Exploring Product Design Workflows – Creative Iterations

Hi, my name is Swarnim Verma. I’m currently a student at ISD (Institut supérieur de design) Rubika, Valenciennes, studying 3D digital design. I’ve been using Alias for a few months for surface modeling, and I have some experience with Rhino. I’ve also learned the fundamentals of VRED, Arnold, Keyshot, and VRay rendering engines, and I’ve used these to create visuals, which incorporates the process of creating materials using node-based systems.  

Towards the completion of my third year of studies, I began to develop an interest in material exploration and Color, Material and Finish (CMF). I already had some experience with Substance Painter, and I was aware of how it’s revolutionizing the process of texturing in various fields; conversely, I wasn’t familiar with Substance Designer at all. Fortunately, the incredible opportunity came up to do an internship at Substance by Adobe in Lyon for a semester, under the guidance of Pierre Maheut (Head of Special Projects). 

I was able to pick up Substance Designer within a month during the internship and spent some time brainstorming how it can be used differently in an industrial design context – not just for material creation, but also for hard surface modeling of details. 

In this project, one of my aims was to show how Substance can be used not only for texturing models but also for 3D sketching and detail enhancement in product design. Another objective was to explore the workflows between the Substance tools for material creation, detailing and texturing and Adobe tools (Stock, Dimension, Illustrator, Photoshop and Aero) for staging, composting, rendering, post effects and Augmented Reality. As Substance is being integrated for support by many other 3D software tools, I also used Autodesk VRED for real-time configuration, Keyshot for detailed shot renders and Maya + Arnold for automated product material moodboard creation. 

 
Part One – CMF Exploration 

Moodboard Creation (Photoshop, Illustrator, Pantone Website) 

Moodboarding involved a lot of research – both to understand the background of the theme and to find visuals that seem to speak the same language. With the help of Nicolas Paulhac (Head of Content Creation) and Anais Lamelliere (CMF Designer for Substance Source), I learned how to narrow down my choices so that they are more coherent. I chose the major colors for the themes, then found Pantone swatches to match them. 

I wanted to create two very distinct themes to show that the same form can look and feel very different upon the application of different materials and patterns. After a bit of brainstorming and research, I slimmed down my choices to ‘Modern Memphis’ and ‘Nostalgic Warmth’. 

Modern Memphis: The Memphis design movement began in 1981 in Milan; designer Ettore Sottsass founded the Memphis Group, along with other designers and architects. The style’s unconventional aesthetic was a mixture of the geometric figures of Art Deco and the color palette of Pop Art, as well as 1950s-flavored kitsch. The signature patterns and characteristic shapes of the style have recently made a comeback thanks to contemporary designers, who often use more muted, pastel color palettes in contrast to the bright, primary colors of the original. I wanted to use this modern style of Memphis as a key inspiration for one of my themes.  

Nostalgic Warmth: In contrast to the vivid theme of Memphis is the Nostalgic Warmth theme, characterized by soft, warm pastels blended with light wood, ceramic and cloth, along with accents of warm toned metal. It’s a serene, vintage-inspired theme that evokes a fading, nostalgic memory of dreamy, sunny days spent at home. Classic, but with a touch of authenticity reflected in the soft and fuzzy speckles and heather fabric. I wanted the fading speckled pattern to reflect a gradient representing the rise and fall of the sound wavelengths within music, which embody the emotional peaks and troughs that listening to music evokes within us. I wanted to capture this essence visually. 


Material Definition 

This phase was all about: 

  • Clearly defining the materials corresponding to the themes 
  • Deciding which Substance tool to use to make the materials (or whether to use materials available on Substance Source) 
  • Creating an organized table to determine how many materials needed to be made, and the scope of their editability 

Creating the table was a very important step because it helped me figure out exactly how to define the materials I aimed to create. I listed precisely what factors I wanted to edit in the materials (color, pattern size, shape type, roughness etc.) so that I could expose the parameters in Substance Designer accordingly. It also helped me determine which patterns should go with which materials.  

After this step it was clear that I would be using the following tools: 

  • Substance Designer for Speckled Cloth with Gradient, Memphis Pattern Cloth, and Geometric Patterned Metallic Grille 
  • Substance Alchemist for Heather Check Patterned Cloth  
  • Substance Source for Ceramic, Light Wood, Copper/ Gold, Painted Metal, and Shiny Plastic 


Part Two – Material Creation  

Substance Designer, Substance Alchemist, Substance Automation Toolkit

The highlights of this phase were: 

  • Learning how to use Substance Designer and Substance Alchemist 
  • Learning how to make user-friendly parameters for editing 
  • Choosing the best color and pattern combinations  

I’ll break down here some of the materials I created from scratch, specifically: the Memphis Cloth, Speckled Gradient Canvas, Heather Checked Cloth and Metallic Grille 

Memphis Cloth 

Incorporating the classic geometric pattern motifs used in Memphis design, I tried to make a material where you can choose the shape types, colors, metallic finish and so on. I used Substance Designer to make various Multi Switch-controlled nodes. I used Multi Material Blend to blend a cloth texture with my material. This was the first material I made and one of my first attempts at using Substance Designer, so it was an opportunity for me to learn a lot about exposing parameters and using different types of nodes to get the result I wanted.  

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I had to go back and forth between Substance Alchemist and Substance Designer a few times to understand how exposing parameters needs to be carried out carefully –  procedurals are incredibly powerful, and it’s possible to allow the user to change many different factors; however, you really need to be selective about which factors to expose to avoid confusing the user.  

I tried out various combinations in terms of patterns and colors for the Memphis fabric. This was very quick and easy to accomplish in Substance Alchemist.  

Using Substance Painter, I was simply able to remove the height and normal maps from the original materials, and layer these on top of plastic or leather to get the same pattern on different materials. In fact, I soon realized that this was a very efficient way of instantly combining the patterns with material finishes. I used it to expand the potential of the usability of the materials later. 

Speckled Gradient Canvas 

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I used FX maps combined with an opacity gradient to create this pattern. Keeping the color scheme in mind, Multi Switch nodes were used to give the user color choices. 

Heather Cloth 

I wanted to create something inspired by the Marshall amplifier cloth. Substance Alchemist came into play here, as this material involved blending different types of cloth.  

I blended three different cloth materials: the soft velvet base, a material with the big black bands, and a third with a lighter, finer, shinier yarn.  

Using Height Blend, I was able to combine them quickly. This was a lot faster than making something procedural to achieve the same result. 

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Geometric Patterned Metallic Grille 

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For this, the important part was the fading in and out effect, where the shapes gradually decrease in size along with the gradient. I used a scale map input with the tile sampler in order to achieve this effect – something that’s very useful in industrial design in particular, as the scale can be controlled by a greyscale input.  


Substance Automation Toolkit – color variation tests – MAYA + Arnold Rendering 

As an experiment to see how one can use the Substance Automation Toolkit (SAT)  to automate Arnold 6.0.1.0 to compute various permutations and combinations for CMF ideation, I used SAT to run color variation tests with the help of Andrea Machizaud (Software Engineer, Special Projects team). Having our material based on Substance, we were able to leverage SAT to generate a huge scale of variations for the speaker by using a Python Script.

We set up a small automation pipeline to achieve this: the palette is derived from our mood boards, those palettes are combined to define which Substance presets we should generate for our Substance Materials, finally scene variants are simply combinations of the various Substance graph presets. 

This can quickly represent several hundreds of scene variants to explore through renders. This proved to be a very effective way to compare various combinations and make choices as a CMF designer. Here is what is used at each step: 

– Palette definition: defined manually, full artistic control – from Mood boards for color palettes, directly from the available range of values on a Substance parameter (e.g. speckles color) 

– Preset definition: generated automatically, artistic control to constrain the exploration – given rule set by the artist to define what varies (i.e. not everything varies at the same time) and how (e.g. allowed values) 

– Scene variants: generated automatically, artistic control to constrain the exploration – given rule set by the artist to define how to bind Substance material and their preset to a geometry. 

– Rendering: generated automatically with Arnold SDK 


Part Three – Structure Creation and Tool Creation  

Substance Painter, Substance Designer, Substance Share, lllustrator/SVG 

I modeled the basic form of the speaker using Alias; it would also have been possible to do this in Rhino, however.  

The model was further converted to an FBX and the UVs were generated in Maya. 

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In order to dive a bit deeper into Substance Designer, I decided to set a little challenge for myself: I took a flat disk-shaped area and then made a fully procedural speaker lid using Substance Designer, where everything ranging from the colors to the bevel depth, to button structures and logos, was customizable. This is what originally sparked my idea of using Substance Designer to, quite literally, design.  

I split the details into many small, editable procedurals, however. Procedurals for simple details can be generated very easily and are very editable, so rather than spending time on modeling them, one can simply generate tools using Substance Designer which can be customized to a large degree, and then use Substance Painter to experiment with placing the details in various ways. 

I used a very simple basic model for the project to showcase how much weight textures have in design. The top was a flat disk on which I made buttons, sliding switches, lights, screws, shut lines, and other details in Designer and Painter.  

I used masking in Substance Painter, using a custom User0 channel which was simple to set up and which greatly increased the flexibility of my workflow. I like to think of this as 3D sketching. 

This not only allowed me to have a playground to try out many different variants for the design itself in a 3D space, but also allowed me to play with the combinations of textures and colors instantly by just replacing the material, while the mask remained constant.  

I was using Substance Painter as a real-time tool for designing both the structure of the details and the materials for the product. It was also interesting to combine different hard surfaces with different types of alphas. 

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In addition, I obtained good results by varying the levels of height and using filters such as Blur on Normal to get different kinds of structures. 

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Part Four – Renders 

I experimented with various software tools to produce renders, starting with Substance Painter itself. Being equipped with iRay made Painter an effective medium to see my model and produce high-end renders in parallel with the design process, improving the design iteration process. Here are some examples of iRay renders. 

iRay rendering while texturing in Substance Painter 

Keyshot  

By using the latest plugin for Keyshot 9, I tested the workflow between Keyshot and Substance Painter. The Plugin generates a Substance Painter set (*.sp) which is then used to create the materials.

I used a standard PBR height export and plugged it into the displacement geometry node in the Keyshot graph. For the light, I used the emissive export, which I used as a label in the Keyshot graph. This full process is illustrated in the video and graph.

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VRED  

Autodesk VRED supports Substance Materials since 2019.3; you can tweak Substance material parameters directly within VRED. This makes it possible to then share Substance materials with embedded presets and tweaks for other CMF designers to play about with and explore in VRED.  

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Another added value is to combine Substance Material tweaking with configuration management from Autodesk VRED by using switches; like this, you can propose and review a product range and CMF variation proposals. 

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Dimension 

I used Dimension to create a Memphis-themed render setup. Using the live link between Illustrator and Dimension, I created a few variants of the setup, and used the material selection layer (present in the .psd export of the Dimension file) to try out some color variants for the theme. This proved to be an efficient way to rapidly experiment with different color combinations. 

Aero  

I exported a Dimension scene for Aero, learning more about the requirements for augmented reality visualization in the process. Since my files had heavy textures, I divided the scene into multiple objects to get the required set up. Although the lighting wasn’t perfect, using Aero was a great way to visualize how the setup would look in a real environment.  

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I shared an image taken in Aero on Instagram, and it was fun to see how some people believed that I had managed to get my speaker design into production! 

Key Takeaways

During this project I absolutely learned the value of planning and moodboarding during the design process; amongst the more technical skills I acquired were, notably, advanced masking techniques in Substance Painter, to change materials quickly, as well as how to make hard surfaces procedurally, and how to create various shapes using nodes. Managing procedural files was an important part of the project; I’m still gradually learning how to improve upon this. Equally, managing nodes and using functions to control how they behave proved important in order to make efficient tools. I particularly liked the versatility of Substance to bridge the process of detailing with the process of making material and color choices, so that I could simultaneously iterate in both areas.  

I also learned a lot about how to manage different workflows between various software tools and how to solve problems regarding transitions between workflows. For instance, texture map exports from Substance Painter to VRED, Dimension and Keyshot are all handled differently; each process requires a different approach.  

Recognizing the strongest aspect of each software tool, and using it effectively, is vital – such as using VRED for real-time visuals, Dimension for staging, and Keyshot for hero shots. That said, it’s always interesting to experiment with the software, and see how they might be used in unanticipated ways. 

For the first project of my internship, I worked on a graphic design of a wine bottle using Illustrator and Dimension. Feel free to take a look at it on my Behance profile.

Overall, the past five months have been unforgettable, but this is just the beginning of my journey, I am very excited to see how much further I can dive!