Learning from a Barrel Cactus

Image by Rui Felix: Above banner is a small crop from one of the many rich images Rui developed for this project. Each image file is quite big, and has a lot of great content to process.

I have recently developed a slight obsession around barrel cactus. They have become my go to organism when introducing biomimicry, especially in workshop exercises that gets an audience engaged in biomimicry.

To start the biomimicry class this year we ran the Barrel Cactus project and had a huge success. I have several case studies I want to share, and today’s is from an Environmental Design undergraduate student from OCAD University; Rui Felix. And I will warn you in advance, the images are superb, and you may want to set aside some time to really process the content.

Project Overview

The project we ran began in class and stretched over a couple of weeks. The core learning objectives included; general awareness around biomimicry, early concepts of biology, and practicing skills of observation and abstraction.

We began with a general discussion around “selective pressures”, defining the context for the barrel cactus, encouraging students to recognize that visual “features” of a cactus are actually “adaptations” to survival. Or from a design perspective; “solutions” to “problems” posed within the habitat. The exercise deliberately merges language of biology with design, to encourage students to engage using similar observation tools they would use in other design research investigations.

Observation through Sketching

Image by Rui Felix: Observational Sketches and Diagrams outlining insights from the Barrel Cactus

Rui Felix has outlined a stunning page above that summarizes the diverse observations made in class around the barrel cactus. You can see both sketches of form and process. Personal favourites are the digrams of light and shade, comparing the cactus ribs to a circle or square cross section.

This is an example of design research communicating biology in a way that is accessible to a diverse audience. I believe this general format should be integrated into tools such as Ask Nature.

Abstracting Design Insights

Image by Rui Felix: Example of abstracted design insights from the barrel cactus.

For the phase of “abstraction” I made a table to structure their synthesis of observation and brainstorming. The four headers were:

Biological Strategy – Adaptation – physical feature, or process – observed in the organism, and the action achieved by that adaptation.

Context – Habitat Conditions – The selective pressures (abiotic – non-living, and biotic – living) that have shaped the organism’s evolution of the adapted strategy. Can be thought of as the “challenges” that the organism has had to “solve”.

Human Opportunity – Possible human contexts where the strategy could be of value. These could include similar challenges, or new opportunities.

Design Opportunity – Outline of potential design opportunities, descriptions of products, process, systems or services that could be designed mimicking the biological strategy.

As with all good design students, Rui skipped on the table and modified his illustration into a brainstorm mind map.

Image by Rui Felix: Second page of abstracted insights from the barrel cactus.

Ideation and Application

Image by Rui Felix: Brainstorming page of early ideation.

The final stage is always the hardest. Bridging the biological observations and insights into design ideas is consistently harder than people expect. It is genuinely difficult to avoid obvious, literal translations. Rui’s initial sketches show a great example of early loose experiments that look for broad connections. Some of the final ideas do “look” a lot cactus-like, but with time we would be able to play with different scales of application that might suggest more abstract final proposals.

Image by Rui Felix: Ideation for an electrical power grid inspired by dormancy of cactus roots.

Above is an excellent example of a “process” inspired design idea from the Barrel Cactus.

Image by Rui Felix: Form inspired architecture from the barrel cactus.

Above is an excellent example of a “form” inspired design idea that contains some literal translations, as well as some ideas that are beginning to open up more broad insights. As mentioned above, the next phase would begin to look at scale and context which might offer further avenues for abstraction.

Many thanks to Rui Felix

I have another dozen barrel cactus case studies to share, which I will process and include in one jumbo post. To get started, I  thought that Rui’s project was a great introduction on many levels. The attention to detail communicating biology visually, and the overall structure of capturing complex information in one compelling page integrates many of my previous discussions around the importance of visual communication. And of course the final ideas are beginning to outline some interesting spaces for further investigation.

If you want to know more about Rui Felix, please visit his portfolio here, or visit his blog here – or contact him via ruifelix76(at)gmail.com.


2 Comments on “Learning from a Barrel Cactus”

  1. Tim McGee says:


    It never ceases to amaze me when someone who can communicate spends time to observe nature and summon connections between the clever and the evolved.

    Taking a peak at Rui’s work is inspiring – the blog and portfolio show where Rui finds elegance and beauty in the world.

    Thanks for sharing Carl, and I’m wondering if there isn’t a website where folks can order ‘prints’ of some of the outstanding work that the class produces? Looking to nature for wisdom is eternal for humanity, but the art of transition is something that is rare.

  2. […] the gold standard of sustainable architecture is to be completely off the grid. The barrel cactus, featured previously here, is an excellent model for surviving harsh conditions through physiology and being mostly […]

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