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).

  • Now, choose one of the biopolymers for further investigation. I’ll pick collagen, just because it is one of the most applicable proteins you can find and is the most abundant protein in the mammalian body. So, how is collagen structured?

Author: Alëna Konyk. Structural order of collagen.

  • Seek collagen’s function. Where can it be found? Bone is one such good example. What is the bone’s principle function? To resist mechanical forces and fractures. Although different determinants of bone quality are interrelated, especially the mineral and collagen, it is the orientation of collagen fibers that is crucial at times when the bone is submitted to mechanical forces. So, the key insight here is not the amount of collagen, but the orientation of its fibers.

Author: Alëna Konyk. Diagram illustrating the structure of a long bone (femur) and irregular bone (body of vertebra). Inspired by (Vaughan, 1981) and (Hench & Jones, 2005).

  • Investigate various deformations of a bone. Seek the reason for these deformations.

Author: Alëna Konyk. Highly schematic diagrams of loads on bones, shown by arrows, and the resulting deformations. Thick lines are the undistorted shapes, thin lines the distorted ones.

  • Go deeper. Investigate the subtle differences in subtypes of materials. For example, collagen that forms fibrils can be divided into three types, which provide mechanical support and control cell adhesion, cell migration and tissue repair. Type I can be found in skin, tendon, and bone; type II is predominant in cartilage; and type III is a vital component of the blood vessel wall; type IV is found in basement membrane of epithelial tissues and does not form fibrils. Although, designers are often satisfied with generalized terminology, it does not provide insight. Organisms employ various tactics to make a seemingly identical material. Let’s take silk as an example – it’s enjoying the media spotlight as one of the most fascinating natural materials. Here is a simplified diagram of a silkworm and a spider spinning a seemingly identical fiber.

Author: Alëna Konyk. Examples of fibers produced by silkworms and spiders. Look identical, don't they?


As you can see, the more you dive into a particular material the more you start connecting the dots, branching out, and converging again. This brings about a whole array of inspirations and allows a designer to truly understand the organism they are inspired by, instead of generalizing and assuming its purpose and function. And, of course, the more we learn, the more humble we become. And isn’t that what designer should strive to be?

Let me end with a quote by Richard Dawkins:

The world and the universe is an extremely beautiful place, and the more we understand about it the more beautiful does it appear. It is an immensely exciting experience to be born in the world, born in the universe, and look around you and realise that before you die you have the opportunity of understanding an immense amount about that world and about that universe and about life and about why we’re here. We have the opportunity of understanding far, far more than any of our predecessors ever. That is such an exciting possibility, it would be such a shame to blow it and end your life not having understood what there is to understand.

Thank You:

Hardy, J. G., Romer, L. M., & Scheibel, T. R. (2008, August 9). Polymeric materials based on silk proteins. Elsevier , 4309–4327.

Kumar, M. N. (2000, June 25). A review of chitin and chitosan applications. Elsevier: Reactive and functional polymers , 1–27.

Ratner, B. D., Hoffman, A. S., Schoen, F. J., & Lemons, J. E. (Eds.). (2004). Biomaterials Science: An Introduction to Materials in Medicine (2nd Edition ed.). San Diego, California, USA: Elsevier Inc.

Sionkowska, A. (2011, May 25). Current research on the blends of natural and synthetic polymers: Review. Elsevier , 1254– 1276.


One thought on “Illustrated guide to biopolymers: structural elements of biological systems

  1. Great post! You are doing a great job building bridges between biology and design and creating a common language.

    … I see potential for a book 🙂

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