Design Expertise: Explore Fibers with Daniel Liden

Following The Secrets of Wonder Materials by Rob Thompson, this time we discuss with Daniel Liden, industrial designer at Chris Lefteri design with a 15 years experience working with materials and manufacturing processes. The story behind this article is simple. It started with the ambition to have Daniel inspire us with his experience in the field of material design. 

We do believe in exploring different creative path and merging knowledge from the physical realm to bring new creative opportunities in digital was definitely in our mind; This time we decided to go beyond inspiration and ambitions only but to create the digital twin of one of the materials Daniel showcase in this article.

Our digital material expert for textiles,
Pauline Boiteux, took the challenge to recreate in digital the the structure of a textile. Our goal was not only to create a photorealistic fabric representation using Substance Designer, but to create a procedural generator of knit fabric. The result is a couple of down scrolls away…

If I’m honest, I never used to find rendering particularly interesting – any rendering software that I had experience with just seemed overly technical and difficult to use. I certainly didn’t think of it as a creative tool. Lately, I have had a bit of a change of heart however.

I think I came across the first signs that something was happening when I started seeing abstract, sometimes slightly otherworldly images and animations that made it look like rendering software was becoming an exciting and interactive platform for material exploration that it hadn’t been before, at least as far as I’m concerned. 

Still from Covestro’s Pushing Boundaries promotional video

Rather than trying to achieve technical perfection or photo-realism, I think these images are really compelling in that they are clearly all about exploring and celebrating material properties. I suppose that it is proof of the impact of this type of imagery that major material suppliers like Covestro has picked up on it in their marketing, like in the stills from the Pushing Boundaries promotional video from Covestro featured here.

Still from Covestro’s Pushing Boundaries promotional video

Digging deeper, it’s clear to me that the key to making rendering exciting and creative is in the way that software like Substance is making this level of material exploration accessible to designers.

For sure it can be challenging to learn what is essentially a visual programming language, but I do think that this way of breaking down material properties parametrically is quite helpful as a mental model for thinking about materials in general, especially for complex materials like composites and textiles. 

Personally, I’ve struggled quite a bit to make sense of the big and complex world of textiles. Working on a specific project, at one point I was drawing massive flow charts – visually quite similar to the node-based interface of Substance Designer, actually – starting with the many different kinds textile fibres that can go into non-woven textiles like felt and paper, or be spun into yarn and turned into woven textiles like weaves and knits, of which there are many variations.

Unpeel another layer of textile finishing techniques and it’s very easy to lose track of the big picture.

As an example of the creative opportunities of just one type of textile, the images featured here perfectly demonstrate the richness and complexity of knitted textiles.

For me, the combination of different yarns and knitting techniques is really striking in the way that some yarns are more reflective than others, or different thicknesses of yarn are combined to create incredibly rich textures that are both visual and tactile.

Taking a close-up view of the fabric structure reveals a complex world of knitting techniques. In connecting the basic units of knitted textiles in various ingenious ways, it is possible to generate an astonishing variety of fabrics, from common ‘simple’ knits like jersey and pique, to more complex structures like ribbing, lace and jacquard knits.

Needless to say, there are a lot of creative opportunities here. Take a moment to take a look at the screenshot of the 2D view from Substance Designer next to the fabric structure diagram. I cannot overstate how impressed I am with this ‘digital twin’ of knitted textiles that Pauline from the Substance team has created digitally, essentially giving designers hands-on creative control over each strand of yarn in the textile.

It’s possible to tweak attributes of the yarn such as the color, the size, twist, glossiness and metallic reflection, just like you would on a knitting machine. At a macro level, the distribution of the ‘stitches’ (the interlocking loops of yarn that are essentially the basic building blocks of knitted textiles) can be modified to achieve various knit styles and effects in the textile.

Here are possible variations of the same material:

Artwork by Pauline Boiteux
Artwork by Pauline Boiteux
Artwork by Pauline Boiteux

Here is a look at the steps Pauline took to create this fabric:

Play

The result is a tool for designers to create extremely realistic visuals of knit structures with infinite creative possibilities. It is amazing and you should immediately go and play with this procedural knit free on Substance Source.

I would go as far as predicting that in the future designers will be able to define very accurate digital material ‘recipes’, that can then be sent to material suppliers and manufacturers for production. The Substance team are saying that beyond visualization, parametric ‘digital twin’ materials could be engineered with the technical constraints of real world knitting machines ⁠— meaning that anything you come up with in the software can be reproduced on the machine.


But why stop with textiles?

Many composite materials consist of fibres or textiles saturated in plastic resin, bringing a wide range of properties to the mix.

Maezio is a composite material developed by the plastics supplier Covestro that consists of continuous strands of fibre, saturated in resin and formed into tape, which can be layered and formed into sheets or parts. The strands of fibre running along the length of the tape gives the material an almost organic look, a bit like wood grain.

Beyond the colour, opacity and surface texture of the resin, the colour of the fibre can also be specified to generate many different variations and expressions.

Karuun, another composite material, has some superficial similarities with Maezio, but the materials are very different in terms of origin.

Karuun consists of rattan, a type of palm tree, and resin that is absorbed by capillaries that run along the stem by the same natural process that rattan absorbs water while growing. This is what is giving Karuun its beautiful stripes along the length of the material, as well as improved strength from the resin that also acts as a reinforcement.

The colour and opacity of the resin can be specified, and the rattan itself can also be dyed. By cutting the material with or against the grain, some very intricate and beautiful effects can be achieved, including semi-transparency when using transparent resin and cutting the material at a right angle to expose the end grain.

Another take on mixing natural and synthetic material comes from the Portuguese supplier Muratto.

Soft and tactile, Organic Block wall tiles consist of cork waste particles, pigments and a binder. The cork particles can be dyed or left in their natural state, opening up for many combinations with the colour of the resin binder.

Durat surfaces

All-plastic composite materials also have huge potential for variation of expressions.

Durat is a solid sheet material made with about 30% post-industrial recycled polyester collected in Finland and Sweden, mixed with virgin material. The recycled material is ground up into particles that give the material its beautiful and distinctive speckled look.

The Durat catalogue consists of a very wide variety of pre-defined materials that are essentially subtle variations in the ratio of different recycled materials and colour to virgin material, and the resulting colour combinations.

Bespoke composite by Smile Plastics

UK-based Smile Plastics also make composite sheet materials with recycled materials. The result is clearly visible in the material surface – from yoghurt pot foil covers, fragments of plastic bottles to chunks of old chopping boards, to name just a few examples from the standard collection.

Taking things one step further, Smile Plastics also offer a bespoke service, inviting customers to send in various waste materials for Smile Plastics to mix into the sheets, like in the example featured here that combines a leftover plank, some old keys, a cork trivet and whatever else you can find around the house on any given day. 

I think this is what makes Substance so exciting and valuable to me – in the same way that it is possible to collect some materials and send to Smile Plastics for processing, I can set up material combinations and behaviours in Substance until I arrive at a final ‘recipe’.

For me, it’s a great creative tool for directing and communicating physical sampling with material suppliers that I am convinced will lead to more valuable, beautiful and purposeful materials.  

Meet Daniel Liden

Daniel Liden is a designer with more than fifteen years of experience of working with materials and processes at global brands like Nokia and Lenovo, as well as in his current role as partner at Chris Lefteri Design, a design consultancy that specialise in materials.

Find Daniel Liden on Linkedin