Following years of research, 2022 will see the rollout of a new industry standard skin tone scale. One which is actively designed to be more inclusive and better represent every demographic.
Change that’s more than skin deep.
Since the birth of animation, the nature of flesh has been a sticking point. Ok, that sounds a little more lurid and ghoulish than I intended. See, since the rise of colour animation in the 1930s, animators have struggled with the best way to create a host of realistic skin tones. But we’ve just taken a giant leap forward.
Google have recently replaced their outdated tool for classifying skin tones, with one that is more inclusive, which will revolutionise representation in the creative and tech industries. It’s a 10 shade scale that will be built into Google products over 2022, called the Monk Skin Tone Scale [skintone.google].
The future of skin tone in animation.
If you’re wondering what we’ve been using all this time, this new scale replaces the Fitzpatrick Scale. Which was made up of six tiers and has been the industry standard since 1975. But not only was it designed with a very limited spectrum in mind, it was also predominantly designed for dermatological conditions. That’s right, for nearly fifty years, the world of design has collectively been referring to a chart that was primarily focussed on diagnosing the severity of things like psoriasis and eczema.
Before we go any further, though, we should probably have a quick chat about hex codes. Without getting into too much detail (as we don’t want to melt your brain), the hex code is a breakdown of a specific colour, based on how much red, green or blue is used. This is then presented as a six point code; made up of numbers 1-9, with letters A-F being used to represent 10-15.
So the “reddest” red you can think of would be #FF0000. Because FF is as far as the red scale can go, while both green and blue are set to the very lowest point. Similarly #FFFFFF is white and #000000 is black. Still with me? In a practical sense, this means you can pretty much create any kind of colour and very clearly track exactly how it has been composed. We use them all time with brand guidelines, to ensure the colours we feature in an animation are uniform and correct.
But back to the scale. While Google deserve a fair amount of credit for giving this scale the appropriate platform, it didn’t actually originate with them. This is the result of years of studies into skin tone and colourism by Harvard professor and sociologist, Dr Ellis Monk. His work looked at how these issues affected people’s lives and was designed to be inclusive but not overwhelming. This is why it’s 10 set colours, rather than a sliding scale to be tweaked over time. Once his findings were published, Google’s AI team reached out to Dr Monk in the hope that it could be adopted and spread universally.
So, aside from the very important point of representation, why have Google invested so heavily in this scale?
Over the years, you may have seen a viral video or two about sensors under taps or hand sanitisers not recognising the presence of different skin tones. Alternatively, you may know someone or have personal experience with facial recognition software struggling to recognise the face it’s scanning. What about digital photography? All too often we see examples of phone cameras unable to cope with a variety of skin tones, leaving individuals over or under exposed.
The disappointing (but wholly unsurprising) truth is, this is because technology is built and tested with one type of user in mind. Meaning many aspects of software, technology and even art, fail to take the real user base into consideration. Operating under the assumption that the user is exactly the same as the person designing it.
For a completely separate example, you could design a roster system that requires you to login to a computer every morning and make detailed notes about who is present and their responsibilities that day. But if you are working on a busy building site, chances are logging into a desktop computer for an hour’s worth of admin, isn’t your top priority. Ultimately, it’s a question of knowing the needs of your users.
So while many industries claim to be thought leaders, here we have an example of a company seeing a growing need to improve and taking the necessary steps to make an active and positive change.
Leading the way to reduce racial bias.
At this point, the applications are in their infancy, but the potential is incredibly interesting. Say you’re doing a search for new or exciting make-up looks. Google will now present a new option, asking if you want to refine your search by skin tone. And as the search engine is scouring sites for this data, it means creators and brands can label web content with things like skin tone, hair texture and hair colour. Google has also announced they will use the scale to train their AI, and photos taken on their products will use Real Tone filters, to create images that better reflect reality.
Commendably, the scale has been openly distributed so it’s not being hoarded by Google. Afterall, it’s a beneficial product that should be the industry standard. Which leads us to the wider market. I.e. us. How does the creation of this scale affect a media studio in the East of England? Well, in more ways than you’d think.
We’ve got skin in the game.
There’s a real range to the type of animations we produce. Not just the presentation: 2D, 3D, CGI, etc. But a spectrum of literal and abstract imagery. This allows us to convey incredibly complex or emotional concepts in a way that is identifiable and engaging. And one aspect of that is characters.
It goes without saying that clients will often want to see their product or service depicted in a real-world context with animated characters. And when working on character-driven pieces, we have to take a lot into consideration. Are these figures representative of a specific demographic? How we embody and present gender, ethnicity and even age has an affect and we must approach each unique case with sensitivity.
But even if our client wants a very literal representation, we will propose an alternative. Usually one that is abstract. Even to the point of absurd. What we mean by that is an impossible skin tone, such as blue or green. But with the rollout of this particular scale, we suddenly have access to a widely accepted, inclusive and authoritative guide.
And as a British company, operating out of a less than diverse area (the most recent census showing around 90% of Norwich’s population identify as white/caucasian), but with a set of global clients, it’s important to be conscious of these shifting changes.
It may sound self aggrandising but, as artists, how we represent the world matters. Companies entrust us with their brand and message. And how we choose to illustrate that holds a great deal of significance. So while we are talking about ten colours today, it is in fact the opening statement leading to truly monumental transformations tomorrow.