Watch Me Work: Kelly Slank, Instructor, MFA Color & Materials Design

Kelly Slank

The First Thing

You slide into the buttery leather seats of a new car. Your hand grazes the nubby upholstery of an on-trend, acid yellow sofa. Or maybe you’ve just been eyeballing a new pair of black kicks. If designer Kelly Slank has done her job right, you won’t even know she was there.

Color and materials designers used to be the unsung heroes of the design world. Give them a couch or a shoe, a car seat or stereo — any product we use, really — and their special brand of genius makes it sing with life: the color that attracts, yes, but also the pattern that completes a look, the finish that adds unmistakable vibrancy.

A graduate of Wayne State University and an instructor in CCS’s Color and Materials Design MFA program (C+M), Slank started out in interior design before working for global brand, Nike, General Motors and Ford Motor Company.

Now she runs Slank Design, a consultancy, and a large part of her work is trend forecasting: being able to predict future trends in color for her clients, from individuals to corporations. “What excites me about what I do is the way people respond to those elements,” she explains. “It’s the first thing that everybody sees when they look at a product and, for better or for worse, it’s the thing that everybody has an opinion about.”

Which is one of the reason’s Slank teaches at CCS in C+M, one of only a handful of such programs in the country. Color and materials in general and trend reporting in particular require, as she notes, being connected to youth culture. And teaching gives her that connection.

“It’s twofold,” Slank says. “I’m connected to that young creative energy that I love so much, and it’s a chance to give back. The other thing is, I know what it takes to work in a corporate environment, and I feel that’s too good not to share with someone who might need it.”

But don’t forget: I said they used to be unsung heroes.

Slank points out how, in the two-plus decades she’s been a designer, perspectives on the field have changed. Rather than adding color or finish or pattern or texture as the afterthought of a project, color and materials designers are finding that, more and more, their work is the first thing — catalysts of great design.

“So, rather than ‘Here’s a shoe, put a material on it,’ I see the reverse,” says Slank. “Now it’s often a materials designer presenting some great textile they’ve created and an industrial designer saying, ‘What can I do with this? What kind of product can I make with this?’”