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How Nature Can Inspire the Best Digital Design

Nature has a lot to teach us about well-adapted and responsive web designs. The solutions produced by the natural world have survived every test they’ve faced. Millennia of evolutionary trial and error has bested the most powerful of forces. That would be nature itself. We can glean inspiration and education from the designs nature has developed. Biomimicry is the use of these natural designs in our own digital design work. It can make our designs more effective and beautiful. It also provides services that users intuitively connect to.

Bio-What? Definitions and Origins of Biomimicry

Biomimicry is a big word for a basic concept. It’s the application of nature’s forms, processes, and ecosystems to our design work. As a result, we can design elegant, natural solutions to problems we face every day.

The idea of using nature as inspiration for design is not new. Leonardo da Vinci applied it to his Fibonacci Series and Golden Ratio. It revolutionized how innovators create aesthetically appealing designs through the mathematics of nature. Consider the art and design we’ve seen throughout the years. The spiraling shapes of nautilus shells, budding flowers, and more, have inspired design. It’s an integral part to our history.

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

Biomimicry in Modern Times

In recent years, biomimicry has become more and more crucial to the design world. It’s continued to play a large role in the development of the next wave of sustainable solutions. This is being seen in nearly every field of design. In Japan, the Shinkansen Bullet Train took inspiration from a unique source. The train’s design mimicked the narrow profile of a kingfisher’s beak. This resulted in a quieter and more energy efficient train.

The engineering firm Arup built an entire shopping center in Zimbabwe based on a…deep idea. The center emulates the natural convection ventilation system of termite mounds. The building has no conventional air-conditioning or heating. Yet, it stays regulated year-round. On top of that, it produces 90% less energy consumption than a conventional building its size.

Speedo made a now famous design choice for their line of swimsuits for the 2008 Olympics. They incorporated biomimetic sharkskin into the suits. 98% of the medals won in swimming that year were by athletes wearing the sharkskin. Due to its insane efficiency, the Olympics banned it from the 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’s an incredible source of knowledge. It covers almost every field imaginable. Like the Blob Fish (yes, it’s really called that) Reddit is ugly because it doesn’t need a pretty digital design 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. Consider the beautiful plumes of birds or the large antlers of stags. Even some insects have striking colors. These are all examples of traits that have evolved to attract attention. Apple employs this technique very well, with exceptional image-driven design. They curate beautiful photography with care and choose purposeful color palettes. This all comes together to draw attention to sparse yet crucial content.

Sensing, Responding, and the Power of Shape

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 design space, this is like algorithms that sense user behavior. Or interfaces that adjust to meet their needs. Like a crab leaving trails in the sand, users leave behind tracks. We can use this pathway to determine their behavior on a given interface. Then, we can 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 digital 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 digital design. A spiral, for example, is often found in nature. Think of snail shells and hurricanes. This shape continues to represent growth, life, and transformation.

Fertile Ground for New Digital Design 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.

How Nature Inspires Me

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 digital 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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