Design in the Age of Biology

I have been re-reading a superb paper by Hugh Dubberly about the future of design as we (which I mean in the grandest sense) move into an age of biology. Every time I read it through something new sticks out at me. The paper is an excellent review of a whole range of different ideas of change, transition and sometimes tension.

Throughout the paper there are a series of tables summarizing these ideas. This one below is a personal favourite:

Source: Hugh Dubberly -

Source: Hugh Dubberly – Principles of Organization

What stands out to me are the discussions about control, the shifting relationships and the “stopping condition”. Biology suggests a concept of good enough – optimizing over time – which is outside of the scope for human design when the solution being generated is fixed. I’m personally fascinated by what this implies for ideas being more “malleable”, which is easy to understand when it comes to software and coding, but a little more abstract when it comes to tangible design. But what if architecture begins to become organic?

Source: Dezeen - by Gilles Retsin of Softkill Design

Source: Dezeen – by Gilles Retsin of Softkill Design

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How a Tumbleweed can Destroy Landmines

Thanks to a friend, Paul Dowsett from Sustainable.TO for sending me this gem.

Massoud Hassani took inspiration from tumbleweeds as a child to create toys that raced across the desert. As an Industrial Designer he is making tumbleweeds that can bounce across desert landscapes filled with landmines, detonating them as they go. I hope this means that there is more space for them to play games. This is a lovely story of childhood curiosity leading to innovation.

Enjoy the movie below, it is gorgeous. And if you want to see images of the process and alternate prototoypes, Core 77 has an excellent article.

Tom Wiscombe – Integrated Futures of the Built Environment

Above is an excellent lecture, but prepare some pop-corn, it is a long one…

It is incredibly inspiring, and intimidating when you come across someone who is exploring similar train of thought you may have been dabbling in for years. Inspiring as you get validation and stimulation from their work, and intimidating when they are executing it at a quantity and quality of output that is staggering. Tom Wiscombe, who I am embarrassed to have only recently discovered is exactly one of those amazing applied thinkers.

I also need to admit I have not spent nearly enough time processing all of the content, so apologies in advance if the following is a little fragmented – there are a lot of rabbit holes to explore.

Deconstructing the Built Environment

Image source Tom Wiscombe: The Radiant Hydronic House integrates internal thermal flow within the structure.

In class we deconstruct design territories into broad concepts in order to approach them through a variety of lenses.  As discussed previously, we challenge the concept of a wall by questioning it as a membrane or a shell, using language to unlock low-associative thoughts. Tom Wiscombe, it turns out has been doing this to great depth with some excellent insights into deconstructing labels in order to disrupt preconceived concepts. I hope you enjoy the quote below as much as I did when I first read it:

“It’s time to replace outmoded terms like “building services” and “mechanical systems“ once and for all… The notion of the “mechanical” brings us back to the industrial paradigm, rooted in a pre‐networked world. And lighting design has become little more than a fixture‐shopping experience. For now, maybe we can refer to these marginalized techno‐systems in a more refreshing way as airflow, fluid flow, and glow.”

Tom Wiscombe, Extreme Integration, Published in AD: Exuberance (ed. by Marjan Coletti), March, 2010

Airflow, fluid flow and glow, are just the tip of the technological, structural and formal concepts that Tom is extracting in order to functionally integrate technological mash-ups.

Let me share a couple of his projects that give context to what might be sounding a bit abstract right now:

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Bee Station – Cohabitation

Image source James Hutchinson: The ceramic orb creates a protected space for a sugary energy boost for tired bees battling the urban terrain.

This gorgeous, thoughtful piece of design is already making the rounds on the web, see Core77 and Inhabitat’s blog posts, but I think it is too special not to mention.

James Hutchinson has designed a resting station for bees, aimed at encouraging urban residents to offer a moment of respite for the busy little insects. It is James’s hope that it may help prevent the alarming loss of bees occurring around the world, known as Colony Collapse Disorder.


I love the design for all the same reasons as the other design blogs, but especially due to my personal obsession around co-habitation. The general concept suggests design should not be solely human-centred, but as my dear friend Carla Gould would say, should be life centred. Seeing what James Hutchinson has done is an example of “bee” centred design, where he has taken into consideration all the needs of the insect and used that to drive his design process.

That the final object is desirable to humans and easy to install in any backyard is a sign of total, thoughtful design methodology. But, the real insight to me is the recognition that there is more than one species to design for.

Insights into Design Education

Image by Danielle Jedral: A superb overview of design process from the mind of a second year industrial design student.

In my Industrial Design studio classes at OCAD University, the students are tasked with keeping a design journal. Their “job” is to collect the thoughts between projects. In particular, I am looking for the insights that capture their increasing awareness of design and their personal role in this creative space.

For some the task is difficult, because it requires a certain amount of honest reflection and a particular kind of discipline, but in every single one of these journals there is a page that stands out. The best ones capture a sneak peak of a young design student’s mind as they begin to play in this space.

What is Industrial Design

Danielle Jedral was a student from last semester, and I’ve included a page from her journal here. It came out of a conversation at the very beginning of the semester as the class and I explored different ways of defining what design is, and what their roles would be in the semester. I love the page for its simple logic. Danielle offered that I could share this, which I thought was pretty special, but it means you should all go and visit her side project here.

Adding some Green to Design, Literally

I’m working on a project that explores biodiversity as a possible metric for sustainability within design. It’s an interesting concept and I’m curious to know what the end success would look like. Integrating more “nature” directly into design is a great vision, but exactly what sort of nature is going to be an interesting discussion. I’ve begun to collect more examples of design that literally uses nature within the design. Some of these are playful and some of them are doing their best to make pragmatic arguments for the inclusion of greenery. Enjoy!

The Value of a Forest and Condo Tower

images © boeri studio (stefano boeri, gianandrea barreca, giovanni la varra) - from design boom: showing the proposed structures with a cross section with full grown trees.

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Home Genome Project – Does anyone have info?

Image from: Living Labs - Intriguing image makes me want to know more... anyone out there with clues?

The Home Genome is an intriguing project at the MIT Living Labs that looks fascinating, but is very light on for details.

I was hoping someone out there might know a little more about this project and have some info they could share? I’m very interested in the positive aspects of mass customization and the possibilities inherent in adaptable design. The Living Labs appear to be a treasure trove of projects, but I’m not quite sure how to get to the meat.


Brickworks Evergreen – Urban Ecology

Photo setting the scene of the brickworks, found on the City of Toronto Website.

Yesterday I was on the discussion panel for a quick chat after the screening of two films; “Second Nature”, and “Brick by Brick”. I say quick, because ultimately I may have said two things, which is extraordinarily rare for me. But I did make a couple of connections that will hopefully lead to some interesting opportunities.

The second movie; “Brick by Brick” traced the history and inception of the Brickworks in Toronto by Evergreen, a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing nature into the city. I was aware of the project, but now that I am equipped with more information, I recognize how important and valuable this project is.

Integrating nature into the industrial

From the EBW Blog: This fallen cottonwood tree bears evidence of what may be lurking in the ponds of the Weston Family Quarry Garden. Photo: Andrew Simpson. Co-habitation? Wonder how they'll ultimately feel about the Beaver munching on their freshly installed trees?

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The Long View of Design – A Living Bridge

Absolutely gorgeous movie, click above to view.

The movie is beautiful on many levels. But from a design thinking perspective it highlights a timescale that is unimaginable to most of us. The bridges are woven together from the roots of the strangler fig vines over generations. It is a skill passed down from parent to child, and is a life’s work of maintenance.

When most CEOs hold their positions for less that 5 years, it is incredible to consider that there are cultures that still have the ability to see the “long view”. It is hard not to fantasize and idealize this lifestyle without reflecting on the irony that I am trying to type this in my 5 minute break between meetings and classes… Perhaps when I have some time to reflect there is an interesting discussion to be had around scales of time within “innovation” and it’s relationship to previous discussions regarding “genius of place”.

Moonbot – Evolution of Storytelling

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore iPad App Trailer from Moonbot Studios on Vimeo.

There has been a lot of talk of the iPad “killing” the traditional book, and how children will read in a completely new way in the future. I’ve experimented with a few of these examples, including a gorgeous four year old proudly reading us a book off her jet-lagged parents’ iPad this summer, but until recently I haven’t seen many examples that have surprised me.

Moonbot is a gorgeous example of animation, interactivity and storytelling merging into the same medium. While I don’t have an iPad and therefore haven’t spent a lot of time with the story, there is obviously some gorgeous magic here that is a sign for things to come in the future.

Inkling is a company pushing electronic textbooks, a concept much promised, but mostly failed, especially in the Kindle market. There are a couple of great articles by the company outlining how and why they have developed the e-books, and like the children’s story above, there are some simple, yet powerful insights.

Interactivity not “just” an add on

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