Designing a Racing Canoe – Biomimicry Design Process

Introduction to Sabs Feigler's Bio-Inspired Racing Canoe Redesign

I’ve begun to dust off old student projects that I have been looking forward to sharing since I first began this blog. To start, I thought I would share a project from Sabs Feigler that is an excellent example of visual design thinking. This was a three week project at the end of our first semester class, where students are given the opportunity to select a project they are working on in other classes and go through a quick biomimicry process. The emphasis is on gathering biological research and connecting to the design project.

Visual Thinking, Processing Diverse Information

Sabs Feigler: Communicating Biology Research Visually

There are two key things that this process example highlights; the power of simplified communication and the value of a variety of natural models as potential inspiration. Many biomimicry case studies glorify the single organism; Eastgate Building withe Termites and the Kingfisher Bullet train are excellent examples. Often it is best to learn from a variety of organisms in order to look for deep principles that should inform your design thinking.

Moving from Design to Biology

One of the most difficult challenges for anyone exploring biomimicry is knowing where to start. This is the that part of most success stories that are glossed over, or are celebrated as lucky moments. I don’t believe in luck on that level, I believe it comes out of creating the perfect conditions for the insight to emerge. Therefore in class, our design students focus deeply on two things:

  1. What question to ask of “nature”?
  2. How to communicate natural models in order to see emerging patterns and deep principles for potential innovation.

Designing a Racing Canoe

Sabs Feigler achieved the above through three deceptively simple design criteria statements; which became the questions of nature.

  • Reduce overall drag
  • Reduce wetted surface
  • Increase speed

Generally the more specific you can be at this stage the better. Be comfortable that the research into natural models will provide all the added complexity and diversity within your research, and be comfortable that a good biologist or ecologist is likely to ask questions that highlight hidden complexities that you were not aware of.

Visually Communicating Research

Sabs Feigler: Biology Communication (note: the shark dentacles is not totally correct in diagram and statement)

I love diagrams. The task of synthesizing research into digestible chunks is complicated and richly rewarding. Sabs did an excellent job in this project by using a simple formula; photo, diagram, statement. The diagrams and statements are all in his own “voice” which shows confidence in the content, and empowers him as a designer. I think this is very important, the person who is going to use the research must have involvement in the process in order to truly apply the research.

Abstracting, and Bridging back to Design

Sabs Feigler: Early Ideation - connecting research to design

The biology diagrams are already abstract enough that they can be applied to creative thinking. If the diagram looks more like a scientific sketch of the organism doing it’s task, it rarely dovetails neatly into ideation. If the diagram is abstracted and simplified, the connection to ideation becomes increasingly apparent.

Avoiding Literal Translation

Sabs Feigler: The lower idea ultimately inspired much of his final thesis project

Sabs could easily have fallen into the trap of designing a canoe that looked and acted literally like a fish. Thanks to some clear design criteria, and a solid awareness of the constraints within his design challenge, Sabs was able to play with ideas without falling into the trap of directly mimicking a natural model. This is a surprisingly difficult task, and is one of the reasons why I thought this project was a good example to share.

Thanks to Sabs

I want to say a big thanks to Sabs for letting me share his work. If you want to follow up with him, his direct contact information is:

Sabs Feigler <>

His digital portfolios are: and

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