The Nature of Design: Biomimicry & Biophilia-Inspired Innovation
It’s said that a millennium before the Wright brothers made aviation history with the world’s first motorised aircraft, Andalusian engineer Abbas Ibn Firnas took to the skies after years of watching birds’ graceful flight.
Sadly, Firnas’ foray into aerodynamics was far less elegant than his avian counterparts. Somewhere between the age of 65 and 70, Firnas launched himself from the edge of a cliff donning a pair of silk wings; wooden-framed and adorned in real feathers. Despite staying ‘in flight’ for over ten minutes, it all came literally and figuratively crashing down as pre-flight Firnas had neglected the mechanics of landing.
Presumably crestfallen and probably injured, Firnas spent the remaining twelve years of his life (impressive mortality for the ninth century) furthering his studies, refining his theories and designing diagrams that would eventually become the cornerstones of aviation a thousand years later. All inspired by the imitation of birds.
Mimicking nature in manufactured designs has led to some of the most significant and enduring products in human history. In the modern era especially, designers are open to ways they can work with our environment, rather than against it.
What Is Biomimicry in Design?
When Swiss designer George de Mestral noticed how burs from a burdock plant stuck to his clothes and dog’s fur, he was inspired to create his most prolific invention — velcro. The original sticky note we all know and love was first adapted by NASA as a solution to anchoring equipment in zero gravity, before hitting the mainstream in the 1960s. Now, it provides a classic example of biomimicry at work.
"Design in nature is but a concatenation of accidents, culled by natural selection until the result is so beautiful or effective as to seem a miracle of purpose." – Michael Pollan
By definition, biomimetics is the emulation of materials, structures, systems and processes modelled on biological entities. Fairly convoluted for a fundamentally simple concept.
Further along the lexical chain we have biophilia: humankind’s innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life. And in architecture and experience design specifically, the biophilia effect has been proven time and time again to improve health and well-being.
The effect (some still call it a hypothesis) refers to the positive, healing responses caused by a range of elements from natural views and patterns to daylighting and organic materials. It’s about bringing nature closer, really weaving it into our surroundings and lifestyles, while biomimicry is all about the inspiration the natural world can offer us.
So as climate chaos forces us to reckon with our collective relationship with nature and our planet — an intense reevaluation only exacerbated by the pandemic — designers, engineers and innovators are turning to these two concepts as a welcome source of inspiration across every field.
Biomimicry in Product Design
Perhaps the most prominent, or at least well-known, examples of biomimicry are the design of products like velcro, LEDs (influenced by a firefly’s light-enhancing microsystems), the humpback whale-inspired wind turbine or the Shinkansen bullet train.
Shortly before the Tokyo Olympic Games in 1964, the West Japan Rail Company (JR West) launched the Tokaido Shinkansen segment of their new high-speed intercity rail network. Its speed came from the train’s rounded front (hence the name ‘bullet train’) but engineers found that every time it entered a tunnel the shape created a pressure wave which, in turn, caused a sonic boom on exit.
Solution inspiration struck when one of the engineers, who also happened to be an avid birdwatcher, studied a film on kingfishers — how they can move from one density (air) to another (water) without causing even a ripple.
So when JR West replicated that same shape in the Shinkansen train design, not only did their new design eliminate the sonic boom, the train moved 10% faster on 15% less electricity.
More recent examples of biomimicry in product design include an edible bottle that peels like fruit, a tree-like structure to harvest solar energy in savannahs, plant-dispersing running shoes and an acoustic ‘chaise’ that replicates the experience of being in the womb.
- GoneShells is a biodegradable bottle prototype from design studio Tommorrow Machine. It’s made from a potato starch-based material whose shape can be peeled away like a fruit then eaten, composted or dissolved.
- Designed by London-based architect Samuel Wilkinson, Ecacia is a prototype of a tree-like building that collects solar energy and serves as a public shelter during extremely hot weather.
- Central Saint Martins graduate Kiki Grammatopoulos publicly launched her ‘rewilding trainer’ design last month as part of a larger project titled ‘Rewild The Run’. The shoe’s outsole is thick and bristly, mimicking the phenomenon of epizoochory, in which seeds travel by attaching to an animal's fur.
- And finally, Gemini is an ‘acoustic twin chaise’ from architect, designer and inventor Neri Oxman, meant to span multiple scales of human existence – most notably, our time in the womb. The “calming and still experience of being inside the chaise invokes the prenatal experience of the fetus surrounded by amniotic serenity, an antidote to the stimuli-rich world we live in.”
Increasingly, products are seen as the ‘antidote’ to something. Symptomatic of the world we live in. Biophilia’s effect is likened to ‘healing’ more than any other term, especially in dialogues around architecture and urban planning.
Biomimicry In Architecture
As we continue to return in swathes to our offices, in a time where it’s widely agreed that psychological healing is paramount to progress, we’re collectively going to need more than a few plant pots dotted around desks.
The hope we can eclipse, or at least soothe, the trauma of the past three years by introducing closer and more interactive connections with nature is the now core principle of biophilic design. Paired with the ongoing need for more sustainable solutions.
Again, take Tokyo for example. Beyond its biomimetic bullet train, the city’s surrounding area has a wider rail network infrastructure that mirrors the biological makeup of slime mould. Grim name but fascinating case study.
Typically found in the cool damp of forests, this fungus-like, single-celled organism is capable of forming highly efficient networks between food sources. With the ability to detect areas it’s already explored, slime mould instinctively avoids following the same trails twice as it navigates its way around.
When comparing the two matrixes, mapping out stations and crossings, slime mould created a near-perfect small-scale replica of Tokyo’s rail network.
Biomimicry’s role in urban planning and energy systems is a clear one, but biophilia’s is still underappreciated.
English designer and founder of Heatherwick Studio, Thomas Heatherwick, has pivoted his and the firm’s focus to a greener vision for the future. On a mission to turn buildings into plant-filled utopias (much more than a lone monstera) as an antidote to painfully boring cityscapes and wider health issues.
We’re blanketing ourselves in boringness, which sounds minor, but is actually a major mental health issue.
Before new ways of thinking, a building’s purpose was purely functional. Utilitarian almost. And ultimately unable to evolve with changing lifestyle demands, shifting mentalities and societal goals.
Through his work, Heatherwick is trying to trigger a global humanising movement that no longer tolerates soulless, inhuman places. He questions: what if our buildings inspired us to want to adapt and adjust and repair? And the buildings themselves could evolve too? Lasting beyond the horrifyingly short average lifespan (in London, just forty years) of an innercity commercial building.
And what if brands were at the heart of these movements?
Because brands are the sum of every interaction, the spaces they create are frameworks for identity. Playgrounds for the nuances of design and interpretations of purpose and value. Spaces that have meaning to people.
In 2019, Heatherwick Studio designed the 26th location for Maggie’s, a charity providing support for those affected by cancer. Set among the staunchly medical buildings of St James’ University Hospitality in Leeds, the centre needed to offer respite from the clinical environment.
Preserving one of the few final green spaces on campus was crucial to both Heatherwick and Maggie’s. The studio’s solution was to raise the planted surface, expressing the centre as a grouping of large-scale planters of varying sizes — the bases of which became distinct private places for time spent in solitude or with loved ones.
“Inspired by Maggie Keswick Jencks’ love of gardening, visitors are encouraged to participate in the care of the 23,000 bulbs and 17,000 plants on site.”
Though spaces like these aren’t all that relevant to the powers that be in luxury markets, organic architecture and nature-driven design are grounded in the growth and evolution of our planet and its species over 4.5 billion years. Nothing can get more timeless than that.
Biomimicry In Digital Design
Biophilia and biomimicry’s impact on digital design is far more subtle than the examples above. But when it comes to craft, beauty is just as vital to a design as functionality. In luxury especially, it’s what raises a product or service from simple utility to something truly valuable. And nature is nothing if not beautiful.
As humans, we’re innately drawn to nature’s patterns. Symmetries that mirror the Golden Ratio and the less symmetrical, free-flowing shapes that add visual interest. Colours that calm, arouse, evoke. Structures and layouts that are cognitively pleasing and easier to scan. Nature will have had some bearing on all of them.
So, designers, in the inevitable moments when your creativity is thinning, look to nature first. Become its apprentices. By now we should all be humble enough to acknowledge that we’re rarely the first to have thought in a certain way; we’re rarely the original creators.
To create humanly, progressively even, we have to study what has come before. And, more often than not, evolution has already lit the path of least resistance. It just takes true innovators to navigate it in new ways.
Often innovation comes from smashing together two completely opposing ideas. Then seeing if they work. That’s the part that usually feels like the cliff’s edge. And while we’re certainly not ninth-century engineers (we’re not even ornithologists), we’re confident enough in our work and creativity — balanced by a pragmatic understanding of the world and technical expertise — to jump first. Jump with us by emailing one of our consultants via email@example.com.