The Role of Parametric 3D Materials in Color and Material Design | Nicolas Paulhac

The Substance Source material library is one of the key elements of the Substance texturing toolset. At the time of writing, it comprises nearly 6,000 assets that can be applied to 3D projects; each asset is designed to be easily modifiable, to meet a project’s specific needs or style. It is a vast resource and, by all accounts, a tremendous time-saver. Learn more about Procedural Colorways: Color, Material and Finish Inspiration from Substance Source.

In many cases, these assets are released as collections targeting specific sectors of professional activity. The Substance Source automotive collection, for example, contains around 700 specific interior or exterior assets, to assist in the work of vehicle design or illustration; similarly the recent, Parametric City Selection, Building Facades, and Urban Environment collections are intended to be of principal use to architectural visualization specialists; in total, these three collections alone provide around 300 assets to facilitate the workflow of architectural visualization professionals. Other collections have included domains such as Fashion and Apparel, or materials suited to 3D printing. The range of assets continues to grow.


Authenticity is crucial in the work that the Substance Source team carries out. When creating the automotive release, for instance, the vital first step was research—they had to listen to automotive professionals, and learn the actual workflows involved, in order to identify which assets would be valuable. It is not the Substance Source team that directly decides the content of such a material release—rather, it is the industry professionals who state the demands of their work. The work of the Substance Source team consists of responding to that demand.

Yet while it is important to know which 3D materials are useful for any specific profession, it is just as important to know how these materials can be used. Where might they fit into existing workflows? Might they be used to improve current processes? 3D visualization is an evolving technology; how might this technology bring about advances in existing workflows?

The Substance Source team recently began to turn its attention to product design, and specifically the work of Color, Material, Finish (CMF), also known as color and material design. The use of 3D tools is currently very limited in this field, and yet the team began to see that the use of parametric 3D materials might present opportunities for more efficient workflows, as well as facilitate the creation of striking visuals to promote the communication around products. As always, the first steps in identifying such opportunities involved research.


The Demand

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 can 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.

The Core Concepts

Nicolas Paulhac, head of content creation, 3D&I for Substance by Adobe, oversaw this exploration of the power of 3D visualization in color and material design. Nicolas had initially started his career as an industrial designer before specializing in materials. In more than a decade of experience designing products, he’d learned a lesson that now proved relevant. And this lesson was very simple: We are visual animals.


Or, to put it another way: we are more inclined to buy into an idea if we can visualize it clearly. Clear visualization of a product carries concrete benefits. In any design project, communication and cooperation between departments is paramount. Notably, the question of balance between designers’ creative freedom to experiment weighed against engineers’ concerns regarding practical feasibility is one that is pivotal and ongoing. And so, during critical phases of the process, the lack of simple and powerful tools to express a concept can become a very real barrier to the entire project moving forward. The more realistically a design concept can be illustrated, the more easily partners on the project will appropriate the product. This is true internally, not merely in technical areas such as engineering, but even across departments such as marketing and sales.

And yet this need for clear, attractive visuals was even more applicable externally: clients needed to be able to accurately see any product, or potential product, in order to become convinced of its value. This established, Nicolas also applied a second lesson gained from his design experience—and this too was very simple: The truth is in the details.



This, then, is 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 from clients the desired emotions regarding the quality and craftsmanship of the product. Fine detail is necessary on every element of an object—on a logo, say, or an icon, or a print—in order to make that object understandable and readable. Moreover, 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 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, for instance, 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, more than this, Nicolas Paulhac and the Substance team firmly believed that 3D visualization is an effective creative tool to enable designers to experiment and make better-educated decisions, thanks to the advantages provided by parametric materials.

Recreating and Augmenting the Product Design Workflow

As mentioned above, the first step in identifying needs within a sector, and how those needs might be met, comes down to really understanding the nuts and bolts of that sector. In this instance, Nicolas and his team found it necessary to explore for themselves the reality of the product design process; only like this could they accurately gauge the benefits that 3D visualization might provide.


Nicolas believed that the overall new digital product design process stands on three fundamental roles: those of industrial designer, CMF designer, and 3D artist. Nicolas himself therefore took the role of industrial designer for this project. Anais Lamelliere, color and material designer for Substance by Adobe’s 3D&I Division came onboard as CMF designer, and Ronan Mahon joined the team as digital artist. Ronan had previously worked with the team to prepare videos highlighting the potential of 3D visualization in the domains of architecture design and procedural fashion; now he joined the team once more, to create visuals that would illustrate the advantages of 3D in color and material design.

The team had the objective of creating an inspiring illustration of the product CMF design practice using parametric materials, Substance Painter texturing, and real-time solutions. They would design a fictional product range from scratch, using parametric Substance materials as dynamic tools to experiment, design, and compare virtual matter and colorways. And they would create an inspiring selection of images and films to use as tools to potentially engage wider departmental support for this fictional range, as well as to show how client interest will naturally gravitate to such detailed and effective visual communication tools.

The Benefits of 3D Parametric Design

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, Nicolas Paulhac designed a collection of products. To better illustrate a variety of different materials and use cases, he specifically opted for products that were markedly different from one another in terms of their scale, shape, and function.


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

Notably, creation of products using CAD tools is an incredibly precise process; decisions must be made concerning every miniscule detail if the final product is to prove delightful to use. And so, tiny considerations such as edge radius must be deliberated and precisely defined. This level of detail would later prove a new challenge for Ronan at the visualization stage—for close-up shots of products, an almost perfect shape would be required.

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


Designs consisting of patterns of small holes were specifically chosen at times, as these are something of a special case. 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.

Nicolas and Anais 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, the team’s artist. This allowed him to focus on other aspects of the project.



This process enabled the team 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, it proved possible to test out a much simpler workflow. 


Like this, brand and design language guidelines could be defined on the go, and with total flexibility. Texturing the products in Substance Painter allowed the team to position, scale, and design the finish of icons and logos on the product extremely rapidly. Moreover, this provided the creative freedom to test, modify and replace all of these details in real time.

The team were able to make design choices based on dozens of options, on not just a single, simple product, but on the entire line-up. 


This was an experiment to ascertain how 3D parametric materials might positively impact the workflow of color and material finish designers, both at the design stage and in creating striking visuals to more effectively communicate around a product. The result: the team identified clear opportunities in both these areas. It is entirely likely that 3D tools will increasingly make inroads into the CMF domain in the future.

Nicolas Paulhac and Anais Lamelliere, along with Guillaume Meyer, recently presented a livestream discussing the use of procedural materials to gain creative freedom in the color and material design process. This project was one of the elements covered in that talk.

Image credits: Artwork by Ronan Mahon.

Nicolas Paulhac is head of Content Creation for the Substance Source online library of digital materials at Adobe. He is also an industrial designer with over a decade of experience working with materials and manufacturing processes at global brands such as Nokia, Microsoft, Acer, and Hager Group.


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