iSite Basics: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About iSite* (*But Were Afraid to Ask)

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.

iSite: David and Goliath

This sketch was drawn on the 4th day of the workshop during the intertidal zone visit. I sat on the rock for at least 30 minutes, observing a tiny crab gathering all its might to lift a gargantuan carcass of Goliath for who-knows what kind of purpose. A Halloween costume, perhaps? It was exhilarating to observe his fidgety self, patterns on the rocks adorned with barnacles, smell the air filled with salt and iodine, and hear the sound of waves crashing upon the crab whenever he would dare to approach the Goliath. Perseverance was rewarded by victory.

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.

I never try to identify the species I draw. All the notes are added at home, when I have the need to dig deeper into the functions and behaviour of my teaching organism. Sometimes, it is incredibly hard – especially, when you are tempted to draw someone as common as a loon.

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

American Dipper observed near Vancouver, BC. Sherry Ritter's favourite bird. Author: Alëna Konyk

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!

Just some of the natural objects I have gathered over the course of iSite sessions. These have ended up on a shelf after traveling from as far as Costa Rica and Chile, and as close as a flower pot on my balcony.

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.

I went for a bike ride to Gatineau forest for my Biomimicry Challenge #1 and spotted a beautiful array of funnel webs in sun saturated grass. These filaments are normally almost invisible except when they are covered by the morning dew that makes the web sparkle. If I went later in the day, I probably wouldn't have even spotted this structure.

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.

Author: Alëna Konyk

1 thought on “iSite Basics: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About iSite* (*But Were Afraid to Ask)

  1. really cool. an excellent job. Congratulations on being so successful and intelligent

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