Procedural Colorways: Color and Material Design in Digital

Welcome to a new Substance Source inspiration video! These videos are designed to highlight for creatives — in all industries and backgrounds — the possibilities of the materials available on Substance Source, Adobe’s online library of parametric material design. Previous videos have focused on architecture design, automotive design, and procedural fashion. This latest video will examine materials from the perspective of a color and material designer.

Digital tools are commonplace in the industrial design process, now. Most products in our lives have, for some time, been designed on dedicated software. Today, only a handful of products rely on analog design processes. 

Texturing and digital visualization, however, have always been and remain to this day the weakest link of the process. Indeed, visualizing design concepts in a photorealistic way is, even today, a challenging and time-consuming task for industrial designers, let alone for those color and material designers who are just discovering that a world of computers exists outside the factory walls.

Conversely, consumption behavior is trending towards a full digital experience. The need for photorealistic images has therefore never been higher. And yet materials and finishes designed high up the chain often fail to cascade down to digital designers and 3D artists who frequently have to remake such touches from scratch.

E-commerce platforms require an immense amount of visuals — sometimes before a particular product has even entered the manufacturing stage. Building digital libraries of materials consequently becomes as important a step as the physical sample databases earlier in the process.

If designers, engineers and artists are able to access unified digital parametric materials from any point in the process of creation, this will not only streamline the process but will be one of the cornerstones of the transition to the industry 4.x model.

The cost savings compared to photo shoots will be considerable. The design process will be faster and smoother, as the designer’s creative freedom will be wider. I started my career as an industrial designer and then specialized in materials. The main lesson I learned from 10 years of experience in designing products is very simple: ‘We are visual animals.’

Or, to put another way: we are more inclined to buy into an idea if we can visualize it clearly. 

During critical phases of the process, the lack of simple and powerful tools to express a concept can become a very real limitation to the entire project moving forward. I believe that the more accurately and the more realistically you can illustrate a design concept, the more easily partners on the project will appropriate the product. This is true of those working in areas ranging from engineering to marketing and sales. More widely, it is even more applicable to clients. 

The secondary lesson I’ve learned is: ‘The truth is in the details.’

And that’s where photorealism is key! When it comes to convincing an audience of a choice of materials the tiniest details are important. Leather that doesn’t really look like leather won’t evoke the emotions you want the client to feel about the quality and craftsmanship of the product. 

The same is true regarding every detail the object. I found myself spending a lot of time trying to bring realism to the tiniest details of the treatment of a logo, an icon or a print on a product. This type of detail is paramount in making an object understandable and readable — but also, the more clearly information is displayed on the product, the more enjoyable it will ultimately be to use that object. 

This is why these details — such as an icon’s position, whether or not it is printed, or recessed or embossed — matter so enormously in the world of industrial designers. They carry the same weight as fundamental design points such as, say, whether the choice of a grip pattern will encourage the user to grab it. 

Clearly, the stakes involved in crafting a realistic visualization of products are tremendously significant. But, in the Substance team, we also believe in 3D as a creative tool to enable designers to experiment and make better-educated decisions thanks to the advantages provided by parametric materials.

In creating this video we intended to illustrate the benefits that Substance materials and Substance tools can provide to designers and artists, when designing and visualizing products — that is, we fell back on the maxim that it’s always better to show than to tell. 

And so, placing our industrial caps firmly on our heads once more, I worked with 3D artist Ronan Mahon and our own Anais Lamelliere to design and visualize a fictional lineup of products.

We believe that the combination of industrial designer, CMF designer and 3D artist form the three pillars upon which stands the overall new digital product design process. This is why we wanted to create an inspiring illustration of the product CMF design practice using parametric materials, Substance Painter texturing, and real-time solutions. In this workflow, parametric Substance materials are dynamic tools to experiment, design and compare virtual matter and colorways. 

Using conventional design methodology, the surface finish and color of materials are designed separately; conversely, when designed in 3D, the palette of materials becomes a matrix of infinite possibilities and combinations of the elements mentioned above. 

Designing colorways at the product level or product range level is simple, as every validated variation is saved as a preset in a single digital material. It’s even easier to design a visual BOM (bill of materials) that can be shared with the same efficiency between design and engineering departments — or, as shown here, with a 3D artist in order to create the communication visuals for the retail platform. Nothing goes to waste, and there is no need to recreate something several times in several formats; the information is transmitted unimpeded from the designer to the client.

Using CAD tools, I designed a collection of products. We wanted the objects to be different from one another in terms of their scale, shape and use, so that we could illustrate a variety of different materials and use cases. 

However, the forms and shapes of the objects had to remain neutral, and present as little polarization as possible to avoid detracting from the presentation of materials, and of the texturing process. 

Anais and the team selected the material ‘substrates’ from Substance Source, and designed the color and finish palette in Substance Alchemist.

Notably, designing patterns of holes on a product can be a complex exercise. The time required, techniques necessary, and overall costs often impose constraints on the amount of trial and error iterations that can be carried out in order to establish the right look. Parametric materials are, in this case, a solution to allow unlimited flexibility to test design options, at zero cost.

We designed several dozen variations extremely rapidly using the pattern tweaking parameters embedded into the Substance materials, and were able to select a final design before engaging any resources on the side of Ronan, our artist. This allowed him to focus on other aspects of the project.

This process enabled us to design the products in 3D, finalize their material specifications, texture the models and to produce the videos in a very short time — even taking into consideration all design iteration loops. 

In the past, endless loops of real-scale printouts of the product line-work have been required to verify and validate the position of the logos and details on a single object. Now, using the Substance toolset, we were able to test out a much simpler workflow. 

This enabled us to define brand and design language guidelines on the go and with total flexibility. Using Substance Painter allowed us to position, scale and design the finish of icons and logos on the product quickly. Moreover, it gave us the creative freedom to test, modify and replace all of these details in real time.

We could make design choices based on dozens of options, not only on a simple product but on the entire line-up. 

Overall, we found this workflow to be flexible and effective; it allowed us to clearly envisage the opportunities it can provide for color and material finish designers moving forward, and the beneficial impact it could have on their day to day work.

Don’t miss Nicolas Paulhac, Anais Lamelliere, and Guillaume Meyer on Tuesday, October 13 at 6 pm CET / 9 am PT for a live presentation on using procedural materials to gain creative freedom in the color and material design process: