top of page

Transportation Design Tricks: 3/5/2 CMF

In this Transportation Tricks mini-series, we take a look at tactics used by transportation designers that we can use to elevate the desirability of your consumer products. Transportation designers are highly trained and skilled in curating a high caliber design aesthetic that grabs and holds the attention of your customers. So, let's harness their tactics to bolster your product's design.


What the heck is "CMF"?! CMF stands for colors, materials, and finishes. It's designer slang for the cosmetic treatment curated for a product. CMF is one of the designer's most persuasive tools in their toolbox. Think back to that time when you were car shopping and picked one car over the other simply because of its color, rather than its mileage.

So what is 3/5/2 CMF then? 3/5/2 is a ratio or a rule of thumb for how many colors, materials, and finishes your product's design should incorporate. Three colors, five materials, and two finishes.

Let's break down each one and discuss how to apply them to your product:

Three colors

Your product's color palette should consist of three main colors: one primary, one secondary, and one accent color.

  1. Your primary color is the main color that gets applied to 75% of your product.

  2. Your secondary color is the supporting color. This gets applied to about 20% of your product.

  3. Your accent color can be used intentionally to draw attention to touchpoints such as tow hooks. Or, accents can simply be used to add a pop of color for interest. Your accent color should make up about 5% of your overall palette.

Sticking to this three-color approach creates a hierarchy of focus for your customer... or the passerby (your potential customer). The stack of these three colors builds visual interest without cluttering your design.

Keep in mind, the number three is just a rule of thumb. The exact number of colors you include can vary based on your aesthetic strategy. However, strive to keep the number of colors down. Anything below two can be boring and anything above four or five gets busy really fast.

Five materials

When it comes to the medley of materials your product incorporates, there are two guidelines to follow:

  1. Each of your materials should fall within one of the three colors in your palette. Using the scooter above as an example, we have pink plastic, black vinyl, black powder coated metal, black rubber, black glass, and red rubber. Five different materials contained in three colors.

  2. The materials that share the same color should be color-matched so that you avoid having a variety of different blacks, for example. It is better to have parts be entirely different colors than to have them poorly color-matched to one another.

There's more leeway when it comes to the number of materials that are appropriate for a specific product, but the same caution applies. Too few materials create a boring aesthetic, and too many materials will overwhelm your customer. Aim for five materials.

The quality, variety, and performance of the materials you choose go a long way to connect with your customer. Choose these materials and their application wisely so that your customer will find your product to be thoughtful and of high quality.

Two finishes

Last but not least, we have finishes. Just like materials, your two finishes should run across your colors. Typically, products have two finishes: gloss and matte.

Finishes give off different sensations to both the hand and the eye. Having two or more finishes adds interest to your product and allows you to showcase both functional and cosmetic parts.


The 3/5/2 CMF tactic is a powerful guide for curating and applying a medley of colors, materials, and finishes in a way that attracts your customers. The 3/5/2 ratio isn't a hard rule, but understanding it's power and then conforming it to work with your product gives you a thoughtful and effective CMF.

Like what you see?

Receive an email once a month
showing the process behind one of
our innovation projects

bottom of page