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.

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Using Biomimicry to Rethink the “Wall” – Design Project

Lauren Dynes: sketches of the design context, what is a wood frame wall?

Lauren Dynes, who is now doing her Masters of Architecture in Calgary, explored the redesign of the internal wall for her biomimicry project. It might sound dry to some of you, but the wall was an interesting choice because of how fundamentally unchanged and standardized it is as both a concept and a product. When we think of walls, flat white surfaces generally come to mind, along with drywall and studs, bricks and mortar or maybe concrete.

When we compare the subdivisions of space within architecture to similar metaphors in biology it is clear that our designs lack the multifuncional complexity as the membranes that occur within nature.

Bridging Design to Biology

The above design spiral is the methodology we structured this project around, which will explain the key titles Lauren uses in her images. Note: that the design spiral I use has slightly different language than those you may have seen at other workshops.

For this project the first stage of the design process was articulating an understanding of the design challenge and translating observations into questions of nature. The core challenges at this stage being;

  • What are the core challenges or opportunities within the design project? (IDENTIFY)
  • How to start researching natural models. (TRANSLATE)

For those of you that are yet to try this process it can be very tricky trying to word open ended and yet specific questions of both design and nature.

Image by Lauren Dynes: We asked the students to identify 5 core challenges or opportunities they saw in their project, and translate those to "biologized" questions.


Image by Lauren Dynes: note that some of the questions sound broad and naive, we are deliberately challenging the students to ask open ended questions...

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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

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