You are probably wondering what I have been doing for the past four months. And I’d better be doing something productive, otherwise I have no excuse for relinquishing my mania for writing. Well, I’ve been reading. A lot. And designing. A lot. I will do another entry on the latter, because I can’t wait to share the former: all the books and articles I have found extremely useful in my biologically inspired design endeavours. Why, you ask?
Because there is such concept as comfort reading when you don’t want to read anything challenging or too full of ideas. Well, my list is the opposite of that. It’s the kind of literature that energizes, excites, makes you highly uncomfortable, causes you to down a bottle Nyquil at night just to fall asleep, and continuously generates opposing ideas in your mind. And you will never look at comfort reading again. If you’d like to give uncomfortable reading a try, proceed further.
As a side note, I am omitting my reviews of books by Janine Benyus, Joseph Bar-Cohen, Michael Braungart and William McDonough and would like to focus on the lesser known literature. Chances are, if you are reading this list, you are deep into biomimicry, biomimetics, and nature inspired design already.
Grassi, W., and M. Collins. “Leonardo da Vinci.” In Nature and Design, edited by M. Collins, M. A. Atherton and J. A. Bryant. London: WIT Press.
This article must be introduced within the context of the book series that rests on the parallels between human design and nature. Collins (as the main editor of the series) considers biology and engineering as disciplines that could have an advantageous dialogue.
Leonardo da Vinci, according to Grassi and Collins, is a personification of duality between the detached nature of a scientist and the mind-set of technologist. The authors present a systematic analysis of Leonardo’s life and his broad polytechnic achievements in the disciplines of art, engineering, and natural sciences. More importantly, they illustrate Leonardo’s holistic worldview based on the universal application of nature’s laws to “machines … man … architecture … the macrocosm”.
This article retains objectivity throughout by use of relevant quotes pertaining to Leonardo’s achievements, philosophies, and personality traits. Treated as a case study, it proved very useful to me in the search of a bridge between the disciplines of biology and design. Also, the list of references provides great pasture for further research into the mind of a man who mastered the practice of biologically inspired design.
Lewens, Tim. Organisms and Artifacts: Design in nature and elsewhere. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004.
Lewens completed his PhD thesis at the Department of HPS, Cambridge University in 2001. He became a lecturer in History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge and now serves as a governor at Exeter School. In 2009, he was elected a member of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.
In this book, Tim Lewens addresses a question of teleological terminology within a discipline of biology and introduces the term the artifact model: the approach that treats the organic world as though it were designed. He concludes throughout the book that such thinking model is often useful in ascribing the meaning and proper functions to living organisms, yet needs to be used with caution.
This book is highly beneficial to any designer interested in biology, because it focuses on the design terminology in biology discipline. Moreover, the author addresses in detail similarities and differences between biological evolution and technological progress. Tim Lewens takes a critical approach to the enthusiasm around the evolutionary model of technological change to explain the intentional creation of artifacts and ponders the debate around myriad forms of design by nature.
McHarg, Ian L. Design with Nature. Garden City, NY: John Wiley &Sons, 1992.
Ian McHarg was the founder of and a professor emeritus in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning at the University of Pennsylvania. He is known as the father of ecological planning and has received numerous honorary degrees and awards, including The National Medal of Art in 1990.
Design with Nature is a pioneering work (originally published in 1969) that includes ecologically, socially, and ethically oriented theories and methodologies for design within the limits of biosphere. The premise of the text is that humans are a part of the natural world and thus should design to fit into the environment. McHarg states that form does not follow function, but rather, the two emerge together. If the form does not fit the ecology of which it is a part, the result is a project that will collapse under the weight of its incompatibility with its surroundings. McHarg proves this point with several examples of how the natural setting is capable of influencing the outcome. The book concludes with a study of a city to identify correlations between health and environment. The finding revealed a correlation between crowding, social pressure, and pathology.
This excellent book presents an insightful and practical approach to biologically inspired design and creates several questions for the reader. Firstly, how can design act as an interdisciplinary integrator and extend beyond the practice of simply being informed by natural sciences? Secondly, what is McHarg’s recommendation in regards to bridging the gap between nature and culture, stated in the article Biophilia vs. Technophilia by David Stairs?
Stairs, David. Biophilia and Technophilia: Examining the Nature/Culture Split in Design Theory. Design Issues 13, no. 3 (1997): 37-44.
David Stairs (MFA in Communication Design) is a graphic design coordinator at the Central Michigan University, an editor for an online community called Design-Altruism-Project, and an executive director for Designers Without Borders.
An article gives an introduction to The Biophilia Hypothesis and questions the possibility of “ecotechnological equilibrium”. Stairs challenges Herbert Simon’s scientific approach to design theory, stating: “Such either/or hypotheses, so prevalent in an era of information theory, are disturbing”. This article is valuable in an abundance of opposing viewpoints: technophilic (as in the case of Victor Margolin’s “product milieu”), biophilic (Edward Wilson’s “biocentric world”), and balance (Ezio Manzini’s “ecotechnological equilibrium”). Stairs also mentions Victor Papanek’s case for indigenous people, “the best designers in the world” for their practice of handicraft technology that enables them to survive in the harshest climate without compromising their link to actuality.
The paper concludes with a compromise between the concepts of “learning about the world” and “doing to the world”. The author presents a concise overview of the struggle between ecological and design worldviews and poses a question of whether the balance between the two is attainable.
Wahl, Daniel C. Bionics vs. biomimicry: from control of nature to sustainable participation in nature. WIT Transactions on Ecology and the Environment, 87, 289-298.
Daniel Christian Wahl has ten years of experience as a sustainability researcher. Originally trained as a biologist at the University of Edinburgh (1996), he completed his PhD on whole systems design for sustainability in 2006 at the Centre for the Study of Natural Design (University of Dundee). Since 2007 he is the academic director of the Findhorn College and a member of Gaia Education.
This paper suggests that bionics and biomimicry represent two distinct approaches to biologically inspired design, mainly due to different conceptions of the relationship between nature and culture. According to Wahl, the aim of science is shifting towards informing appropriate participation in natural process (argued by Benyus in Biomimicry: Innovation inspired by nature), rather than the enabling of new technologies of prediction, manipulation and control (covered in Bar-Cohen’s Biomimetics: biologically inspired technologies). Wahl asserts that the transition towards sustainability should be facilitated by design and technology and informed by science, ethics, and the transdisciplinary integration of multiple perspectives.
Wahl boldly states that sustainability is the wicked problem of design in the 21st century and urgently requires an adaptation of nature’s lessons to bring about radically different worldviews, value systems, intentions, and life styles.
A clear philosophical distinction between the disciplines of bionics and biomimicry is laid out in this paper, and portions of the text can be used as introductory-level materials for a debate. It could have further benefited from a more in-depth exploration of the two concepts with pertinent case studies.
Wahl, Daniel C. Eco-literacy, ethics, and aesthetics in natural design: The artificial as an expression of appropriate participation in natural process. Centre for the Study of Natural Design, University of Dundee.
This article offers a unique approach to design that promotes aesthetic of health (“salutogenesis”), based on ecological literacy. Wahl shuns the dyadic model of artificial vs. natural and introduces the concept of triad, bridged by ecological ethics and aesthetics of participation that also considers cultural, social, and economic values. The author introduces the term “Natural Design Movement” that brings together the diverse fields of design activity and confronts the reader with the important question of ethical basis for design. Wahl asserts design as an interdisciplinary facilitator, quotes Ranulph Glanville: “science is a special branch of design and not design a special branch of science.” and reminds of Herbert Simon’s definition of design as “the science of the artificial”.
The author goes on to juxtapose biocentric and anthropocentric worldviews in the context of ecological ethics and states that awareness breeds a sense of responsibility in a designer. He concludes with the general analysis of relevant literature and avoids calling Natural Design a new field of specialization. Rather, Wahl believes that it is a unity of all the currents of 21st century design, “which are contributing to the transformation of human society towards sustainable practices”.
This article is a great collection of philosophical views in the field of sustainable design over the last fifty years. It unravels the participatory worldview mentioned in Bionics vs. Biomimicry article and presents the topic within a historical context. Wahl’s analysis has triggered my own struggles with the discipline of biomimicry, such as the integration of culture within the Life’s Principle Circle and the role of competition in natural systems and its translation to engineered systems.
Wilson, Jamal O., and David Rosen. “The effects of biological examples in idea generation.” Design Studies 31 (2010): 169-186.
Georgia Tech’s Center for Biologically Inspired Design brings together a group of interdisciplinary biologists, engineers and physical scientists who seek to facilitate research and education for innovative products and techniques based on biologically inspired design solutions. The participants of CBID believe that science and technology are increasingly hitting the limits of approaches based on traditional disciplines, and biology may serve as an untapped resource for design methodology, with concept testing having occurred over millions of years of evolution.
Wilson and Rosen introduce the principle of local and distant analogies as tools for idea generation, asserting the advantage of innovative component in the former. They also cite other literature where the number of distant analogies used in the design process, was positively correlated with the novelty of the resulting design. The concept sets the stage for a study conducted with mechanical engineers in evaluating the hypothesis of novelty and variety of designs following the presentation of examples from the world of biology. The authors proceed to prove the alternative hypothesis through qualitative research with results indicating the existing correlation.
The article is a good resource of research methodology in the field of biologically inspired design.
Next up: the reviews of
- Cats’ Paws and Catapults by Steven Vogel
- Invention and Evolution by Michael French
- Biologic by David Wann
- Design in Nature: Learning from trees by Claus Mattheck
- Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows
- More articles!