Designers turn to thriving systems of nature for inspiration
Navigating human flight more than five hundred years ago, Leonardo da Vinci initially observed the flight of birds, attempting to capture and mimic the nature of air travel. By grasping this phenomenon in nature, he enabled for later designer Otto Lilienthal to create the first human glider in 1891. Just as Lilienthal’s Derwitzer Glider drew from his studies of a stork’s wing, so too must contemporary designers recognize nature as the ultimate designer.
Bionics, also known as biomimicry, approaches design through the processes found within the natural world. It claims nature as the ingenuous driving force behind good design. That is not to say that human inventions cannot inspire one another, but rather as designers aiming to optimize the human experience, nature must play a role.
In a society ever in pursuit of maximizing ease, comfort and functionality in the designs of daily living, all too often the most practical solutions are overlooked. Design functions as a tool to improve the machine of human operations. And when looking for design solutions, the search must stem from the systems within nature that have thrived since the beginning of time. The human machine exists merely as a component to the greater machine of the world and its structures.
‘One of the tests of being a smart design is the classic test of time,’ said Greg Allen, a fourth-year industrial and interactive design student. ‘Clearly natural systems have passed this with efficiency. The concept of not having any waste is something humans have yet to conceive. There are so many mysteries in nature that humans have sought to understand, yet remain mysterious to us.’
Despite inventions of industrialization and revolutionizing technologies, the human experience cannot escape the natural world. People are dwellers of the Earth. Homo sapiens are just one species among a myriad of organisms that each lay claim to unique systems of survival. It is not unreasonable to suggest that implementing successful systems of other life forms are likely to prove worthy for humans, as well.
Denise Heckman, associate professor of industrial and interactive design, stresses the importance of bionics not only in specific functions such as flight, but more so in the observation of nature’s more involved systems and structures.
‘When da Vinci was looking at (bionics) for flight, or when someone was looking at the burs on his socks for Velcro, these were singular solutions rather than broader solutions,’ Heckman said. ‘Systems, for example: nature doesn’t design anything to be thrown out. The broader systems of nature are really something that we are going to understand better. Learn to look at nature in a more abstract way, rather than designing something to exist as long as it’s useful and then be thrown away.’
Both Allen and Heckman emphasize looking to nature for designing a solution for the excess waste humans produce. However, Heckman points out that simply an understanding of the design will not be effective.
‘Design for reuse has been out there but I don’t think we fully grasp it yet,’ Heckman said. ‘But I think we will. Right now it’s kind of cool to have your house in an old church or school. Sometimes it is attitude that allows for reuse.
‘I don’t know that a designer can design the life and death of an object. Most of the things we use are the result of evolution and not design. The infrastructure of old technologies can hold back new ones. The highways are symbiotic to the object and you can’t just break the rules for either the road or the car.’
In this sense, bionics are important not only to designers, but also to the housewife, the car salesman and students of any major.
Surely designers must observe the systems of nature, both on simple and complex scales, but everyday people must also understand their functions in the larger systems of design. The implementation and success of lasting designs will rely heavily on the mindset of everyday people.
‘We can’t exactly mimic (nature), but we can do our best to capture it,’ Allen said. ‘Mother nature is the ultimate designer.’
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