Identify a spot that feels curious to you. You might use this same spot day after day or migrate around. It’s up to you. Once you are there, get settled and spend at least 20-30 minutes observing.
What relationships do you see? How about patterns? Describe or sketch them. What are some adaptations you see as a response to wind/predation/rain/decay/etc? Rather than asking “what is this organism doing?” ask “how does this behaviour fit the environment, and what will the organism do next”?
These two paragraphs were taken right out of Biomimicry Resource Handbook. iSite was an excellent exercise that every Costa Rica workshop participant enjoyed throughout the week. It teaches how to be humble, how to quiet our cleverness, how to listen to the life shaping the environment.
However, you do not have to go to Costa Rica to practice iSite – Tim wrote an excellent post about learning to observe without knowing what you observe right here, in your backyard. I do it all the time.
The way to do is to be
The other day, Vincenzo took me out for a bella giornata of fishing and a river-side picnic. If you picture a typical fly-fishing layman – standing thigh-deep in a streaming Ottawa River, rubber boots overflowing with water and sunburnt nose the colour of a boiled crayfish – you would picture me. This experience, however, reminded me of that 30 minute iSite, observing a tiny crab struggling against the waves to reel in an unyielding mass of a potential dinner.
Vincenzo knew exactly how to weave a loop of line in the air, how to settle the fly on the surface of the water, and how long to wait before mending the line. He was in tune with the environment. And while I was struggling to keep more water from streaming into my already waterborne socks, he was one with the experience.
iSite is quite similar to fly-fishing, I find. As long as there is just the mind (Which organism should I pick for inspiration?) and body (which sense do I tune into?) in the process, there is always a seesaw of power. But as soon as there is a more unifying goal – you become a spectator of a great theatrical performance, orchestrated by nature.
Consider the difference between being fixated on coming up with a great idea as a result of an iSite (catching a big fish) or coming to self-knowledge (enjoying the mastery and the mystery of the process). Given the fact that human nature needs to make mistakes in order to learn, the first intention or spirit is set up for failure already, where the second is set up for a success. A good example of that is my iSite exercise for the First Biomimicry Biweekly Challenge – after a day of observing nature, I ended up drawing inspiration from a book.
Not that wanting to come up with an innovative idea is a bad goal. But when it is a secondary goal to becoming more observant, the experience changes remarkably. That primary goal is the special attitude within the experience of iSite, which turns your iSite into meditation, and meditation into a great idea.
Designers, be prepared to take a journey of exploration
What has always fascinated me about biologists is their tendency for keen observation. This ability to see beyond the obvious is the foundation for a successful iSite. Where I once saw leaves, gravel, grasses and rock, I learned to see a masterfully orchestrated mosaic of shapes, textures, and tone. I also learned that every creature, no matter how small and seemingly ordinary, and every natural setting, even the most barren, possesses a unique beauty and purpose of its own.
Immerse yourself in the environment. The equipment needed for fieldwork is very simple: something to draw/write with, a sketch pad, binoculars (if you have a pair), and a camera.
Start collecting little rocks, twigs, lichen, insect corpses and other interesting things that you find on the ground. Start a personal reference lab in your design studio!
Start observing particular patterns creatures in your iSite location employ: how they cope with the weather, the season, predators. Make sure to visit the site at different times and under different conditions – from dusk till dawn, from sunlight to storm.
A Sumi-e artist once told me that he practices a centering ritual as a preparation for painting. He slowly places his bowl of ink in the proper location and begins to grind his pigment. He becomes one with the activity alone, the act of painting. This meditative ritual focuses his attention, his spirit. During iSite, by leaving all the knowledge and worries behind and concentrating fully on the present moment, you empower all your senses, which you then use to observe everything around you. A trinity is established of you, nature, and a great insight you will discover later through your sketch or a note.
Once you get used to practicing iSite, it will become second nature to you, but the real beauty is that it will fuel your imagination and creativity, which will lead to creative and imaginative ideas.