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Pizza Lunch Recap: Design by Nature

June 7, 2018

At Planet, our interests and curiosity extend in diverse directions. Every month, a Planeteer hosts a Pizza Lunch*, where they wax poetic about their passions, while the rest of us stuff our faces.

Our new Account Planner, Holly Lang, stepped up recently to fill us in on one of her favorite subjects: biomimetic design. Today we’re sharing a synopsis of Holly’s inspiring talk in her own words.

*Full disclosure: Pizza Lunches these days often feature a non-pizza menu, but the name persists. We just needed to clear the air.

By working toward the designer’s golden rule, “form follows function,” creatives are shooting at a moving target. What constitutes “good form” changes faster than fashion trends, so we can still make bad design while following this rule.

Nature removes the subjectivity by writing this rule differently, declaring that aesthetic and function should be equally dependent on each other. When that perfect balance is achieved, the host will thrive and pass on its genes. This establishes a very simple formula to actually quantify if nature’s design was done well: How long has it survived? If the design exists in nature today, it is a champion on showcase—outlasting its ancestors, predators, and natural disasters.

Simplicity and reproducibility are key to nature’s designs working so well and lasting so long. There are only a handful of patterns that act as the foundation for all of the natural diversity around us, including:

Fractals: When small patterns repeat themselves and accumulate, they create progressively larger versions of the same pattern. Think of broccoli; each floret is a mini version of the entire head of broccoli. This is the easiest recipe for an organism to follow while it grows.

Partnerships: When multiple “objects” (cells, people, planets, etc.) have similar functions, they group together to create a larger unit with a specialized function. Partnering allows simple tissues to sculpt the heart that pumps your blood, and for thousands of neurons to wire together and become a brain.

Branching: Energy flows through branched pathways, allowing for quick movement across large spaces, while also reducing the overall risk when a pathway is damaged. Branching patterns can be found anywhere that energy flows, from the nervous system, to lightning, to (of course) tree branches.

Cracking: Every surface—from skin to pavement—has to withstand pressure and is at risk of breaking under that pressure. Cracking patterns are the natural system for distributing pressure evenly across a surface.

Spirals: Spirals have different benefits depending on the pitch, or how wide they are. Tight spirals, like snail shells, allow maximum growth in the least amount of space. The golden spiral—a wider spiral—positions flower petals for optimal exposure to sun, water, and pollination.

For a practical look at how nature and science can inspire great creative work, we sampled products and designs with clear ties to nature. We also explored projects done by Dan Goods and David Delgado from The Studio at NASA JPL. Their projects have largely included installations that allow viewers to experience beauty and curiosity in a new way.

Designers have been turning to nature for millennia because when in doubt, nature has probably already done it—and better.

Posted in Design, Culture