At the end of the introduction to the Multiple Choice exhibition, the curator reflects that, “as contemporary design industries move to open-sourcing and electronic formats for the marketing of their products, physical samples may soon become obsolete.” From a future academic and archival view point, this is a sad possibility, as material sampling formats contain vast amounts of technical, cultural and artistic information. Samples are already rare enough in museum collections, as they were often thrown out by their original owners like other ephemera.

Yet, there is a positive aspect to this slow conversion from physical to alternative sampling formats – and that is the elimination of waste which comes from producing material samples. Besides being economical, the concept of foregoing actual samples of products in many stages of the design process is becoming an integral aspect of sustainable design theory. The recent event held here at the Museum titled Multiple Choice: Marketing Design in the Twenty-first Century explored, in part, more ecological marketing approaches than using physical samples. One of the companies that took part in the conversation was Tricycle, Inc, which is a design company with a uniquely sustainable outlook. Tricycle, Inc. assists other interior design firms in prototyping innovative sampling methods that not only cut costs, but are earth-friendly as well. I had the opportunity to ask Michael Hendrix, Chief Brand Officer, a few questions about their experience with alternative sampling formats in the industry.

Was Tricycle Inc. created with a sustainable mission, or did these practices (such as your paper samples of carpets) fall into place as time went on? What provoked them?

I love your question because I believe it’s good to keep yourself grounded and remember your history. In fact, I went back through some old e-mails to confirm how we first talked about the company. Our mission from the beginning has been to reduce sampling waste and cost in the carpet industry through technology and design. This was really provoked by personal experiences with the industry: I came to it through marketing, Jonathan through engineering & sales, Jamie and Andy through CAD. Geography plays a big part as well since Chattanooga is a half hour from Dalton, Georgia, the “Carpet Capital of the World.” Personally I was also looking for a career with greater meaning and the opportunity to change an industry for the better provided that for me.

Do you find paper and virtual samples to be not only more environment-friendly, but also cheaper? Are there any other positive benefits that virtual samples offer which physical samples cannot?

Paper samples are a better solution “on paper.” Compared to carpet they require 95% less energy, 95% less water, are easily recyclable and save up to 70% in costs. However these facts are not motivating on their own. For alternative sampling to become standard we have to design experiences that enhance the process. It’s human nature to resist change so we must provide an “upside” to encourage new behavior. At Tricycle we have ongoing discussions about transforming samples from abbreviated products to effective design tools. Can an alternative sample feature a product in different lighting environments? Can it be used to visualize installation options? Can it become a presentation tool rather than an order form? With digital technology the answer is “yes.” We do it now. We design more effective sampling and merchandising tools that conform to the way people want to create and work.

Do you think that the design industry in general is heading towards virtual and paper samples, instead of samples of the actual end product? What criticisms have you heard about alternative sampling formats?

We’re on the road to mass adoption but I believe it’s still a few years from critical mass. We’ll still have need for actual product samples since we’re only simulating a portion. In the early rounds of product selection enough information can be presented to make a decision concerning likes or dislikes toward a product — especially when a designer is somewhat familiar with the medium. We describe it as a creative funnel in which many ideas are considered at the top but they’re eventually vetted to a final solution. We operate at the top of the sieve, providing a tool for the early rounds of creativity. Our primary criticisms have been due to others misunderstanding this. We’re not out to replace all samples.

We also get criticisms about color shift in different lighting, a phenomenon called metamerism. It’s a challenge for anyone trying to match various materials in multiple environments. Most people experience it firsthand when they’re buying paint; what looks good in the store is always different at home. It’s a challenge of chemistry and light and we’re working on some innovative means to handle this.

Do you think that physical samples will ever disappear from the interior design industry?

For the reasons above I don’t think we’ll see the demise of every physical sample, but I do think we’ll see a reduction. Many aspects of our lives have been dematerialized, from currency, to communication to entertainment. There’s no reason to think that product selection will be exempt from this trend.

Photo Credit: Tricycle Inc.

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