Designers appreciate Nature innately: A potential cure to God’s complex

My friend and colleague Anthony Dewar has an addiction. He gets to the TED talks website, then wakes up hours later and finds he has looked at over 50 videos. I have a similar problem, when it comes to MIT online lectures. Yesterday Anthony sent me a link to a talk by Tim Harford titled Trial, error, and the God complex. A couple of days earlier, we had a brief conversation about a well-known debate between algorithm vs. heuristic approach followers. Before I proceed, here’s a talk.

When I was working on a civil engineering project in a far-away land called Nova Scotia, my professor made sure we all knew what engineering was about. He once said:

Engineering is an algorithm. The design process can be fast or slow, but the important thing is the guarantee of the perfect solution.

After thinking about this for a week, I quit engineering.

The idea of drawing a conclusion about the final design based on general rules of how our universe works seemed a bit lawful to me. And … well … a bit boring. I came by industrial design accidentally, as so many of my former classmates did. I was interested at first, but not drawn in. My head began to spin, when during an information session, Brian Burns quoted Wim Gilles, the founder of Carleton University Design School:

Design is never a proven process. It’s a matter of trial and error. Eventually, you will discover if it doesn’t work.

There seems to be an established axiom I keep hearing about designers, that might have begun with Tom Wolfe’s famous criticism of International Style established by Bauhaus in 1930s.

Designers have a God complex. They are arrogant and ignorant.

This does not seem to be the case, at least not in the 21st century design. From my seven years of experience working with designers, I could call them many words – arrogant is not one of them. I would like to suggest a reasoning for such assertion. Many would agree that a firefly’s breathtaking bioluminescence, a thorny rose, or a giant Morpho butterfly with its iridescent blue wings reflecting the sun, are all great examples of Beauty.

However, these same people would have difficulty tying beauty to functionality of the above described natural phenomena, or understanding the amount of trial-end-error that went into the final result. Very few people ever get a chance to consciously learn how to perceive beauty and functionality in one package. Designers are trained to be such people. At least, this seems to be the premise.

Thus, designers have a perfect foundation for understanding nature when presented with its fathomless beauty of functionality. It was just lost somewhere along the way, when the phrase Form follows Function was misinterpreted somewhere along the tracks of 20th century.

Design something that works well and the resulting device will be beautiful.


Too many well-working but ugly contraptions of the industrial world prove this axiom to be wrong. The famous American architect Louis Sullivan elaborated on Horatio Greenough’s idea of form following function in a highly elegant way:

If you put an acorn in the ground, that acorn, containing the function oak, will seek the form oak, and, in the process of time will become an oak tree.

I think, with the term “oak tree” Sullivan meant something different from “functional end result”. His “oak tree” meant “essence” of the object, its nucleus containing both form and function in equal proportions, so to speak. Sullivan understood nature – he was also a great designer.

Design, inherently, struggles through a similar process of an acorn seeking to become an oak tree. It is time to relearn what designers have forgotten under the 20th century misconceptions, driven by God’s complex, and embrace humility of trial-and-error process, which we should be so good at.


4 thoughts on “Designers appreciate Nature innately: A potential cure to God’s complex

  1. I like this topic of evolution and trial and error as a process – it also seems to be something our ‘solutions’ based society has a problem working with. That there is no end solution, just a process of refinement to context.

    One thing that I think can help is a clear mental framework for considering the process of evolution. So in evolution you need 3 things:

    1. Diversity
    2. Selection
    3. Reproduction of positive selective traits

    This systems inherently implies 2 more things:
    a. That there needs to be a mechanism for increasing diversity
    b. That there needs to be a mechanism for tracking information throughout the process

    Together this system begins to ask the question, if we are designing something – how are we achieving these 5 elements?

  2. a. and b. are of particular interest! It’s almost exploration vs. exploitation problem in nature: the more diversity, the greater tendency for exploration. The less of it, the greater tendency to optimize. In design, there is an ongoing problem of whether a company has the capacity to explore various possibilities (taking a risk) or it needs to employ its existing capabilities (to minimize the risk).

    There is a danger in exploiting existing opportunities for short-term gain, and not paying attention to long-term investments that could be the key to technological innovation. It almost seems like a possible solution to this problem might be using both exploration and exploitation. Exploiting emerging technologies early in its development, and exploring versatile markets for implementing this technology. Kind of like how in nature, one function can be achieved through so many different features of an organism, depending on the environment this organism inhabits. Also, because of exploration of versatile markets, the risk of failure of the new technology is much less, because the response from different target audiences is also very versatile.

  3. Pingback: RuBisCo, Doom, Google Chrome: Unlikely connections? | Biology to Design

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