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How Biomimicry Can Inspire Digital Design

Nature has a lot to teach us about well-adapted and responsive designs. With millennia of evolutionary trial and error, the solutions produced by the natural world have been tested by the most powerful of forces, nature itself. We can be inspired by and learn from the designs nature has developed and apply them to our own digital work through a process called biomimicry. Biomimicry can make digital design more effective and beautiful, and provides services that users intuitively connect to.

Bio-What? Definitions and Origins of Biomimicry

Biomimicry is a big word for a basic concept. Simply put, biomimicry is learning from and emulating nature’s forms, processes, and ecosystems to design elegant solutions to problems we face every day.  

The idea of using nature as inspiration for design is not new. Leonardo da Vinci’s Fibonacci Series and Golden Ratio, revolutionized how innovators create aesthetically appealing designs through the mathematics of nature. The spiraling shapes of nautilus shells, budding flowers, and beyond have been mimicked for centuries in art as well as design.

Leonardo da Vinci design anatomy
This anatomy sketch by Leonardo Da Vinci shows a clear inspiration from nature. (Credit: JanakaMaharageDharmasena)

In recent years, biomimicry has become more and more crucial to developing the next wave of sustainable solutions in nearly every field of design. In Japan, the Shinkansen Bullet Train took inspiration from the narrow profile of a kingfisher’s beak, resulting in a quieter and more energy efficient train.

The engineering firm Arup built an entire shopping center in Zimbabwe based on the natural convection ventilation system of termite mounds. The building has no conventional air-conditioning or heating, yet stays regulated year-round with 90% less energy consumption than a conventional building its size.

Speedo famously incorporated biomimetic sharkskin into a line of swimsuits for the 2008 Olympics. The technology was so effective – with 98% of medals that year won by swimmers wearing the sharkskin – that the tech has since been banned in Olympic competition.  

So, what can we web designers draw from nature as inspiration for digital design? Here are my observations and ideas:

The Innovation Engine of Organic Design

Natural selection is an innovation engine, pushing the development of species. Advantageous traits give one organism an edge over the others. Natural selection is the reason nature is the master of innovation. It’s trial and error on a massive scale. The internet has its own evolutionary system. Trends rise and die out, leaving only the strongest. It’s a tough world out there, to say the least. Take Reddit for example. It’s not winning any beauty awards, but Reddit thrives because it is an incredible source of knowledge in nearly every field imaginable. Like the Blob Fish (yes, it’s really called that) Reddit is ugly because it doesn’t need to be pretty in order to survive.

screenshot Apple iPhone webpage
Apple has long understood how effective the right shape can be in design.

On the other hand, animals have also developed a sense of beauty. The beautiful plumes of birds, large antlers of stags, and striking colors of some insects are all examples of traits evolved for the purpose of attracting attention.  Apple employs this technique very well, with exceptionally image-driven design. Their careful curation of beautiful photography and purposeful color palettes draws attention to sparse yet crucial content.

Sensing, Responding, and the Power of Shape

In nature, many creatures have innate abilities to sense and respond to their environment. Locusts have the ability to see many more images per second than humans. To us, it would be like watching everything happen in slow motion. In the digital space, this is similar to algorithms that sense user behavior and interfaces that adjust to meet their needs. Like a crab leaving trails in the sand, users leave behind tracks that we can use to determine their behavior on a given interface, and then design to meet their specific needs.

digital spore surface for code report
Organic code-generated art in web design created this biomimicry example.
(Design: musHo, Art: Daniel White)

The shapes of objects in your design can send messages to the user that they may not even be aware of. Organic shapes, representative or inspired by things found in nature, are more free flowing and less symmetrical. These types of shapes add innate harmony and visual interest to a design. A spiral, for example, is commonly found in nature (think snail shells and hurricanes) and represents growth, life, and transformation.

Fertile Ground for New Ideas

Like nature, digital design must take into account both functionality and beauty. Atlantic BT has given me the opportunity to find the balance between aesthetically pleasing and functional design to produce the best possible result. In my work, slowing down like a locust flying through a swarm of data, and observing patterns of behavior is key to designing for the needs of the user. Adding elements of nature to design interfaces, even in abstracted forms can inform the way a user feels and even interacts with a system.

If the sky was the limit (pun intended)… I would design like a tree. When the conditions are right, life flourishes; as does design. Like a tree putting down solid roots in the soil, I put a heavy emphasis on the beginning of every project. The firm foundation of brainstorming and early concepts allows my design process to move and grow. Trees may seem immovable and rigid at first glance, but on the contrary, they are quite dynamic. When you look closer you will see that trees are constantly adjusting to their environment. They adjust how much water and nutrients to absorb, where to spend their energy and even pivot towards the sun to get the right amount of light. That is how I approach my projects; flexible yet sturdy, efficient yet thorough, functional yet beautiful.

Side of a large tree
The ecosystem of a tree gives me all kinds of ideas that I’d love to incorporate in my design work.

Humans have the distinct advantage of being able to learn from nature’s masterful application of design. Nature has essentially done all the hard work for us. It has had all the time in the world (literally) to make the most effective and beautiful design solutions. So take a look around, no really, look around you! Great ideas await you outside of your computer screen.

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We would love to hear your thoughts and ideas about biomimicry in the digital world! Feel free to comment below or contact the author, Maris Hall, via our contact form.