Christmas Trees: Pine and PVC Needles

Generally ice or, rather, water, freezing at a below-zero temperature, increases in bulk when it solidifies. As a child, I was fascinated by a story of a hermetically sealed vessel, filled to the brim with water. If it were allowed to freeze, the water, at the moment of its transformation into ice, would shatter it, no matter how hard the metal from which it was constructed. Actually, of course, the water is no longer ‘water’ when it does it, but has become ice. But this was of no importance to me. What was important to a 6-year old is the image of the exploding bottle, sending shards of glass in every which way. I won’t go into the details of my rather disappointing experiment with an empty wine bottle, water and a cork, but a few weeks later on one especially freezing winter day my dad came home with a frost-bite. He told me that when skin temperature drops low enough, ice crystals can form around and within the cells, freezing tissue and ultimately rupturing cells. I wondered if shards of exploded cell walls also fly in all possible directions. Continue reading

An End to User-Based Thinking – Biological Perspective

Interview for Communications Community Office at the Government of Canada conducted by Jeremy Harley.

Ant foraging strategies as individual and social processes. Photo taken at the ant exhibition in Museum of Nature, Ottawa. (Alëna Iouguina, 2014)

Ant foraging strategies as individual and social processes. Photo taken at the exhibition in Museum of Nature, Ottawa, titled Farmers, Warriors, Builders: The Hidden Life of Ants. (Alëna Iouguina, 2014)

J: What do you mean when you say that we as developers, communicators, coders and designers need to stop thinking of our clients as “users” and start thinking about them as people?

A: ‘User’ is a misdirected term. To say that it is about ‘the user’ trivializes the scope of the interaction design process. As human-beings, we are not looking to simply ‘use’; we are looking to interact and communicate, as well as accomplish our goals in an efficient, effective, safe, and maybe even aesthetic and fun way. While it is ok to use the term ‘user’ to communicate the standardized concept across disciplines, we as researchers, developers, communicators, coders and designers must be mindful of the complex world of creators and ideators we are tapping into.

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What’s up with chicks and science?

Early evening at the Avant-Garde Bar. My mom is sitting in her usual spot, working on her laptop, while my dad is tending to the customers. The opening band is getting set up for their performance and the rest of musicians are curiously wandering around the bar, looking at posters. One of them approaches my mom for a chat:

“What’s that on your screen?” – he points to the pdf of a mathematics book that my mom is using as a reference for a math lesson she is preparing.
– It’s a math book.
– Oh, what’s your profession?
– I’m a mathematician.
– A musician?
– No, a mathematician.
– What? You are a magician?
– I’m a mathematician.
Awkward silence. Looks confused for a few seconds and decides to give up on a conversation. Rejoins the rest of the band.

Ring of the curtain.

2013 Non-Sequitur: Where Things Felt Right … Until They Didn’t

2013 in review, yay! Nature, happiness, joy, triumph of the soul, financial and spiritual freedom, a life of blissful … Wait, never mind. Let’s cut the crap. Some of my decisions worked out in the end, some didn’t. All of my decisions were a result of naivety and experience, knowledge and ignorance, broad mind and dogmatic preconceptions. There may be stuff in here that’s useful in a wider sense, but these were the things that worked (and didn’t) for me. You may find that spending major holidays in the forest isn’t your thing – in which case, my advice below cannot be held responsible for your mosquito-induced misery to come.

So, here goes:

1. Spend All Major Holidays … And Any Other Days in Nature


“Not all those who wander are lost.” Mr. Tolkien, how did you just so perfectly express the entire philosophy of my life? Photo taken by Anthony Dewar, the only person in this world, who can magically transform me from an awkward squirrel into a somewhat elegant human-being. Canada Day in Copeland Forest, 2013


Oh no, never mind, here’s that awkward squirrel again. Photo is still by Anthony Dewar. Christmas in Copeland Forest, 2013

Want to understand design from functional, aesthetic and experiential perspectives? Let’s start with the idea that we can experience all these phenomena, the objects and the events of the world, as they show up during your walk through a forest. The experience of the world ‘just as it is’ often requires significant attention, the quieting of the mind, the relaxation of the body, and the suspension of preconceptions. These are the skills you will learn not by studying ‘about’ nature, but learning ‘from’ nature during your walk in a forest. Once a designer can fully intake the unfiltered experience of sun and wind, light and shadow, damp and dry, fragrant and fetid, patterns of function, aesthetic, and experience begin to emerge. This is the beginning point for designing objects, spaces, systems, and experiences that engender and facilitate thoughtful solutions.

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Nature, 3D Printing, and Rock n’ Roll: Biomimetic Approach to User Experience Design

I had a great time at UX Conference this past weekend and will absolutely write a post about all the brilliant speakers that graced the stage of Canada Museum of Civilization. In the meantime, let me share my presentation about lizards, caterpillars, guitar picks, and my new-found love for UX community.

Enjoying a rock concert with the audience

Enjoying a rock concert with the audience

Of lizards, caterpillars, and love



Social Innovation or Natural Coevolution?

** The article was originally published in Vol. 1 of FIELDS An Interdisciplinary Design Journal. Please cite as follows: (A. Iouguina, 2013). Social Innovation or Natural Coevolution? FIELDS – An Interdisciplinary Design Journal. Carleton University: Ottawa, ON.

Social innovation or Natural coevolution?

Biological inspiration is transforming many of the ways we think about innovation. Its commercial and theoretical applications are already influencing various industries and academic institutions. Fermanian Business and Economic Institute of Point Loma Nazarene University has devised The Da Vinci Index, which measures research and industrial activities inspired by solutions found in nature. The Index is compiled based on the number of patents issued, scholarly articles published, the number of grants issued by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) in USA, and the value of those grants for any given period. The reading of 1052 in the third quarter of 2012 relative to the 100 Index level of 2000 indicates more than a tenfold expansion in the activity in the past 12 years (Fermanian Business & Economic Institute, 2012).

Index of 1,052 in **third quarter of 2012 relative to 100 index level of the *fourth quarter 2000 indicates more than a tenfold expansion in the activity in the past twelve years.

Index of 1,052 in **third quarter of 2012 relative to 100 index level of the *fourth quarter 2000 indicates more than a tenfold expansion in the activity in the past twelve years.

Social innovation implies a paradigm change

Innovation is essential for society, because it is the principal mechanism by which societies create and sustain competitive advantage. According to various sources, social innovation implies a paradigm change, or, in other words, it challenges an assembly of beliefs – possessed by an individual, a group or a civilization – that defend as certain and makes them set against the acceptance of other possibilities.

“Social innovations are changes in the cultural, normative or regulative structures [or classes] of the society which enhance its collective power resources and improve its economic and social performance” (Heiscala, 2007). For Heiscala, ‘Social innovation’ means ‘change in at least one of the following three social structures: cultural, normative and regulative.

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Happy Birthday, Leonardo!

My friend, another great polymath, Andrew Plumb reminded me that today is Leonardo Da Vinci’s birthday – the epitomy of Renaissance man, whose works inspire all my passions. He was interested in everything: painting, sculpture, music, anatomy, mechanics, optics, architecture, geology, hydraulics, without attributing a real priority to any of these subjects.

He was also a man of multiple personalities (something I get accused of often). Either you are deeply touched watching him beautifully assisting a dying man and, just a few seconds after the death, you become disappointed seeing him calmly dissecting the still warm body. You can watch Leonardo wandering in the countryside, lovingly observing birds and their flight, flowers and their structure, the lives of insects and their anatomy, and the flow of moving water, and then return to his lab to design powerful weapons and war machines.

I sometimes hear debates on whether Leonardo was more of a scientist, an artist, or a technologist and am often frustrated by today’s anachronistic methods of cleaving such polymath into primitive parts. By seeing this world as a whole, and by striving to unify it through all the disciplines, essentially means that he pursued five hundred years ago what every person should today: integral, holistic perspective of the ever changing world we continuously observe and remake.


People make Places: Valentina Rognoli and Barbara Cuerden

It has been almost a month since I returned to Ottawa from Europe. Yet, what inspired me to finally sit down and write about my experiences was a stapled copy of references from the book “Il Progetto della Natura” by Giuseppe Salvia, Valentina Rognoli, and Marinella Levi. Thus, it is only fair that I begin my story with Politecnico di Milano.

Roma to Milano

The blast of horn came from terminus 25 at about 5pm – a piercing, penetrating sound that flew out from The Eternal City of Rome and died mournfully in the field of poppies. That was the signal for the departure of the coach. I silently bid farewell to my wonderful cousin Ekaterina and her family – whom I have last seen in St. Petersburg, Russia twenty years ago – and shook hands with a spruce Italian businessman. He looked with distaste at the deep cyan of the Roman sky arching over poppy fields and began a typical “stranger on the train” conversation. Massimo was headed home, whereas my aim was to reunite with Valentina and see for myself a vast library of materials that she so diligently put together for the department of industrial design.

Valentina Rognoli

“Welcome home, welcome home!” – said Massimo in perfect English, as the train dashed past mansions and ironwork fences with wild vines.

“Here is my number, and you let me know what you think of Milano tomorrow.”

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Bionics ≠ Biomimetics ≠ Biomimicry

Did you know Otto H. Schmitt and Jack Steele both lived to be 84 years old?

They were very close to celebrating their 85th birthdays, but never got a chance to. They did, however, get a chance to become fathers of biologically inspired design movements and bring such terms as ‘bionics’ and ‘biomimetics’ into existence.

In fact, the term ‘bionics’ (biology + technics) describing the process of “copying, imitating, and learning from biology” was conceived by Jack Steele in as early as 1960 prior to the infamous Bionics Symposium.

United States Air Force, Wright Air Development Division 1961 (Kline 2009)

Steven Vogel in his book “Cats’ Paws and Catapults” defined bionics as being mostly concerned with systems design:

… [bionics] is based on living systems. The word ‘systems’ came naturally to those, mostly engineers, initially involved; neural systems and physiological controls formed biological parallels to human technology’s cybernetics and systems theory

Daniel Wahl  took  a radically  different approach to the evaluation  of the term, describing it from the perspective of ‘nature-culture relationships’ and indicating the deficiency of “salutogenic design  approach that increases human, societal, and ecological health synergistically”. One of the most interesting quotes by Wahl examines the place of ‘bionics’ within the biologically inspired design:

Unfortunately the focus [of bionic-centred conferences] was so exclusively on technological innovation that it almost actively tried to discourage ecological concerns and the issue of sustainability.

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Illustrated guide to biopolymers: structural elements of biological systems

This is my favourite leisure activity: pulling together information I find of natural materials, processes, systems and trying to understand them by using visual tools. Because, you know, as designers, we learn visually. Or so the urban legend goes. One of the most popular things I hear design students say is how complicated and out of reach they think biology is.

There is a common misconception that once you have chosen the path of designer, a path of science is closed for you once and for all.

I would love nothing more than to dispute this myth. Let’s start with materials.

  • Break the overwhelming list of natural polymers into manageable sections. Draw associations with these materials and their generalized properties.

Author: Alëna Konyk. General sources and properties of some natural polymers. Inspired by (Ratner, Hoffman, Schoen, & Lemons, 2004).

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