This Makeup Artist Went to Work for a Tech Startup and Here’s What Happened

Kokko Beauty's Color Chart
Kokko Beauty’s Color Chart

For a while here at Wild Beauty, I was posting on the regular – I’m more than a little obsessed with the the broader topic of beauty and culture, as you may have noticed. And isn’t holing up inside the NYPL with 15th century anti-witchcraft tomes a healthy way to pass the time between makeup gigs? Beats sitting around…

But something happened. You know those stories where someone is minding their business, working away – and they get “tapped” to do something? It happened to me – I got tapped. By a Silicon Valley technology startup. Seriously.

So what do I have to tell you two years later? First, that there is now a new beauty app – and you should try it. Second, that working on a technology about beauty taught me more about beauty itself than I ever imagined.

First, Let Me Introduce You to Kokko Beauty

This was supposed to be the meat of this article. The headlines could write themselves: Female P.h.D. Computer Scientist Creates Foundation Finding Miracle! Team of World-Class  Scientists Distill Makeup Artist Knowledge into an App! Now You Can Literally Shave Hours Off Your Makeup Shopping!

But what you really want to know about Kokko Beauty is how it’s going to work for you.  So here’s the short version:

  • The Kokko Beauty App is here for iPhone. (It’s in Beta, so not yet available for other phones.)
  • You need the specially printed Color Chart. Discount Code WILDBEAUTY  will get you a free chart until July 31, 2016 – you’ll only pay shipping and handling ($1.30).
  • Taking a selfie with the ColorChart allows KokkoBeauty to analyze your skin tone and gives you shade-specific foundation recommendations from major brands.

Here it is in action:

How does it work? Not only does the team at Kokko Beauty include world-class color, optical and data scientists – we also have makeup artists to test real foundations on real faces – hundreds of them. You know how foundation changes color from the bottle to when it’s on the skin? We saw that. How a match in one foundation is absolutely no guarantee that there will be a match in another? We slogged through hundreds of bottles to find the best matches for every woman in our study. And we saw how product lines vary in shade coverage, especially for women with darker and more golden skin tones.

So Many Bottles! We tested them all, on over 300 volunteers.
So Many Bottles! We tested them all, on over 300 volunteers.

That’s a lot of product! And we’re also adding more product lines – including Indie and Organic brands. So there is a lot of work to do. But there’s more to this story than product – working with technologists on beauty concerns changed the way I see makeup and beauty themselves.

What I Learned About Beauty From Working in Technology

This is the stuff I’ve been wanting to tell people – it’s not easy for a “talkative” person to work in stealth mode. But there’s a lot of insight about beauty – the products, business, and visual harmony of “beauty” itself – to be gained from looking at it from the outside.

It Often Takes a Female Scientist to See the Problems in Beauty – and Come Up With Solutions

Most scientists are men. I’m not writing this to rant about the ingrained sexist attitude that discourages women from going into STEM fields. Except….it’s really hard to solve a problem you’re not aware of, and most men aren’t navigating the beauty aisles looking for the perfect BB Cream. Kokko Beauty’s founder, Dr. Nina Bhatti, struggled for years to find the right foundation shades for her skin tone. Working in facial recognition and color technologies gave her the ability to create a solution.

So parents: next time you wonder if your little girls should like makeup or science, maybe the answer is yes to both.

Humans have waayyy better facial recognition software than computers.

When we look at a friend’s face on a sunny day with our human eyes, we don’t get confused when her face looks more “contrasty” than when we saw her at a party the other night. But to a computer, every sighting of a face is new, raw information – shapes, shadows, shine and all. Sorting that out is a lot of scientific work.

And modern cameras don’t help – they add their own interpretation to a photo. Most recent smart-phone cameras actually shift the tones so photos of you and your friends will look better – and you will think it’s a better camera. (Yes, we are all narcissistic in this regard.)

Color matching is one of the hardest things to do with technology. Remember the Blue Dress? That’s an extreme example, but a version of it goes on every time your camera viewfinder looks at something. In real-life, we can adjust by taking in the surroundings – and we do it automatically. In a camera, all those calculations have to be manually configured – and they need a standard to compare to, which is why Kokko Beauty uses its own specially printed Color Chart.

Makeup Artist Swatching Foundation on Model
We swatched foundation on hundreds of faces – of all ages and skin tones.

It’s really hard to “computerize” beauty.

It’s easy for non-technical people to assume that technologists can “computerize” anything. But like the 3D pizza, real-life processes don’t always computerize as well as people hope.

Beauty is very subjective – our definitions of beauty are dependent on our culture, our time, even who we love. Most of the time we won’t consciously know why we think something is beautiful. And when it comes to makeup, our ideals change really fast. Remember the 90’s eyebrow?

So how can technology deal with beauty? It can apply logic processes to it. Algorithms follow a logical pattern: If A, then B. Creating software involves creating multitudes of these rules, but they all have one thing in common: they follow a logical pattern to produce their outcomes.

Which is great, when you can state the rules, and follow them. But the process has limitations: technology night say, “this is the logical outcome”, but humans like to have the last say, especially with makeup. Some people like to be more tan than they are, others a shade or two lighter. Beauty rules are made to be broken, and we’re all experimenting. That’s part of the fun.

It’s Worth the Trouble

It’s always going to be hard for technology to “get” beauty (though technology-judged beauty pageants are apparently now a thing). But working with Kokko Beauty on this app has been well worth the effort. Nobody likes the time and trouble of going to different stores to try different products, only to find out that some of the lines don’t have their color or that there are new formulations at other stores she might like better.

So I feel good about helping create a solution to an annoying time-suck, and as one of those makeup-artists-who-don’t-wear-much-makeup-themselves I’ve gained a massive appreciation for the trouble it takes women to find suitable products in the crowded marketplace we have right now. Makeup should be fun – it’s definitely more fun when you have the right products – and if Kokko Beauty can make that easier, we’re doing our job right.


Kokko Beauty on the iTunes Store.

Get Kokko Beauty (Free Color Chart with Code WILDBEAUTY until July 31, 2016).

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