Science and Design

Nature should inspire design on a deeper level than merely aesthetics

What would the world look like if the foundation for a designer’s education was based in biology? Nature is the best teacher. And since we now know that all useful systems have been shaped by the natural world, it’s important for designers to understand nature’s intricacies. And so, the future of design, as I see it, is interwoven with the fibers of biology, sociology, and an understanding of the human construct.

Designers like to draw inspiration from the natural world in order to create successful products. One frequently used device is biomimicry, the act of emulating natural processes to benefit the human condition with nature-inspired beauty. The designs shown here are extensions of biomimetrics and utilize living, biological systems within design as opposed to emulating them. Nature has spent thousands of years devising countless mechanisms that we have toiled to translate into industrial products.

What designers need now is a basic understanding of science in order to utilize biological systems in making our products. An example of this would be the “Tree Fab Hab”, devised by Terreform1, which enfolds its occupants in a growing tree. Based on a century-old grafting technique, the tree’s exterior will be Computer Numerically Controlled so it will take to the desired shape. Although the concept is far from fruition, it is a sensible idea. Considering that many buildings are constructed of dead trees, why not use living ones instead? This approach would increase the longevity of the structure, in addition to purifying the air, and contributing to the local ecology. On a more realistic note, French designer Mathieu Lehanneur utilizes plants that simultaneously create and purify indoor air. Philodendron and gerbera can filter the majority of indoor air pollutants, all with the help of a little water.

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These two examples are rather literal interpretations of “Science and Design.” Others aren’t so obvious: Light is the basis for the existence of most life on earth, and is an incredibly useful tool when correctly utilized. The ability of light to power, nurture, and heal has been understood by humans for centuries and still is the basis for much of our lives. Of course, human dependence on natural light has a large part to play in the design world as well. Design That Matters has hatched a clever way to cheaply (and effectively) treat infant Jaundice. Dubbed “Firefly”, this light-therapy device cures the newborn by shining a certain spectrum of blue light on him. The blue light penetrates through the skin, changing the molecular structure of the jaundice, allowing the baby to pass it through urine.

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There is a noticeable difference between designing from biological organisms and using them within a design. Typically the design community employs biomimicry solely as aesthetics, and rarely explores the full potential of biology in design. But I think that the best design thinkers are able to interpret natural systems and replicate them to benefit society. Let us, as thoughtful designers, admit that it’s impossible to invent anything finer than nature. Why not utilize that which is already perfected?

Matthew Kihm, 22, is an industrial design graduate from the Rhode Island School of Design, where he also read science, and took collaborative classes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). This, he says, gave him an understanding of design from a scientific standpoint. His goal is to use this dual interest to not merely create products but also improve America’s infrastructure.

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