Monthly Archives: June 2012

Biomimicry (design) thinking?

If some of you follow me on Twitter, you would already know that i recently posted a question to my tweeps asking what they would prefer to see more of on my blog. The overall response favored an academic discussion; posting papers and discussing in context of practice. Missing out by a whisker was the second most popular response, which was more lolcats and memes.

Realising i haven’t posted anything related to sustainable practice in a while (yes its not going to go away) i thought i should hunt around for something that was new, interesting and could somehow be taken away by you folk and applied (even if just ideologically) into practice. So after stalking a recent discussion over Twitter amongst a few tweeps poking at the concept of biomimicry, i knew this topic would be perfect material for my next post.

I should note that this paper might seem a bit abstract. Its not about providing a new tool or method you can directly apply; its more about offering an exciting new way of approaching problems which can create more adaptive and flexible solutions.

Bionics vs. Biomimicry: from control of nature to sustainable participation in nature

D. C. Wahl. Centre for the Study of Natural Design, University of Dundee, UK Design and Nature III: Comparing Design in Nature with Science and Engineering, Volume: 87, Publisher: WIT Press, Pages: 289-298

To sum it all up in once sentence/quote: ” the intentionality behind science and design needs to shift from aiming to increase prediction, control and manipulation of  nature as a resource, to a transdisciplinary cooperation in the process of learning how to participate appropriately and sustainably in Nature”

Main points: diversity good, linear bad. Holistic good, collaboration good. Adaptation good, control bad. 

This article places a LOT of emphasis on holistic practice and the responsibility design has in transforming current practice that aims to control our nature, into one that learns from it and works with nature.


” The root cause of the utter unsustainability of modern civilization lies in the dualistic separation of nature and culture. It is in nature, that all peoples and all species unite into a community of life.”

I think most of us (and by us i mean westernised individuals) forget that we are culturally separated from nature. With exception of tribal communities, design is largely to blame for our unsustainable, industrial life. We view nature  as something detached from ourselves; an ongoing process independent and unaffected from our actions.

“The aim of science is shifting towards informing appropriate participation in natural process, rather than the enabling of new technologies of prediction, manipulation and control. The transition towards sustainability will require a new approach to design and technology that is based on a participatory and holistic worldview informed by science, ethics and the transdisciplinary integration of multiple perspectives. It is a biophysical and ecological fact that culture is never  truly separate from nature.”

This is where we start to realise that much of the mindset that is needed for a sustainable future is very similar to that which is inherent in design thinking (this includes service/human centered design). It is now possible that we can take lessons from biomimicry and apply our learnings into the design process.

Section 2: Learning from Nature as model, measure and mentor:

During the methods movement (1960s-1970s) McHarg, Todd and Mclarney, founders of The New Alchemy Institute, were first to introduce research on biomimicry- taking design lessons from natures process. John Todd provides a quote:

“The Earth’s ecologies are embedded with a set of instructions that we urgently need to decode and employ in the design of human systems”

The question here is: we know we can directly translate lessons from nature and apply these into the design process for technological outcomes (devices, artifacts and engineering), but how do we translate natures process for the design of intangible human (and service) systems? This answer requires more research but the information can be invaluable. The following includes guidelines on how to start.

Section 2.1. Bionics: A prediction and control approach to learning from nature:

During the same period when biomimicry was announced, bionics was introduced by US Air Force engineer Major J.E. Steele (who also coined the term). German Zoologist Werner Nachtigall took over the trend and stated in the 70s that bionics is, “the process of “learning from nature as an inspiration for independent technical design”. He developed the principles of bionic design:

Principles of Bionic Design (plus commentary!)

1. Integrated instead of additive construction

(ideal. not always easy to do, but easy to forget. Service design, meta design and co-design can offer strategies and tools to utilise what we have to create integrated solutions than creating a result that requires new needs or materials. This approach is crucial for any designer. Examples of integrated solutions can be found here )

2. Optimisation of the whole, rather than maximisation of individual elements

(Again, in service design/design thinking much emphasis is placed on the whole than tuning into details. This is about creating a harmonious and sustainable ecosystem. Small detailed changes often yield the most successful (and feasible) outcome, but great decisions on details that have negative effect on the whole service/company/environment need to be optimised if possible.)

3. Multifunctionality instead of monofunctionality

4. Fine-tuning adapted to particular environments

(may seem a bit of a contradiction of point 3, however using statement from point 2, if you have to diverge and ‘tune in’ to a particular aspect of a project, adapt this to the environment it is situated in. This ensures that despite focusing on one area and not ‘the whole’ -as it sometimes may not be feasible- try to ensure the detail is adaptive to the surrounding environment)

5. Energy saving instead of energy squandering

(more of a product design thing. obvious nonetheless)

6. Direct and indirect use of solar energy

(as above)

7. Temporal limitation instead of unnecessary durability

(this again relates to product design but can also relate to service/intangible products. Create solutions that are not fixed (unnecessary durability) or hard to ‘recycle’, but are able to be re-used or re-shaped for new solutions that evolve with environment- both nature and culture)

8. Total recycling instead of waste accumulation


9. Networks instead of linearity

(socially, this can be translated as ‘collaborative networks’.)

10. Development through the process of trial and error

(iteration is much of the ethos behind design thinking)

Section 2.2 Biomimicry: ecologically informed design for sustainability

“During the 1970s, research at the ‘New Alchemy Institute’ began to explore how ecology, biology, and a bio-cybernetic systems approach, could inform more sustainable solutions to meeting fundamental human needs.” And as a result, they came up with this: (with, you guessed it- commentary!!)

The Precepts of Biological Design:

1. The living world is a matrix for all design

(The environment is much more evolved than we are. It surprises me to this day that most design outcomes and designers do not consult the fabric which gives us life)

2. Design should follow, not oppose the law of life

(Similar sentiment to point 2 of bionic principles)

3. Biological equity must determine design

4. Design must reflect bioregionality

(design outcomes need to be adaptive to the unique environment it lives within. This can be tangible (nature) or intangible (culture). Design outcomes whether service, policy or product, must reflect+integrate local environments and communities for sustainable development and evolution)

5. Projects must be based on renewable energy sources

(same as point 5 under bionic principles)

6. Design should be sustainable through the integration of living systems

(again, reflects same sentiment as point 4. Designing outcomes that do not incorporate a living system, whether animal, plant or people will persist with the dependancy on unnatural and unsustainable (artificial) artefacts)

7. Design should be co-evolutionary with the natural world

(same as above)

8. Building and design should help heal the planet

(makes me think of this)

9. Design should follow a sacred ecology

10. Everyone is a designer!

(this was probably a sneaky way to imply that everyone is responsible for their actions)

At this point in the whole biology and nature inspired history comes Janine Benyus, founder of the Biomimicry Institute and author of Biomimicry –Innovation Inspired by Nature. She, like her predecessors in this field, came up with her own set of principles:

The Biomimcry Approach:

1. Nature as model. Biomimicry is a new science that studies nature’s models and then imitates or takes inspiration from these designs and processes to solve human problems.

2. Nature as a measure. Biomimicry uses an ecological standard to judge the “rightness” of our innovations. After 3.8 billon years of evolution, nature has learned: What works. What is appropriate. What lasts.

3. Nature as a mentor. Biomimicry is a new way of viewing and valuing nature. It introduces an era based not on what we can extract from the natural world, but on what we can learn from it.

It is evident that this paper is highlighting the theory and need for biomimicry but with vague directions on how to perform it. Interestingly enough, the author goes to state that THE wicked problem of the 21st century IS sustainability and that all aspects of design: from policy to ecosystems, require transdisciplinary teams with the designer as instigator and facilitator in this process.

The author shifts into the theory of complex systems, quoting german systems psychologist Dietrich Dörner. Dörner investigated ways trans+multi disciplinary teams interact in the process of complex, unpredictable and interrelated problems. This theory should be fundamental for design thinking. So for all of you designers out there wanting to work in the wicked 4.0 sphere (services, policy, systems, sustainability, urban planning, etc) you need to take note and staple the following to your forehead:

Common Mistakes in Dealing with Complex Systems:

1. Inadequate definition of goals (vision)

(problem framing is key)

2. Lack of a joined-up systems analysis

(not understanding the parts which make up and affect the whole)

3. The creation of irreversible emphasis

(dead end solutions must be avoided)

4. Lack of attention to side effects

(what effect will your decision/solution have on the whole ecosystem?)

5. The tendency to over-steer or over-react

(go in with an ‘equal’ not ‘ego’ mentality towards participants during co-creation)

6. The tendency to act in an authoritarian (controlling) way

(as above)

“Adaptive complex dynamic networks are nature’s way of responding effectively to change. Sustainable design that reintegrates culture and nature has to emulate nature’s way of dealing with unpredictability, fundamental interconnectedness and dynamic transformation”

This is exactly what everyone’s talking about at the moment in sustainable design. But i get the feeling that amongst this discussion we are not quite sure how to create solutions that live up to this philosophy. How can we go wrong if we design solutions that are a natural extension from nature? Im sure this all sounds incredibly hippy but I dont mean designing outcomes covered in flowers and leaves-this is about unlocking new processes and growth.


“Effectively, or from within a more holistic and eco-literate perspective that regards culture as a co-dependent participant in natural process. Such changes in intention are changes in metadesign that affect all human activity. Changing the intentions behind design –changing mindset – is design at the paradigm level and life style level

The case im trying to make here is that observation and analysis of natures process which can be synthesised into design practice might be the most efficient way to create sustainable solutions that are as painless as possible. Biomimicry offers an avenue of research and design that tackles sustainability in the most pragmatic way possible. It holds clues that might make our sustainable journey much easier- we just have to find them.

A Brief History of Design Thinking: How Design Thinking Came to ‘Be’

This is where things get a bit hazy. Design Thinking and all that it stands for today did not directly come out of the history I outlined earlier- it simply proves that design thinking has a history. Design thinking was a realisation through the evolution of different (collaborative) design process methods that were developed to improve and extend design to other areas of practice.

From where we left off…

What happened from the mid 1980’s to date was a race to discover new methods for improving business, service and design. Each methodology can be traced through history and analysed independently should you wish to interpret historical readings in context of the method under investigation. I will highlight an example of what I mean as we move along.

The purpose of analysing this period was to understand the evolution of major design process methods and to discover from this evolution the moment when design thinking was realised as a new approach and a way of thinking that underlined all other methods before it. It must be noted that through this development there was no clear linear progression of methodologies that arose, as many were developed at the same time in different faculties and industries. I have taken through much reading a very generalised approach at attempting to create a chronological understanding of the evolution of major design process trends. The purpose of doing this is to objectively clarify the history and evolution of design thinking which has been muddy and conflicting to date.

And it all started with….Participatory Design

In the early days, participatory methodology was seen most commonly in urban planning until recent developments in design gave this method its name. As i stated earlier, one could very easily trace the history and development of participatory design in and of itself- independent from design thinking. For example; If you want to get nit picky about history, participatory design can be traced all the way back to Plato’s Republic.

Plato was known to seek advice from his people

Grass roots democracy was once the heart of participatory methodology and is an established method used for centuries for the development of a harmonious society. But i am here to discuss how this and other methods (each with their own unique history) have come together to form the evolution of design thinking.

Back to the Future

Fast forward from Plato to the 1960s. During the design methods movement, participatory design was gaining momentum through research. Dubbed the Scandinavian approach, participatory design was about integrating end-users into the development (prototyping) phase of projects. Technological developments during the end of this decade saw participatory design shift from a social method to a technological one. Prior to the adoption of PD in technology, systems design was the go-to for engineers prototyping within an iterative framework.

The timeline of Participatory Design

As PD progressed into the 1980s, it became synonymous with the emerging field of interaction design. Many of the techniques used in PD were borrowed from science, such as usability testing. Others included mock-ups, prototyping and even role playing.

The Pitfalls of Participatory Design

One of the main disadvantages of participatory design is its negligence towards user experience and stakeholder input. Usability was king, but emotional response to gadgetry was largely ignored. In many instances user testing was abandoned, when users decisions conflicted with those of the stakeholders and the designers.

In response to this end-user dilemma, discussions surrounding co-design (co-operative design) or collaborative design began to take place. This alternative method aimed to transform passive users into co-operative designers.

User-Centered Design

The most significant contribution to the transformation of user development in design was introduced by design theorist Donald Norman. Donald re-defined participatory design into what he coined as user-centered design. User testing became less about usability and more about a users interests and needs. Norman favoured user-control and humanised participatory and system design by “making things visible”. This was to ensure users could discover errors and have control over resolving them.

Donald Norman aka The Godfather of User-Centered Design

Another significant shift in ideology from participatory to user-centered design was the placement of user at the center of the development process. It highlighted the benefits of understanding user experience over user testing. Owing some of its methodology to behavioural sciences, user-centered design emphasised experience over efficiency and adopted a more humanistic approach with the involvement of the user throughout the development of a product or system.

The differences between PD and UCD

User-centered design grew out of speculations towards elevating users from guinea-pigs to co-developers of systems during the participatory trend. This new methodology incidentally spread into broader areas of industry and practice.

Service Design

On the design methodology timeline, service design broke out into the design discipline as a new practice a few years after the turn of the millennium. We can see now that developments through participatory design to user-centered design and the evolution of customer experiences has shaped much of the methodology behind service design. Lucy Kimbell best sums up the development of service design as:

‘[it] Draws on several traditions including product, environment, experience and interaction design” (Kimbell 2009, p. 250).

Kimbell and a few other scholars discuss a new perspective rising in business; from a closed value chain (i.e: we punched out a product we tested on some monkeys and know it works so we can forget about it) to understanding how and what the user **does** with a product (or service); including their journey and experience. This perspective is another  step forward in the evolution of design methodology, for rather than thinking about end user experience of a product or service (user-centered design) attention has shifted to understanding the use, interaction and journey of that product/service after it has left the hands of the provider.

So now we find ourselves labelling all products and systems as one service unit. Kimbell argues that the distinction between a service and product becomes irrelevant, for everything is a type of service that plays a role in ‘value creation’ (Kimbell 2010, p.3). Furthermore, service design extended the definition of the ‘user’ to include all stakeholders and individuals affected or interacting with the service system.

It was with this new approach to product/service systems that the idea of a holistic mindset was made evident. And the holistic mindset behind service design owed much of its development to Ezio Manzini through his research in service marketing and meta-design. Additionally, many of the methods used in service design today have been borrowed and adapted from anthropology and marketing.

Most importantly, it is the holistic perspective of service design that distinguishes itself from all previous design methodologies. Rather than focusing on the ‘end user’ (the customer: marketing/user centered and participatory design), service design seeks to collaborate with all users of a service; building relationships between stakeholders to open up communication for the exchange and development of value and knowledge.

Human-Centered Design

Since the early 1990s, human-centered design and user-centered design were often interchangeable terms regarding the integration of end users within a design process. Like many other design methodologies, human-centered design first began within technological and product system industries and was growing under human centered interaction (a method that is still in use). Human-centered design only started to evolve around the late 1990s, when the development of methods described above shifted from a techno-driven focus to a humanised one.

It was also at this point that we found ourselves with a design methodology that was manifested as more of a mindset than a physical set of tools. William B. Rouse discusses the ideology of the mindest behind HCD in his book, Design for Success: A Human-Centered Approach to Designing Successful Products and Systems. His definition of HCD is philosophical:

“Roles of humans in complex systems, enhancing human abilities, aid to overcome human
limitations and foster user acceptance” (Rouse, 1991 pp.6-123).

Despite contextualising his defintiion within the field of systems and product engineering, Rouse introduces a broader perspective of the ‘user’- one that is closely related to service design but situated in a broader, more socially conscious arena. In its final (and current) phase of evolution, HCD is seen to hold potential for resolving wider societal issues.

HCD is a mix of meta design and service design but closely related to anthropology. It is used more generally in social development than service development.

The broad holistic perspective introduced in service design allowed for human-centered design to redefine its meaning. Coupled with significant social and environmental disasters, it was appropriate after the turn of the millenium that HCD transformed from a method to a mindset, aiming to humanize the design process and empathize with stakeholders. The mindset approach of human centered design re-introduced design thinking, but this time as a mindset used a method for interpreting wicked problems.

Outer circle (blue) signifies the shifts in design theory along the timeline. The inner circle (pink) signifies the methodological shifts in design practice over time

It is interesting to note that the shifts in design theory and practice that have occured since the methods movement in the 1960s have mirrored one another. Design-as-science trend of the 60s and 70s sit opposite and reflect the methodical inquiry into process methods of the 1990s. Similarly, cognitive reflections in design theory during the 1980s reflect (and sit opposite) the mindset movement we are moving through now. Though this may not have been the best way to depict the timeline of design theory and thinking (infodesign nerds get off my back), I chose a circle to deliberately highlight these reflections and the very fact that we have almost come full circle. If this pattern is correct, we should find ourselves moving back into a scientification (did i make that word up?) of design, and it seems to me that we are already beginning to shift into it; as developments in neuroscience turn attention to design thinking for study.

To highlight my prediction on the next phase in design, here is a Stanford video on the neuroscience of design thinking. Enjoy.