I still remember the day when I presented my graduation project on a $50k Silicon Graphics workstation using a $80k software package that still required me to hire a professional photographer to take screenshots. Today, my young daughters can do more on a mobile device, and for a fraction of the cost (if not for free). 

Because of the rapidly evolving nature of digital technology, the way we work is poised for constant change. The World Economic Forum said in a 2019 report that 65% of the students who entered university that year would eventually work in a role that doesn’t yet exist. In the fashion industry, specifically, there is a huge gap in digital skills, both inside organizations and in the labor market –  the talent pool is more of a talent puddle. 

Brands are at a point where they understand the value of digitizing their Go-to-Market process by shifting to a DPC or Digital Product Creation approach (with benefits including a reduced reliance on physical samples, better decisions earlier in the process, shorter time-to-market, more agility and the possibility of unlocking new business models and consumer experiences). However, as they scale their DPC efforts season after season, they are faced with a shortage of skilled talent that has the potential of jeopardizing their efforts. 

How can we rethink our approach to education and training for Design and Digital Creation roles to account for an ever-changing technology landscape, evolving industry expectations and a new generation of learners?

Image credit: Safir Bellali

Well, I have good news:  there is important work being done – but its success requires all of us to pitch in and work together.

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of hosting 18 high profile creative professionals from various industries (fashion, consumer product, automotive, experience & interactive, but also photography and education) who traveled from Europe, Singapore, California and South Africa to gather in Marrakech, Morocco for 3 days of discussion and exchange. The goal was to discuss the global shifts happening in the Design and Digital Creation spaces, and the new competencies creative talent in all parts of the world need to develop to be able to contribute and seize tangible opportunities in an ever-changing world.

Learnings about learners.

There seems to be a clear understanding of the shifts in our respective industries and the need to address the skills gaps that inevitably ensue. In many organizations, however, new skills are often introduced into an organization by new talent as mass internal upskilling is hard to achieve. There is also a palpable need for tighter collaboration and partnership within and across industries, to learn from each other and share best practices at a pre-competitive level. There is also a lot of uncertainty as to how technologies like Artificial Intelligence will affect Design and Innovation but, concurrently, a clear understanding of the role of human creativity, sensibility and craft is emerging. 

Young learners (who, according to the Institute for the Future, are considered digital natives, i.e. became young adults in 2010) on the other hand, are eager to build skills and gain experience, and know where to find answers but they sometimes need the space and time to discover their proficiencies. The good news is that educational content already exists for the most part – there is no need to reinvent it. Digital natives know where to find information but don’t always know what’s relevant and what career paths exist with the skills they already have. 

These young learners, interestingly,  also seem to crave connection with their peers and with professionals. They are comfortable with peer-learning, solving challenges and building skills together, but what they need is a framework to follow. Not surprisingly, gamification also resonates with this demographic. The Institute for the Future forecasts that what we think of as “video gaming” today will become the most powerful learning medium in history.

Image credit: Bob Johansen / Institute for the Future

Specifically, the Digital Product Creation for Fashion and Gaming space is at an interesting crossroads. 

According to a recent survey by Kalypso and Coresight Research, the market penetration for DPC in the Retail, Footwear and Apparel industry expanded from 43% in 2020 to 90% in 2022. And according to market analysis put together by The Interline, the technology market for DPC ecosystem solutions is quickly approaching the size of big, established enterprise segments like PLM, based on software licensing figures alone.

There has been a lot of coverage about the digital transformation of GTM (Go-to-Market) processes through organizational DPC (Digital Product Creation) initiatives in the fashion industry, but the one topic that is not discussed often enough is the role of education and training in this transformation. 

First off, the vision of up-skilling whole teams is at odds with the reality that most contributors are already maxed out on their workload and don’t have the time or brain space to adopt new tools and processes. A shift that may be offsetting the need for internal up-skilling at scale is the shift from brand teams building all seasonal 3D product assets to manufacturing partners owning the physical as well as the digital sampling and manufacturing processes, meaning that the factories are now increasingly expected to create seasonal 3D assets for the products they end up manufacturing. Such a shift will likely take some time to propagate through the industry as quality standards are developed and vendor teams work hard to achieve the levels of visual fidelity brands expect – but vendors who are able to master that process will undoubtedly come out on top.

Also, change management came up as an often overlooked and under-funded component of digital transformation efforts. It’s not enough to educate your teams, it’s really about how you introduce new processes into an existing ecosystem.

This all points to the realization that given the scale of the transformation efforts and the needs for DPC content in the Fashion industry, we are most likely looking at a combination of internal upskilling, outsourcing and new talent onboarding to help meet the demands of such a challenge. However, the common theme here is the digital skills gap that needs to be overcome at a global level.

Educators have an important role to play in enabling the digital transformation of the fashion industry.

The fact is that new technologies will continuously disrupt our creative processes. It’s our responsibility to embrace them and innovate in the way we educate the workforce of tomorrow. However, it is important to make a clear distinction between foundational skills and practical, tool-based skills. For fashion, specifically, this includes a solid understanding of physical garment design and pattern-making and a good grasp of material behavior and development, even if the creative outcome ends up remaining a digital asset.  While educational programs around tools that may be replaced quasi-overnight will have to continuously evolve (as will the competencies of educators who have to teach those tools), tomorrow’s creatives need to learn and apply the fundamental principles of unwavering curiosity, mental agility, continuous learning and trans-disciplinary collaboration. In a technology-driven reality, most importantly, agility is key – we all need to learn how to learn fast, adopt or adapt, as tools and therefore skills will inevitably evolve. 

Speaking of fast moving technologies, there need to be fundamental conversations about the role of AI in the creation process, especially around the roles that are at risk of being disrupted or even replaced by Artificial Intelligence. Educators should at the very least develop a point of view on what effect AI will have on future competencies. 

Another – more pleasant- factor to consider is that Gamification might be the key to sticky educational experiences. New tools (Gravity Sketch, Metahuman Creator, Substance Sampler…) are becoming more and more intuitive as they get more powerful. You can now also publish educational experiences as you would a videogame (Assassin’s Creed Discovery mode is a great example). Bob Johansen, from the IFTF (The Institute for the Future), once said that emotionally-charged immersive experiences will be the way of learning in the future.

Finally, the importance of mentorship and peer-to-peer learning cannot be understated. Every single one of us, whether we are practitioners, recruiters, learners or educators has had a personal journey and an outlook on our space that can inspire or empower others. Don’t give a student a hammer when you can, with your guidance, let them build a toolbox that will unlock their personal potential.

There is an existing effort to tackle the digital skills gap through a partnership between Industry, Academia and Technology Providers (and you should be involved).

Over the past few years, a team of passionate volunteers have come together as part of the 3D Retail Coalition (3D.RC)’s Education Committee, which I’ve had the privilege of leading over the past 3 years. The 3D.RC is a collaborative group of global retailers, brands and service providers, working together to advance 3D technology for apparel, accessories and footwear designers, retailers, manufacturers, and supply chains. Its mission is to provide direction, resources, and networking opportunities to help members unlock and accelerate the potential value of 3D digital transformation, while maintaining positive impact within their organizations and the industry. 

The Education Committee, specifically, has been focusing on the Digital Skills Gap and has taken on the challenge of  defining certification standards, providing guidance and resources to organizations that are trying to navigate this new space, and facilitating a partnership between tech providers and educators who, ultimately, are tasked with shaping tomorrow’s workforce.

Members of the committee recently had the opportunity to discuss this topic at the PI Apparel conference in Los Angeles, CA. The mission of this most recent collaborative effort is to broker active conversations between the industry, educators and technologists to create an industry standard for assessing 3D skill levels with definitions for 3D roles using a common vernacular. The group set out to create a comprehensive list of the knowledge and hard skills required for the key 3D Design Roles – Material Designer, 3D Artist, 3D Designer,  & 3D Technical Designer – for use by brands, solution providers, and educational institutions to inform hiring, recruiting, and curricula. While this effort is currently in need of input and feedback from brand representatives, a few pilot projects are already underway. 

Image credit: Lynn Boorady / Cynthia Bailey

Dr Lynn Boorady, Department Head & Professor of Design & Merchandising, Oklahoma State University, is piloting a portfolio based program that utilizes a series of courses designed to help students build & demonstrate the skills required for Material Designers, 3D artists, Designers and Technical Designers. The program will officially kick off in the fall of 2023, and the courses will be presented to the Textile & Apparel Accreditation Commission to formalize the certification process.

In the spirit of my personal commitment to closing the digital skills gap and creating opportunity for driven creative talent regardless of their background, location or financial means, I am working with some incredible partners on a pilot program in Design and Digital Creation in Africa, as a blueprint for a new educational model that, once validated, could be replicated in other underserved regions. This program, which would act as an innovative education lab, involves developing a curriculum based on skills that are relevant to the industry, experimenting with innovative teaching modalities, maintaining an active connection between industry and academia,  employers and students from the region and from the African continent, and providing learners with skills and global opportunities that would otherwise be out of their reach.

This project, while in its early stages, is resonating for many as a very timely and necessary initiative, and one of many approaches to closing the digital skills gap so many industries are facing.

As Tim Brown, co-founder of IDEO once said: “The problems of today are too big for one person or organization to solve alone. We need many people bringing a vast diversity of perspectives to begin to think about challenges in new ways.” 

Photo credit: Greg Hatton @impaci / Creative Offsite Marrakesh 2023

It is only through an active partnership between the key stakeholders (industry, academia and technology partners) that the digital skills gap can be bridged and opportunities created for anyone who has the drive, passion and desire to contribute, regardless of where they come from. Industry needs to know how its Go-to-Market processes and market expectations are evolving and what that means for the competencies they need – now and in the near future. Academia needs to be aware of these shifts and ensure its educators preempt these needs by staying ahead of the curve so they can shape the workforce of tomorrow with relevant knowledge and skills. Technology Partners need to help educators and institutions ensure they have everything they need to train and educate the next generation of creators as well as the current one. They also need to ensure they do what they can to provide access to those who might otherwise not be in a position to benefit from these tools and technologies.

What is emerging from these global discussions is that this might very well be one of the biggest challenges of our time. A great way to be involved is to reach out to our Education Committee Project Manager Cynthia Bailey at Cynthia.Bailey@kalypso.com to find out how you can help – there is plenty of great work to be done!

We all have a role to play in this effort… How will YOU contribute?

Dr. Lynn BooradyDr. Anupama ParishaChelsea Snyder and Wilda Spalding also contributed to this article.