Biomimicry and Design Definition

Charles Eames definition of design on the left, my personal definition of biomimicry design on the right. Initial diagram found here.

I’ve been having a lot of conversations about what design’s role, and value, is within biomimicry, and the reverse conversation that explores biomimicry’s value to design. The conversation seems painfully circular, so I wanted to attempt a diagram that could help me give shape to the conversation.

How does biomimicry challenge designers?
How can designers validate biomimicry?

For those sensitive to my obsessive use of design, please insert; “creative problem solver” in my following exploration.

Charles Eames diagram of Design

Riffing through my computer over the weekend, I rediscovered a diagram that I’ve used in class before which I thought would be interesting to evolve. In 1968 Charles Eames sketched the diagram to the left to define what design was. It is deceptively simple, and absolutely superb. There are three layers:

  1. The interests and concerns of the design office
  2. The area of genuine interest to the client
  3. The concerns of society as a whole

The language is superb. We could break down the use of “genuine” for the client, but let’s stay on track. In one sweeping diagram the complexities, challenges and context of design is summarized in a simple, digestible statement. An example of good design.

I began to think about recent biomimicry discussions and I wondered if I could use this diagram to define my own thinking.

Carl’s Definition of Design and Biomimicry

The seventeenth revised diagram...

Not surprisingly to those who know me, this diagram took quite a while as I kept sketching versions that I wasn’t happy with. I think this is close enough to launch into the webisphere. Here is my thinking:

I decided to simplify “design” down into the:

  • Needs of Business
  • Needs of (the) User(s)

And then simplified “biomimicry” down to:

  • Nature as Inspiration
  • Nature as Stakeholder
If your curious about the definition of nature as stakeholder, read this earlier entry.
As a guideline the more overlaps an idea would have within the diagram, the more diverse the return on investment the project would gain. In other words, triple bottom line. The diagram aims to show that there are likely many ideas that satisfy one or two layers, but only a couple of opportunities to deeply solve all challenges present. It also highlights, that the process is likely to be longer, and deeper in order to respond to all the layers.

What works for me

There are many, many overlaps between the interests of the User and Business, and importantly, there are overlaps outside of the range of inspiration from nature. This is, of course the most common practice. The increased number of overlaps between Business, Users and Nature as Inspiration, is an attempt to communicate biomimicry as fuel for creativity. This emerges from previous conversations about biomimicry fostering intersectional thinking, i.e. introducing a different discipline to provoke more unique conceptual connections.

Most importantly, are the overlaps of all four elements, represented by the two darkly shaded areas. These are the fewest number of overlaps, as Nature as Stakeholder introduces an entirely new layer of criteria and challenges, but hopefully also more rewards and returns on investment. These are the rare, deep ideas that account for “full costs” of a project. There was a reason for creating two dark areas, but I think this discussion has gotten complex enough…

Where to now

I need to sit and think on this a little while before I conclude my thoughts here. I’m hoping some comments may provoke the next stage of thinking… Here are some questions to mull over;

Does this help contextualize the value of design? It is the designer’s role to fully understand all stakeholder’s needs within any given project and map a path through to satisfying the core design criteria.

Does the diagram help contextualize the challenges of biomimicry as sustainability? It is easy to see many initial overlaps between nature as inspiration and the human stakeholders, while highlighting the fewer opportunities that address the depth of all stakeholders within a project.

13 Comments on “Biomimicry and Design Definition”

  1. Tim McGee says:


    The 4 simplified areas are quite good. I think it recognizes our existing mental model that nature and business have different goals, and by defining them then seeks to engage in collaboration.
    Similarly curious is how 3 of the 4 elements are ‘needs’ based and we are left with nature as inspiration as a unique character in the group. What about users as inspiration? Are we nature, thus looking to people for inspiration is looking to nature?

    I’m curious about the context of Nature as Stakeholder held completely within Nature as Inspiration. Is the act of considering nature a stakeholder automatically a valid form of Nature as Inspiration? I think I’m ok with this- just want to understand that a bit better.

    In a more detailed overview, I would love to look at each area. I count 10 different “places” on your diagram:

    1. Nature as Inspiration
    2. Nature as Inspiration + Nature as Stakeholder
    3. Needs of Users
    4. Needs of Users + Nature as Inspiration
    5. Needs of Users + Nature as Inspiration + Nature as Stakeholder
    6. Needs of Business + Nature as Inspiration
    7. Needs of Business + Nature as Inspiration + Nature as Stakeholder
    8. Needs of Business + Needs of Users
    9. Needs of Business + Needs of Users + Nature as Inspiration + Nature as Stakeholder
    10. Needs of Business

    7 out of 10 of those places would involve considering nature to some degree, leaving 3 areas that are focused on business or users.

    For me, this points to a need to create mechanisms for bridging these four areas, that results in 10 potential flows of interaction. As a consultant these would amount to 10 different offering types, that could all be integrated through a design process…..

    • Carl Hastrich says:

      Hey Tim,

      Here is some of my thinking…

      Users and Business are both stakeholders; hence the language of needs. Nature as stakeholder implies “needs” but I did not want to anthropomorphize nature, so using nature as stakeholder as a definition means that designers should approach nature using the same investigative tools as they would any other stakeholder (as per a previous discussion).

      Nature as inspiration does flow outwards from stakeholder to me, as I think there is a lot of inspiration we can take from nature that does not integrate nature as a stakeholder, but in my thinking right now, I can’t see any path where nature would act as a stakeholder and not as inspiration. Perhaps that is not true. If the challenge of nature as stakeholder is something around co-habitation or an ecosystem performance metric, is it possible to resolve without using nature as inspiration? Possibly… I hadn’t thought of that…

      The 10 overlaps highlight the need for an interdisciplinary consulting team. Biologists are unlikely to have deep training in the overlaps of Users and Business, while designers are not equipped to fully comprehend nature as stakeholder, etc… As more layers are added; multiple users, varying business partners, etc, it highlights the increasing complexity of the project and most likely the team executing on the project.

      Finally nature as inspiration does introduce a different perspective within the mix, because it is a layer of “solution space”, while the other three are “needs/opportunities/challenge spaces”. I hadn’t thought of that earlier, but it is intriguing now…

  2. Kristin Elizabeth Løberg says:


I refer to earlier discussion on your blog, “Does Biomimicry as a Tool equals Sustainability?” and was hoping you had time to answer a few questions regarding the same subject for my academic degree essay.

 I know you may have answered these questions in your blog already, but I would be greatful if you had the time:

    – what are the best example of using biomimicry? (considering sustainability/human needs)

    – what are the worst example of using biomimicry? (sustainability/human needs)

    – what is your opinion on functionality of a product vs. sustainability. (some may argue there is no such thing as a fully sustainable product.)

(if a product is of high quality and function, do you think it may lead us towards a more sustainable living?)


- do you believe biomimicry is the answer to our so-called grand challenge: sustainability?

In my essay I´m discussing how biomimicry influence design process and making products more functional (therefore also more sustainable), whilst adressing the sustainable aspects of it with apposing opinions, asking “Is biomimicry the answer to a more sustainable innovation?” By making products more efficient there may be argued they lead towards a sustainable circle.


    • Carl Hastrich says:

      The first thing to do is a definition of sustainability. We need to move beyond “neutral” goals, and look at positive impacts of design. Sustainability struggles as it is generally a negative vision which rarely inspires passion. Therefore redefining “sustainability” as a positive opportunity is critical within design.

  3. Kristin Elizabeth Løberg says:

    Dear Carl,

    Could you please provide me with your e-mail address so I can send you a few questions outside the blog? I would really appreciate interviewing you for my dissertation. On beforehand, thank you for getting back to me,

    Kind regards Kristin

    • Carl Hastrich says:

      Have emailed you on your gmail account. Double check in the junkmail, sometimes it gets jammed in there. Look forward to chatting further.

  4. Jamie Saunders says:

    Might this be supported if ‘ecomicry’ rather than ‘biomicry’ was initially considered ? Co-evolution and ‘ecomimicry’ – drawing a conceptual understanding and insight from the ‘whole’ ecosystem’ – ‘the interwoven systems that can provide “life support” for current and future multi-species inhabitants.’

    • Carl Hastrich says:

      Hi Jamie,
      In my early explorations I used to think about this a lot. In reality biomimicry as I teach and explore it, covers three different “levels”: form, process and system. We place a heavy emphasis on the system as the context, and broader inspiration into why an adaptation from an organism occurs. Shallow biomimicry only looks at an exciting feature without the context being explored, and is a weakness of the usual case studies such as bullet trains and self-cleaning paints that don’t tell the bigger story.
      But, the reason why I stick to the language of biomimicry, is that we are being inspired by the full biology. Ecosystems are an emergent property of biological organisms and the environment, and in order to really understand it we need to look at the full context. The weakness of some investigations at a systems level occur when there is no deeper understanding of the biological mechanisms that occur the systemic relationships to form. Therefore it is inherently complex to research and a difficult story to tell.
      I am currently working on a project that is building a tool to help tell the story of system level inspiration and defining specific goals to work towards. The story at this level is tricky and any insights or thought around how to communicate these ideas would be really appreciated.

  5. […] answer, in full here, explains that “bios” has always been interpreted by those pioneering biomimicry to […]

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  7. […] think Eames had it right when he began to explain the design process. The only change for a life-centered process I made above was to really explain a bit more the […]

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