Group name: Materials Experience Lab

Group leaders: Elvin Karana and Valentina Rognoli

Location: Delft University of Technology/Department of Design, School of Design - Politecnico di Milano

Further information:

Elvin Karana
Elvin Karana
Designing for action with smart materials: exploring computationally corresponding action with electro-luminescent light intensity [2].
Designing for action with smart materials: exploring computationally corresponding action with electro-luminescent light intensity [2].
Master’s graduation projects from Materials Experience Lab: tinkering with mycelium-based materials (by Stefano Parisi, PhD candidate).
Master’s graduation projects from Materials Experience Lab: tinkering with mycelium-based materials (by Stefano Parisi, PhD candidate).
Master’s graduation projects from Materials Experience Lab: Second Skin, an innovative packaging for (wine) bottles inspired by the performative qualities of mycelium-based materials (by Davine Blauwhoff, researcher).
Master’s graduation projects from Materials Experience Lab: Second Skin, an innovative packaging for (wine) bottles inspired by the performative qualities of mycelium-based materials (by Davine Blauwhoff, researcher).
Bio-plastic material variations in trays created for an empirical study.
Bio-plastic material variations in trays created for an empirical study.
Bio-plastic material variations in mobile phone covers created for an empirical study.
Bio-plastic material variations in mobile phone covers created for an empirical study.
Interaction effects, including fiberness and roughness, in the attribution of ‘natural’ and ‘high quality’ meanings [7].
Interaction effects, including fiberness and roughness, in the attribution of ‘natural’ and ‘high quality’ meanings [7].
Material Driven Design method [9].
Material Driven Design method [9].

Why do we choose one material over another for certain products? Why is one more satisfying to use than another? The answer is not limited to ‘functional concerns’, believes researcher Elvin Karana, because materials elicit unique experiences, which are within and beyond a material’s utility in a product.

Understanding how materials make us think, feel, and act can provide new avenues to designing products and new materials. Karana is exploring this approach in the Materials Experience Lab, which she leads jointly with Valentina Rognoli, at the Delft University of Technology and School of Design - Politecnico di Milano, respectively.

Karana’s multi-faceted research spans product design, engineering, materials science, and even the field of human-computer interaction. She wants her approach to reach out to other communities beyond product design to disseminate her concept of ‘materials experience thinking’.

She has published in the Journal of Materials and Design, Design Issues, Journal of Cleaner Production, International Journal of Design, International Journal of Sustainable Engineering, International Journal of Technology and Design Education, and her work has been presented at the ACM conferences Computer Human Interaction (CHI) and Design Interactive Systems (DIS). She received, along with her co-authors, the Best Pictorial Award at the 2016 DIS Conference for The Tuning Of Materials: A Designer’s Journey [11] and at the 1st Kansei Engineering and Emotion Research Conference in Japan in 2007 [18].

Elvin Karana talked to Materials Today about the Materials Experience Lab, her research, and future plans.

How long has your team been running?

I founded the Materials Experience Lab in 2015. It is a cross-country research group, bringing together international researchers from two different universities in two different countries. Dr Valentina Rognoli and I lead research activities in the lab.

How many staff makes up your team?

The group is currently composed of one assistant professor (co-head of the Lab), two post-doc researchers, five PhD students, two interns, and graduate masters’ students.

What are the major themes of research in your lab?

Our lab introduces unique ways of understanding and designing (with) materials by combining research methods, techniques, and tools from product design, social sciences, materials science, and engineering to radically change and enhance the relationship people have with materials and artefacts. 

The term ‘materials experience’ [4,8] describes our holistic view of materials in design, emphasising the role of materials as simultaneously technical and experiential. Taking materials experience as an entry point, we create theories, tools and methods to: (1) understand and describe how people experience materials and how physical, biological, social, and cultural conditions constitute these experiences; and (2) inspire innovative material applications as well as new materials and design research trajectories. While most of our tools and theories are applicable in a variety of materials and design cases, in some projects we focus on specific materials, (3) to support emerging design practices urged by new and emerging materials. For example, in a recent European-funded project, Light Touch Matters, our PhD candidate Bahar Barati is developing the approaches and tools that can help designers in understanding, exploring, and communicating the experiential qualities of underdeveloped smart material composites [2]. (For further project details:

In most of our research activities, we combine interpretive and empirical research techniques in a unique iterative manner, actively promoting a Do-It-Yourself (DIY) approach to materials [15, 1] that pushes the boundaries of material (driven) design. The DIY approach to materials brings people and materials closer in the making, promoting further consideration of contexts and time in designing, making, and use; greater awareness of the resources required; greater agency for working with materials; all of which leads to novel design outcomes.

How and why did you come to work in these areas?

My starting point was a simple observation: materials influence how products are embodied, how they function, and how they are experienced. They gratify or disturb our senses, they compel us to think, feel, and act in certain ways. These experiences influence purchase decisions and long-term satisfaction. Understanding materials as expressive as well as functional and structural entities not only invites but demands the proposition of new approaches to materials and design research and practice. Materials are a medium, a means in the designer’s hands, to communicate ideas, beliefs, and approaches. They are like words in a writer’s vocabulary. The designer needs to be sensitized to working with the material, in order to fully consider ‘what materials can do’, as well as we say in the lab ‘what materials want to be’.

In 2003 during my Masters’ studies, I saw there was no single systematic study providing an understanding of how we experience materials and how we can support product designers to involve such considerations in the design process. I and, later on, Bruna Petreca in textile and fashion design provided empirical evidence for this argument [3,13]. To that end, Valentina Rognoli’s PhD thesis [14] has been a unique contribution to the domain providing a vocabulary and a tool for designers in understanding, communicating, and designing the expressive-sensorial qualities of materials and linking them to technical properties. Subsequently, my PhD thesis on Meanings of Materials [5] was the most elaborate study in product design at that time, providing empirical evidence on how we attribute meanings to materials and how we can support designers in understanding material-meaning interrelationships. Immediately after my PhD, my work attracted academic and industry attention, mostly material developers, who wanted to understand how their particular material could be received by consumers and how they could develop their material further to enhance consumer appreciation. Following this demand, my aim has been to operationalize materials experience thinking and suggest materials experience as a key entry point for materials and product development. Valentina and I have joined forces to promote this thinking among design and materials science communities over the last nine years.

What facilities and equipment does your lab have?

In the Netherlands, we have a DIY-Materials Lab, within the Applied Labs of the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering-TU Delft and coordinated by the Emerging Materials research group. It consists of equipment for three main material themes: recycled, smart, and bio-based materials. We have a DIY hand-made machine for injection molding (designed by Dave Hakkens,, which can be easily operated by design students to tinker with plastics. We have a granulator from Zerma, an extruder and filament winder from Noztek. For designing (with) bio-based materials, we have sterilization equipment for tools and substrates (e.g. pressure cocker/autoclave); a flow box for working under a controlled environment and preventing sample contamination (e.g. for materials grown by micro-organisms, such as mycelium-based materials); a moisture chamber for growing/storing samples under controlled temperature and humidity conditions, as well as for testing moisture exposure; standard and vacuum ovens, as well as a high-temperature oven for ceramic materials; and a water-bath with controlled temperature range. On the technical characterization side, we have a universal testing machine for mechanical characterization (by Zwick /Roell) and a Dynamic Mechanic Analyzer (DMA). We have also access to the Applied Labs’ other machinery, such as multi-material 3D printers.

In Italy, our lab is named ‘The Materials Club’. This is a shared space between Polifactory (an interdepartmental research laboratory that explores the relationship between design and new digital manufacturing processes), the Materials Experience Lab, and the Polymers Engineering Lab of the Chemistry, Materials, and Chemical Engineering Departments “Giulio Natta” of Politecnico di Milano. At the Club, we can work on the same three central material themes as mentioned above and have another set of machines designed by Dave Hakkens, all the machinery required for rapid prototyping and making interactive devices. We have also the option to characterize DIY-materials created by design students in the chemistry lab. 

Do you have a favorite piece of equipment?


What do you think has been your most influential work to date?

One of the most elaborate studies I conducted over the last decade was a collaborative project, funded by the Dutch Government, which brought together a number of bio-plastic industry and design professionals, who wanted to understand what would allow their bio-plastic material/product to be appreciated by consumers. Through a number of studies, I determined two expressions that might facilitate bio-plastic material appreciation in consumer products: naturalness and high quality. Secondly, through a set of empirical studies, I showed the material qualities (e.g. roughness, fiberness) play an important role in the attribution of these two meanings to materials or they can contradict (e.g. roughness can facilitate the attribution of ‘naturalness’ but not ‘high quality’). Finally, in a subsequent study, I showed how we can fine-tune these common and contradictory material qualities to strike a balance between naturalness and high quality. In all these studies, next to material samples, simple product ideas were materialized for lab experiments, e.g. mobile phone covers, trays, water cups. Additionally, participants not only assessed the materials in a controlled manner, but also freely explored them and were asked to explain their thoughts and feelings throughout the studies. Based on these findings, material properties were systematically varied on the products. There were many iterations in the process that I shared with my research partners, who could then reflect on how to develop the materials further [6,7].

This approach inspired other research projects, for example, for the development of mycelium-based materials for product design (, funded by The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). In this project, we conduct both technical and experiential characterization of mycelium-based material concepts, e.g. how the strength or impact resistance of the material relates to its experiential qualities, and how these properties/qualities can be changed through, for example, different material strains or manufacturing processes.

Valentina Rognoli, Owain Pedgley (of Middle East Technical University) and I recently published a book, Materials Experience: Fundamentals of Materials and Design [8], which brings together 34 well-known scholars and 8 professional designers to discuss contemporary theory and practice in materials and design. With the aim of operationalizing materials experience thinking in designing (with) materials, we have developed a method, material driven design [9], which is being applied in design courses in major European universities including Politecnico di Milano, Malmö University, and Imperial College London. I myself have been teaching the method at TU Delft since 2010 and give master classes in material driven design, which attract professionals from both product design and materials development.

What is the key to running a successful lab?

Despite our lab being relatively new, I believe our future success will depend on the following: a clear vision of the topic and understanding of how our approach differs from others. This vision should be communicated in a way that resonates with the team! For that, obviously, you need a good team with complementary skills. Furthermore, you should act in a timely manner, identifying and creating links and opportunities for collaboration across disciplines. You should be flexible and open to new ideas and approaches, as long as you keep your backbone story straight.

How do you plan to develop your lab in the future?

We plan to change the structure of the lab in the near future to move towards a more flexible setting that allows the core team to act independently, if they go to other institutions. We would like to go beyond the borders of our own institutes, emphasizing that our lab brings together researchers/practitioners who understand materials in the way we do, who aim to convey this thinking to others, wherever they are. Our network is getting bigger; many researchers and practitioners have reached out to our lab over the last three years. We are engaged in spreading our vision to attract collaborators to share and enrich our knowledge about materials for design, besides promoting new projects and developing new tools to make the materials experience approach accessible to anyone. We disseminate our research findings through exhibitions, scientific publications, public debates, etc., with the aim of federating and supporting the research community (see, for example, the recent international conference, Alive. Active. Adaptive., that we organised under the Design Research Society (DRS) Special Interest Group on Experiential Knowledge (EKSIG 2017),

Key publications

1.     C. Ayala-Garcia, V. Rognoli, E. Karana. Five Kingdoms of DIY Materials, Proceedings of International Conference of the Design Research Society Special Interest Group on Experiential Knowledge (EKSIG), (2017), pp. 222-234.

2.     B. Barati, E. Giaccardi, E. Karana. The Making of Performativity in Designing [with] Smart Material Composites, Proceedings of CHI 2018, ACM Press,  (2018).

3.     E. Karana, P. Hekkert, P. Kandachar. Material considerations in product design: A survey on crucial material aspects used by product designers. Materials and Design 29 (2008) 1081-1089.

4.     E. Karana, P. Hekkert, P. Kandachar. Materials experience: descriptive categories in material appraisals, The International Conference on Tools and Methods in Competitive Engineering (TMCE), (2008).

5.     E. Karana, Meanings of Materials, PhD thesis, Delft University of Technology, (2009).

6.     E. Karana. Characterization of ‘natural’ and ‘high-quality’ materials to improve perception of bio-plastics. Journal of Cleaner Production 37 (2012) 316-325. 

7.     E. Karana, N. Nijkamp. Fiberness, reflectiveness and roughness in the characterization of natural and high quality materials. Journal of Cleaner Production 68 (2014) 252–260. 

8.     E. Karana, O. Pedgley, V. Rognoli, Materials Experience: Fundamentals of Materials and Design, 1st Ed., Butterworth-Heinemann: Elsevier, (2014).

9.     E. Karana, B. Barati, V. Rognoli, A. Zeeuw Van Der Laan. Material Driven Design (MDD): A Method To Design For Material Experiences. International Journal of Design 9(2) (2015) 35-54. 

10. E. Giaccardi, E. Karana, Foundations of Materials Experience: An Approach for HCI, Proceedings of CHI 2015, ACM Press, (2015), pp. 2447-2456.

11. E. Karana, E. Giaccardi, N. Stamhuis, J. Goossensen, The Tuning Of Materials: A Designer’s Journey, Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Designing Interactive Systems (DIS), (2016), pp. 619-631.

12. E. Karana, E. Giaccardi, V. Rognoli, Materially Yours: Design for Material Experiences For Products That Last, in: The Routledge Handbook of Sustainable Product Design, 1st Ed., J. Chapman (Ed.), Butterworth-Heinemann: Elsevier, (2017).

13. B.B. Petreca, An understanding of embodied textile selection processes & a toolkit to support them, PhD Thesis, Royal College of Art, (2016).     

14. V. Rognoli, M. Levi, Materiali per il design: espressività e sensorialità [Materials for design: Expressivity and sensoriality], PhD Thesis, Milano: Polipress, (2005).

15. V. Rognoli, M. Bianchini, S. Maffei, E. Karana. DIY Materials. Materials and Design 86 (2015) 692-702.

16. V. Rognoli. A broad survey on expressive-sensorial characterization of materials for design education, Metu, Journal of the Faculty of Architecture 27 (2010) 287-300. 

17. V. Rognoli, E. Karana, Towards a New Materials Aesthetic Based on Imperfection and Graceful Ageing, in: Materials Experience: Fundamentals of Materials and Design, 1st Ed., E. Karana, O. Pedgley, V. Rognoli (Eds.), Butterworth-Heinemann: Elsevier, (2014), 145-153.

18. E. Karana et al., Sensorial properties of materials for creating expressive meanings, 1st Kansei Engineering and Emotion Research Conference (2007), Japan.