From the Front Lines: A CEO's take on technology

Intellectual capital is a textile designer's most valuable asset. Often it takes technology to realize its full return

Day after day, for nearly three years, I'd watch my mother, a textile designer in the leisure-fabrics industry, go through this scenario: She'd fly to a customer's offices to show a palette and a design motif. She'd fly back to her company's headquarters to repaint the design according to the customer's specifications. Then she'd either fly to the customer's offices again to present the new design or, if the customer was unusually easygoing, courier it over. The process would often go on for six or more iterations before a design was finally approved. I was horrified to learn that on one trip, from Nashville to Chicago, her plane had to make an emergency stop in Cincinnati to clear the cabin of fumes caused by my mother's frantically touching up a design for a customer using oil-based paints. Surely, I thought, there had to be a better way--and one, moreover, that would not invoke sanctions from the FAA.

Things hadn't always been so out of control. The whirlwind tours became the norm only in 1994, when the customers--the buyers for mass-market retail chains--began demanding more flexibility in manipulating design elements. Yes, the new agenda made my mother a seasoned road warrior (of the analog sort, of course). But it certainly didn't make the best use of her talents. My mother's chief value, after all, lay in her ability to forecast trends and come up with formulas that would pay off for the retailers who incorporated her ideas into products as diverse as dog beds and outdoor umbrellas. She was, in management guru Peter Drucker's words, a knowledge worker--but now one without a cost-efficient and sane way to exploit that knowledge in the marketplace.

Finding a way to take full advantage of her intellectual capital became my mission--a mission, I quickly realized, that could be accomplished in only one way: by shifting my mother's design and premanufacturing process from a wholly hands-on analog format to an entirely digital one. The transformation was, ultimately, so effective that it went beyond applying her knowledge to her customers' problems; it led, in early 1997, to the formation of our own mother-son textile-design company, the Virtual Loom, now based in La Grange, Ga.

My first step in bringing my mother into the information age was to assess exactly what she needed to do in order to spend more time developing new ideas rather than laboriously painting and repainting old ones. I arrived at the following: She'd need the ability to change colors and elements in a design with the ease of altering a word-processing document. And she'd need to be able to make those changes on the buyer's home turf, to put an end to the time-consuming brain drain of shuttling back and forth.

Armed with those requirements, I set out to find the technology that would meet them. Many thousands of dollars of business loans later--not to mention hours of painstaking coaching of my pre-Atari mother--I succeeded. The engine driving the machine is still the same: my mother's industry-proven and impossible-to-price ability to predict the trends that will shape the mass market in areas such as outdoor fabrics, and to generate textile designs consistent with those tastes. But now she's able to gun that engine at will.

When my mother develops a design today, she either scans the artwork that forms the basis for the printed fabric into a Sony VAIO 120 PC or creates it from scratch using off-the-shelf graphic-design software, such as Adobe's Illustrator. She then loads the digital image into a CAD/CAM system called Vision Fashion Studio, from Info Design, which we've had customized by the manufacturer to include 3-D renderings of patio furniture in addition to the product's standard sartorial items. The system takes the millions of bits of information that make up, for example, the tonal pattern in a watercolor print and separates them into a small number of coherent color channels. My mother then imports those channels into a module that allows her to instantly generate an infinite number of color and tonal variations on the core design. In addition, using the image-editing tools in yet another module, she can easily excise a flower fallen into disfavor and, from a library of design elements that we've assembled, insert, for example, a paisley design or even a fire hydrant (as was the case in a dog bed that she did).

The buyer is brought into the picture when my mother transfers the modules and her data to a high-end IBM ThinkPad and takes the designs on the road. Right in front of the buyer's eyes, she can dash through, say, a hundred variations on the design simply by manipulating a sliding bar to alter the shades that make up perceived color. She can do a flower-to-paisley switch on the spot. To give a sense of what the design will look like on a given fabric with a given weave, she runs a weave simulation via a third module, which superimposes everything from a herringbone to a weft-faced twill on top of the design. And finally, in the piÈce de rÉsistance, she takes that fabric and 3-D maps it onto, for example, a patio cushion, so that the buyer can see immediately what the final product will look like.

The system's astonishing capabilities notwithstanding, there were moments when I, as the unofficial chief information officer of our joint enterprise, wasn't sure we would make it past my mother's Luddite leanings. For a long period--too long for my tastes--my pager would go off in the middle of the night with a panicked text message, and typically in a few days I would be on a flight from my apartment in Chicago to my mother's home in Philadelphia to wrestle with some demon she had managed to conjure forth from the bowels of Windows NT, one usually involving connections to new scanners. (Now, thanks to Symantec's pcAnywhere, I can confront those demons remotely by dialing up my mother's workstation on my laptop screen.) And let's not forget the time that, eight hours before an important presentation, she tried--with impressive force and evidently not a little pent-up hostility--to cram the business end of a SCSI cable for a Jaz drive into the printer port in the back of the ThinkPad, which resulted in a panicked all-night session with hair dryer and tweezers as she carefully heated and restraightened the 50 or so tiny copper pins in the end of the cable. (It worked, though I'm pretty sure this counted as voiding the warranty.)

Still, our commitment to making full use of my mother's talents ultimately pulled us through. Today the Virtual Loom is able to deliver the benefits of her hard-earned intellectual capital to customers in a package that allows them unprecedented speed and flexibility in customizing designs to their industry or manufacturing constraints. In the end, though, perhaps the most exciting outcome of our efforts is the way my mother's knowledge has not just been freed but has actually expanded: now she can think about composition in a whole new light--with color variables such as hue, saturation, and value only a slider bar away and vast libraries of petunias, paisleys, and anything else she might want to throw on a patio cushion available with the insertion of a Zip disk. Like Drucker's knowledge worker, my mother, with the help of technology, is again "learning to learn."

C. Rodolfo Celis is co-owner of the Virtual Loom, with headquarters in La Grange, Ga.