Biomimicry is Not “Just” Biology Research

Superb diagram by Carla Gould and Jessica Ching - mapping out from hindsight the evolution of an 18 month biomimicry design project.

Having taught biomimicry for 6 years now, you’d think preparing for another wave of students would be relatively straight forward. In fact, it is probably more complex now that it ever has been before. Bruce Hinds (my co-teacher) and I have taught this enough times to be confident with the material, so much so that we are growing increasingly ambitious for meaningful projects to emerge from the class. Consequently, the question that drives the class has evolved from “how can we do biomimicry” to “where should we do biomimicry”. In other words;

What design topics should we tackle?

 Why is this a challenge?

Biomimicry is not “just” biology research. It also includes design research. While this might be obvious for some, there are many more who think the design insights should magically appear from thin air, with no need for context from the area of research. The reality suggests otherwise, and requires that in the limited time we have in the class room, our students need to cover twice as much ground. On one hand you think sounds straightforward, the students are in their higher years, and therefore have been exposed to a lot of design process already, but the reality is, introducing biology research adds a layer of healthy complexity to the design research and makes the whole process more time consuming (also pronounced “rewarding”).

And guess what, this is also the reason why businesses and design practices are not jumping vigorously on the biomimicry bandwagon; it’s hard work.

The good news about biology research

Designers getting comfortable with biology is not as hard as it sounds. Last week I taught a course at the graduate level with a bunch of advertising students. I was a little nervous throwing biomimicry at them, but they ate it up. Instead of telling them that learning from biology is hard and requires a whole new way of thinking, I put a barrel cactus in front of them and said; “Why has it evolved that way? What could you learn from that?” No problem! We had everything from new products, architecture, materials and flip flops. I’ve also done the same project with high school students, with superb results.

Getting them equipped to play with biology turns out to be as straight forward as organizing a Skype call with the infatigable Timothy McGee, introducing them to Ask Nature and then asking them a good design question. The rest flowed from there. (A deeper case study to come).

The real challenge was the design research

To identify what design challenges truly need to be resolved and how the biology may shape that exploration is the hardest stage of the biomimicry process over and over again. The issue isn’t collecting biological information, the complexity lies in putting it to good use.

Good design research fundamentally involves the question; “what are you really trying to achieve?” with a few follow up “why’s” thrown in for good measure. Practice this enough times and you get what is called a “design education”. Sounds easy, but these are actually very hard questions that involve rigorous investigation, navigation of complex and contradictory information, and requires deep reflection. This is why most businesses are not employing deep design thinking, not to overlook the fact that it is often quite painful.

The answer is a parallel process

The design research has to occur at the same time as the biology research, and both processes must inform one another. This sounds like common sense, but is in practice rare. The biologists wish to generate an exhaustive report of deep, rigorous science around clearly defined functional questions, while the designers either wish to remain in the design research phase for so long that they never get around to looking at the biology, or want to jump straight into the biology and “play” without really knowing what they are trying to achieve.

Each process must be iterative, and interconnected 

Here's the diagram again in context.

The image included in this blog is a diagram from Carla Gould and Jessica Ching when they reflected on a major biomimicry research project with an industry partner that continued over the course of a year and a half. The project was enormous, convoluted, complicated and richly rewarding. What the diagram highlights, are the healthy, parallel processes that the group had to juggle throughout the project. With this knowledge it becomes clearer how we might approach a similar project in the future, but in the thick of the process we had no idea how confused we had been.

In fact, we did not realize until five or six weeks into the project, that we were clueless about what we were actually trying to design. Empowered by the biological knowledge, our design students were happily generating ideas and content, but without an understanding of the context of the project it was meaningless. Only after we returned to the basics of design research; ethnography, user interviews, etc, did our project make sense.

Importantly, because we had already begun the biology research, the investigation into the design context evolved. We were immediately able to see similarities and conflicts between natural models and current practices, that highlighted where the design opportunities would ultimately lie and reinforced the need for the process to occur in parallel.

Practicing biomimicry and the dream project

Today’s discussion comes from repeatedly working with design students deep in biology research who have lost their way. Hopefully over the next few weeks I’ll have some superb tangible stories of how they emerged from the wilderness, and what processes they’ll have gone through that I can share with a broader audience. In the mean time the ideal project for my students appears to be one where the design and biology research has started and stalled, so that we can work out ways to move it forward and realize creative, insightful ideas.


10 Comments on “Biomimicry is Not “Just” Biology Research”

  1. Torrey McMillan says:

    Carl, thank you for this. It feels like a direct response to the murky waters my project group and I are swimming through right now.

    Coming at this from the biology side of things, the design process feels that much harder. I’d be curious to hear from others, particularly those coming to biomimicry from the biology side, how they have engaged with and moved through the design process.

    It also seems that much of successful biomimicry projects is about the translation of ideas from one field to another. I find myself wanting to understand more of the design process, but also wondering how, as a non-designer, I go about choosing what to study and understand in design. The field feels so big.


  2. Tim McGee says:

    Carl, Bruce, Carla, and Jessica – A huge Thank you!

    This is a wonderful graphic that captures how biology (actually I would say Biomimicry Design Research) integrates into a larger design process.

    I also love the subtle transition points that I recognize in so many of my own biomimicry projects. For example between the project launch and P1 – how considering biological models becomes a key point that impacts the types of questions that are asked in the problem definition and resulting challenges and strategies.

    @Torrey I can relate to your experience. I found taking introductory industrial design, or architecture sets of courses helped me begin to understand the language and impact design thinking has. The courses I took included the Career Discovery Course in Landscape Architecture at the GSD (6 weeks), and a semester long course in model making at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Either one of these would actually be fine- or other courses like these, that compress the design process into one course or time period.

    What I learned in those courses was a new perspective on how to formally turn a loose idea into a prototype or finished model through a design process. This includes building a set of skills in observation, sketching, drafting, computer aided design, and model making (for Landscape Architecture those skills are a bit different then for ID, but similar enough). Each of these skills built on the others, and impacted how a thought turned into a project that others could understand. By no means am I a master at any of these skills, but I’m familiar enough with each of them and have enough confidence in my understanding of how it is accomplished that I’m comfortable in exploring the ‘design space’.

    That said, it is tough going by yourself. I think just the fact that you posted here is a good sign. I have found over the last 5 years that it is my on-going conversations with Carl, and other designers that have helped me explore this space further from a biology perspective. One of the projects that Carl suggested “Science design Dialogue”

    Is likely a good place to continue to have this kind of discussion and start getting your hands a bit dirty over a long enough period of time to let it all sink in. There are a growing number of us biologists out there peering into the design world, and I also see a lot of designers getting curious about how they can tap into our skulls to pick out the juicy bits. I think it is a ton of fun, and really one of the most energizing parts of biomimicry is getting to know this whole crazy lot.

    • Torrey McMillan says:

      Tim –

      Thanks so much for your thoughts on how you have gone about delving into the design space. I’m excited to learn more about this and to play with it.

  3. scelop says:

    These are fascinating observations and comments….i’m a novice here but i can say that when Doug Paige and I taught biomimicry to a mix of students from biology, fine arts, engineering and industrial design, we had a similar experience of high energy/excitement at launch of the design ‘brief’ followed by furious energy for discovering and ‘harvesting’ ideas from natural systems and brainstorming potential applications. Then, as the student biologists, engineers and designers began to negotiate the details and the realities, they seemed to enter a kind of doldrums of confusion and disorientation with a bit of uncertainty about whether they were ever going to get to some interesting solutions.

    To me it seems like this comes partially from drilling down, on both the biology and the design side, recognizing that consideration of the details produce unanticipated complications…going from the ‘big’ idea to ‘how the hell will that work?’ The journey through those ups and downs is the only way to get to the destination.Tthe trick is to not be impatient, or to hurry through…because the ‘through’ is the only way to success. I like the image of the parallel research…especially, and particularly the dissonance between ‘desires’ of the designers and the biologists.

    This kind of trajectory (the curves in that striking figure by Gould and Ching) is not unique to the practice and teaching of biomimicry….at least I don’t think it is. For example, I see it when i teach field ecology with some of my other colleagues and we ask students with widely different backgrounds and experience to wander through a natural area and make biological observations that they can use to form a question, hypothesis and finally design a biological study around. The trajectory of insight and emotion is similar to what you guys have described for biomimicry…i wonder if it arises from the nature of the creative process more generally?

    I have often reflected on what seems to me to be great similarities between the design ‘process’ and the scientific ‘method.’ When we ask our biology students, or examine our own actions in designing an experiment or study, it shares a lot with the biomimicry design spiral in terms of process and conduct, at least my understanding of it.

    Finally, this is why I think the most exciting kind of biomimicry process and discovery might be obtained by peers from the disciplines of design, biology, engineering and business all collaborating in a process that is not owned by any one of them. This is how i interpret Carl’s resolution that the design and biology research happen in parallel because they inform one another, at least ideally? It means that biology is not at the service of design, nor is design meant to serve biology. i think Biomimicry is a destination between both and beyond either.

  4. Thanks Carl for starting this discussion — good job. I have been spending a lot of time in the last months rolling up my sleeves around the question of design/biomimicry and appropriate ways to bring them together. You are right, focus on the right problem is the critical step. At this link is a great document created by IDEO that gives further insight on the design process in regards to education. There are a lot of tools and ideas for how to complete design research that can be adapted to include biology. IDEO are a very generous group that share lots of good thinking. Also look for Tim Brown on TED.

    thanks again, best wishes,

    • Carl Hastrich says:

      Hey Theresa – lovely to see your name pop up!
      Am very curious to hear what your working on these days, and if there is anyway to help!
      Agreed, IDEO are superb storytellers of their process.

      • Theresa says:

        Hi Carl — we are living in Granada, Spain. I still work for Kohler part time on sustainability and corp social responsibility. It is good work, challenging and fun. I work with a good group of people who keep me thinking.
        In regards to Biomimicry — I am trying to get a small group going in this region. It has been slower than I had hoped, but I think I am finding a path forwards. Jim and I with a colleague have just written the framework and planning for a 10 week session for Biomimicry in a elementary school in the UK. It was a lot of fun to create and I am hopeful that with the interested teachers there we can co-create the final lessons/learning opportunities etc. After all I am not a teacher and am glad for the opportunity to share what I know with others to see if together we can make something meaningful.
        How about yourself? You must be settled in Ontario? OK — have to dash, but I will continue to follow your blog – great job — I watched the Stuart Brown video again today — it helped me to put into words some things I have been feeling about the corporate world – so thanks for that,

  5. […] As a result, we encourage students to explore their research in stages. Stage one focuses on gathering a broad, quick array of content, that allows a contextual view of the project, before identifying key areas to dive in for deeper analysis. I have never had a framework to describe this, so I like the idea of S. Kivsha’s first pass over many papers, with Alëna’s concept definition as core tools to help shape the initial discovery processes. And of course, it goes without saying that this research should cover design and biology in parallel, but you don’t need to hear me rant about that again. […]

  6. Carolina Simon says:

    Playing this morning with ideas I stumbled upon this graphic and then your words! This material is great work and is really helpful in visually communicating parallel tracks. Want to learn more, do more graphics…are the curves plotted derived by any quantitative data or a visual plot of the relationships? This can be helpful material for our team and our project! Would be interested in further developing this material and our process! Cheers, cns

    • Carl Hastrich says:

      Hey Carolina,
      Questions from a true project manager!
      No, the graph is not based on any quantitative data, it’s all reflective. Carla and Jess sat down with all their process work and mapped it out.
      I don’t think this graph is a suggestion of the optimum way of executing a design process, rather it is a snap shot of hindsight. I’d love to know if you are able to map out your own processes at all… Not sure if time sheets could be broken down conceptually rather than task based?

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