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Interview with Falza Khanani, Global Director of CMF at Dell

This post is presented by the K-Show, the world’s No.1 trade fair for the plastics and rubber industry. Visionary developments and groundbreaking innovations will again lead the industry into new dimensions at K 2022 in Düsseldorf, Germany.

Chris Lefteri: Hello Falza. Thanks for joining me. A simple question to get us started. Tell me about your current role.

Falza Khanani: I’m the global director of color, material and finish design and incubations at Dell. The CMF team works across the entire portfolio of products at Dell, developing strategies, applying CMF design, and innovating new materials for the future. It’s tip-to-tail in terms of anything to do with a material’s surface. My job is the CMF portion of any product design at Dell.

CL: And what was your background before?

FK: I’m originally an industrial designer. I worked in the footwear industry for many years, first as a designer, then focusing on material and color direction, and then I started to be curious about CMF and other product industries. I’ve worked in mobile phones, the trucking industry (where I developed CMF for interiors and exteriors), footwear, apparel.

Falza Khanani is the Global director of color, material and finish design and incubations at Dell

CL: That’s quite a range of different industries you’ve worked for! What do you feel is the connection between them all, and how does that apply to Dell and its products?

FK: I moved around because of CMF. My curiosity just kept growing because CMF is so integrated into design, but also the process of collaboration is different across industries. I don’t think consumers or users or people that buy things think about CMF separate from the actual product. Yet it’s the one thing that people interact with: it’s a visual interaction, a tactile interaction, it’s how you’re intersecting with the actual product in very tangible ways. If you step back a bit and think about human perception, and emotions, and what causes desire, CMF has an opportunity to really understand all those different people, different consumers, different desires and either bring them to a new place with a new experience, or build on what they love and keep delivering that.

Dell has so many different types of products with different materials in their portfolio. It’s an interesting design challenge: you can start to design these CMF interactions, or build on the Dell customer base so that the customers are getting to know Dell for the subtleties that cause emotional reactions, like how the product feels, or the technical aspects which might not even be visible – like making products more carbon neutral because of the materials being chosen on the inside.

There’s so much to build on in terms of human connection with the actual tech products and it goes beyond just the performance and quality they deliver. It’s the ability to think about humans, and their interaction with the product, whether it’s through technology, or surface, or how a color inspires you, or makes you feel. It’s an interesting design problem to keep approaching in different ways.

CL: And it’s different for each of your product categories? Different values?

FK: Exactly. We have different brands so they have different qualities that consumers connect to. Even thinking about products that are supposed to be very affordable and accessible, or others that should enable productivity. I think that’s where CMF design often gets overlooked: you can always do a lot with very little, and there’s also things you don’t notice that have been intentionally considered. There is always a different design and innovation problem to solve. Instead of “Oh, I can’t use this material or color”, it’s like: “How can I make the minimal choices to make just as interesting an experience?” Choices the designers make significantly change the perception and experience of the final design.

CL: And can you give me an example of some of those experiences or qualities?

FK: For example, we have the new XPS 13 series of notebooks; they are a high performance, minimal design product, mostly made of low carbon aluminium, meaning the material are produced using hydro power. This means it has a different story in terms of being a material that appeals to people when they’re buying a top tier device: it’s like an additional kind of value. There’s an emotional value that connects to a rational purpose of sustainability. On the same topic of materials and sustainability, we have some products that are exclusively moulded plastic, with a high amount of recycled content; that product has a different experience and accessibility, yet the details of tactility and materials is equally thoughtful.

CL: What do you mean by ‘exclusively moulded plastic’?

FK: We have the education focused 3000 series, which is made exclusively of plastic. So in the past, if you had a plastic object of any product category you usually wanted to cover it. Plastic seemed really undesirable and cheap, it didn’t have any kind of value. You tried to paint it with metallic paint or you put a film on it that made it look like something else. We’re now actually choosing to explore and talk about the honesty of this material. We’re thinking things like: what else can we do to the surface so that this is an elevated material experience, both for the consumer and for manufacturing?

The XPS and the 3000 series are wildly different in terms of pricing, as well as from a functioning perspective – we’re talking opposite ends of the product spectrum – but they can still both be equally thoughtfully designed. You need to consider the end user experience and then integrate that with the material choices. A lower price doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a lower-end experience on the surface.

Dell Latitude 3000

CL: Is there a particular product and a detail on that product that you want to highlight?

FK: We have the Latitude 3000. The Latitude is our commercial portfolio and then the 3000 model is generally used in a pretty high-volume way across the globe for things like education. Just because it’s going to be used by students and banged around and reused again and again, and made in the millions, that doesn’t mean it needs to be basic and unconsidered. With the Latitude 3000 we added a little speckle to the resin, we got rid of paint, we developed a micro texture to give the surface a better quality, so it doesn’t look so flat, it has a bit more dimension, it has tactility – a tiny bit of expression. And then the material itself has a pretty high PCR content (and uses a bio-based TPU) so at the same time we’re building some sustainability into it as well. That’s a pretty thoughtful product for one that would have been considered “low end, high volume” in the past. Those names and categories aren’t relevant anymore. It’s more about the different experience that a consumer is using the product for, and therefore we’re designing a different CMF experience and function.

CL: You talked about the experience of plastics. How do you think the experience, and perception, of plastics has changed from when you were first working in a different industry to where it is now?

FK: When I first started working in design, I was in the footwear industry and I was sourcing a lot of materials. The best materials were always from Europe. They were always something like a leather, or a natural fibre, or linen, or silk. Then plastics, or synthetic materials, started to find their way, their own place. They got their own stereotype, like being “an athletic material”, for example, for footwear, or “it’s very cheap and basic” (when you think about those plastic cups and dishes). Basically, it was a throwaway material that had durability. And then there was always the perception that plastics came from Asian manufacturing, and maybe back then it wasn’t to much about original ideas, they were really just about “copying” materials. Making a fake version of soap, for example. I think plastic was always known as the “fake material”, right?

Fast forward to the present moment, and you’ll find plastics being used in many different product applications, and there are so many different types of plastics. You can build a plastic completely from recycled material, you can weave textiles, make recycled bottles or fibre. There’s now the “reuse” case. There’s also changing the perception from “fake material” to a material that has its own authentic honesty of texture, or whether it’s a gloss… And then there’s color, of course. When plastic first came out, before I was born, probably before you were born, when it was like “fantastic plastic”, it was basically Bakelite products that were all about color and shape and moulding things into anything, as opposed to the handmade product. So it started out as an amazing, cool material, for high-end jewelry and dish ware. But then it became really prolific and simplified – and affordable! – and it lost its value.

There’s now an incredible amount of innovation around, plastic is just a whole different thing, you can’t even say one material is plastic. There are many performance functionalities, so many different activities, the ability to incorporate color or visual noise in the actual resin (versus adding something topical to cover it). I’m thinking about different moulding processes, in terms of improving the surface, or how you can create a blended look using different colors: I’m thinking about, for example, a marble effect, how you design your injection moulding tool or add bio-based materials for a textural or visual story.

Plastic has really just moved into a whole different space of sub-categories, with its own really high-end tier too.

CL: Regarding sustainability, Dell has a record of doing some really important projects around reclaimed ocean waste, packaging and recycled carbon fibre. How do you even begin to break that discussion down into a manageable chunk when you’re looking at the hardware? Do you say, “this time we really want to focus on circular materials, circular plastics”, or “this time we want to focus on longevity”? Do you break it down in those terms?

FK: The way I approach sustainability – and we do have a sustainability team of engineers as part of the design team – is that it depends on the body of work or the project: you have to consider the most important thing about that particular product and then choose its path of sustainability. The key question is: is this going to be lowering the carbon footprint or this is about creating something with recycled materials? So, our Concept Luna, for example, was about longevity, service, and disassembly. You can’t really put just one sustainable parameter across many different products and product experiences. You have to think: what’s the biggest impact you can make with each product or product category? If it’s all moulded plastic, for example, then looking at your PCR content is really important if the product is super heavy. You start to look at the material and design choices: can we make this lighter so that when you ship it, it really lowers the carbon footprint (weight being such a big factor in terms of increasing carbon footprint when you ship things)?

We all have different approaches to sustainability. So it’s really about looking holistically at the different ways you’re creating the product, right? You have to consider the consumer desire, the business case, the function, and the volume. Is it a big thing? Is it a small thing? It’s a whole different opportunity of thinking about design very differently.

Take power usage, that’s a really big thing. If we create servers, the fact is servers are mostly made of steel and most steel is already recycled throughout the globe. It’s really about energy usage. Because a large datacenter full of servers is obviously going to use a lot of energy, and it’s going to be there for a really long time, so the materials have to endure longevity. But it’s also going to use a lot of power. So that would be a different approach. We approach it differently each time.

CL: I’d like to finish on a simple question: do you have a plastic product you most admire? It could be something you worked on personally, or it could be something that you think was just a fantastic piece of design in plastic.

FK: I actually collect vintage Bakelite bracelets and brooches. I’m probably paying way too much for them when I find them online! You never think “Oh, I’m gonna wear plastic” but it’s really interesting what they were using this material to design with. Some are like intricate insect bugs that are brooches, others are trying to mimic things like wood and tortoiseshell, with a rough design. I also love stretchy clothes – and of course vintage ’50s stuff – when everything was plastic: it was polyester and vibrant colors, the playful future of everything synthetic!

CL: It was very celebratory, right? It’s interesting, you talk about the jewelry, I take from what you said that it was about replicating something else – i.e. plastic trying to look like wood or another natural material. And then in the ’60s, it became much more of a celebration of its own material?

FK: Yeah, I mean the Bakelite dishes. They’re really beautiful because you have different wall thicknesses, and then there are some very geometric shapes. In the past, in the way the products were manufactured, there were limitations to form and shape and edge and radius, and I think that’s what you see in a lot of that early “fantastic plastic” design. You had mid-century design, which was interesting, with these modern new shapes of things, and I think those were influenced a lot by what you could do with manufacturing, particularly plastic.

Chris Lefteri will be repeating his successful design focused tours at this years K 2022. If you are around join Chris on the 23rd & 24th October in Düsseldorf for his curated selection of the most inspiring plastic, design relevant exhibitors at this years show. Discover what he sees as the most important future plastic innovations.

This post is presented by the K-Show, the world’s No.1 trade fair for the plastics and rubber industry. Visionary developments and groundbreaking innovations will again lead the industry into new dimensions at K 2022 in Düsseldorf, Germany, October 19-26, 2022.

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