material had been carefully selected to create an atmosphere both casual and elegant at the same time. I was blown away by the idea of putting the essence of the raw material at the heart of the larger space.

The interior design in the guest rooms was just as stunning. The washbasins in the bathrooms were made from undressed stone that was just carved out with a chisel. It didn’t seem crude at all, though. It even felt luxurious. The presence of the stone was just that powerful. I wondered what would happen if we used that kind of basic, unsophisticated processing on Sony products. It got me thinking that the “beauty of the unfinished” might open up new possibilities in the CMF of the future.

KimuraWhat struck me during the time I spent in New York with Kosaka was how environmentally aware the people in the city were. We hear people talking about eco-friendliness all the time, but sustainability is a fundamental prerequisite in New York—and several brands are using that reality to enhance their visibility. One sneaker brand uses natural materials to make their shoes, for instance, promoting the eco-friendliness of their products and underscoring the conceptual basis that led them to select their materials. All together, that approach has won them a supportive following. We’ll obviously continue to focus on materials in the future, but we can learn a lot from that shoe brand. Conveying the thinking behind the materials we use could be one of the roles of CMF as well. The trip to New York really heightened my awareness along those lines.

Bouncing ideas off each other
to find true insights

After exploring Shanghai, London, and New York, the teams assembled in Tokyo and worked together on creating the ideal CMF Framework out of their findings. How exactly did that process work?

MuraiIt takes more than just compiling the results of all the teams’ research to make a CMF Framework. What we were aiming for wasn't just a report—we wanted a framework that other designers could look at to jolt their creativity. We also got a lot out of integrating our findings with other resources; new truths came to light when we combined the teams’ findings with the viewpoints of other designers. That’s why we hold workshops and use the research results as "ingredients," so to speak, that mingle together to create fuller, truer insights.

During the workshops, the members spread photos of the inspiring buildings and scenery they saw in their cities, along with interesting handicrafts, material samples and textile they'd picked up. Taking everything in, we discussed our reactions and bounced ideas off each other. When we looked at the handmade crafts the London team brought back, for example, the Shanghai team tied what they saw into their own findings—they spoke about the lifestyle store that used the repurposed Ming Dynasty building. That got us talking about the deepest psyche of the consumer, talking about how people today might be seeking out craftsmanship that brings out the best in the materials themselves.

KanadaAs we carried on with the discussions, we also thought about the wording and visuals we wanted to use for the concepts that the CMF Framework would express. We focused on verbalizations that’d resonate easily with other designer and also address the issues that the people in the business departments had raised when we talked to them before the City Safari. Taking advantage of our position as in-house designers, we tried to bring everything together into our framework; we took ideas about future products and service strategies from the departments and weaved them into our approach to designing visuals and keywords that linked directly to the optimal goals.

Specifically speaking, the process went like this: every time we held a workshop, we'd prepare several suggested keywords and visuals, and we'd all give our opinions on them. Someone might say, "This word is too commonplace, too ordinary. It won’t stimulate anything in the designers." Someone else might point out, "These visuals really speak to the issue this department is having." It was just open, frank discussion. As we went on, we edited the visuals, rewrote the keywords, an tweaked lead text over and over again. There were even times when we decided that the whole direction was wrong and started over from scratch. Step by step, we finally arrived at a final product that all the members were satisfied with.

KosakaIt was the same for the material samples and color palettes I was in charge of. We kept fussing over them until the end, but we ultimately pieced together something that clearly conveyed what we wanted to express to other designers. As we got specific, focused input from UI and CD designers on essential topics during the workshops, we gradually got rid of unnecessary ideas and whittled the selection down to samples that we felt embodied our own key thoughts. As a designer, I’m extremely excited to see how our CMF Framework can impact Sony Design and what kind of products and services it'll help shape.

The CMF Framework
will continue to evolve

How do the members feel after being involved in this project? And what is their outlook for the future?

KimuraTaking part in this project for the first time as a UI designer brought me into a new realization of how important CMF is—and it gave me hints on how to further improve UI design. I design smartphone UI, and, as a lot of us know, smartphone users often obsess over the color and appearance of the products they use. That's a big reason why we always focus on CMF. Now, though, I realize there's even more we can do. Smartphones can use video wallpapers, for example, so we could express our CMF worldview in the form of a video. We've already started working on prototypes along those lines.

KanadaThe project was eye-opening for me, too. The standard method in communication design has generally been to take the product concept as a starting point for ideas and then design the key visuals, promotional movies, and space design for reveal events around that core concept to convey the message to users. What the new CMF Framework does is open up new avenues for connection, I think. If we use the Framework's insights into the consumer psyche as a starting point instead, we might be able to create visuals and messages that resonate even more deeply with our audiences. I'd like to use CMF as a new standpoint for pursuing captivating potential in CD.

RikkeGetting UI and CD designers on board created an unbelievable synergy, one that took the CMF Framework up to a whole new level. The workshops gave us chances to hold discussions across our different fields of expertise and hear a diversity of opinions, which revealed many topics that we CMF designers need to address. One of them is sustainability. We use environmentally conscious materials in Sony products already, but I think we need to refine our approach to how we go about it. If we can develop CMF designs that convey the environmental awareness that governs our choice of materials, we’ll be able to embody our focus even better.

TakumaThere's no end to the CMF Framework effort. In fact, we've already started work on next year's project. Our CMF designs aren't reactive, either. It's not about switching in new content when a trend begins to lose steam. The Framework grows and deepens as social issues appear and technology improves. Leveraging the knowledge we accumulate through those changes and developments is the wellspring of Sony Design's creativity, I think. As the Sony Group’s businesses expand and the range of requisite designs grows to match, this CMF Framework will serve as a thematic foundation for Sony Design as a whole and constantly create fresh emotional value for the future.

CMF design provides emotional value to users.
Sony Design continually pursues CMF design that echoes deeply within the hearts of people worldwide.

Special thanks to FNJI, Allbirds