Have a Design Challenge? Look to Nature.

Expert tips for emulating the natural world in digital design.

Written by Stephen Gossett
Published on Feb. 23, 2022
Have a Design Challenge? Look to Nature.

What do zebras have to do with digital credit card security? More than you might think, according to Robert Suarez.

Back when he was a senior director at design firm IDEO, Suarez would sometimes take clients on strolls through the San Diego Zoo, looking for inspiration from nature for their given design challenges. When he was working on a project with Visa, he homed in on zebra patterns and how they help individual zebras blend in within herds.

“Oh, that’s interesting,” he recalled thinking. “Is there something we can do with patterns that way, that abstracts things so people can’t see numbers?”

In one sense, Suarez was working in a longstanding tradition, called biomimicry, in which designers emulate the processes and systems of nature. You’ve probably heard of a few notable examples: the Olympic swimsuits modeled after sharks’ scale-like skin, the bullet train patterned upon the kingfisher bird, or — perhaps most famous — Velcro, which inventor George de Mestral designed in 1941 to mimic how burdock seeds stuck to some clothing.

What Is Biomimicry?

Biomimicry means borrowing forms and processes found in nature and living systems to tackle design challenges. 

But in another sense, Suarez was bucking tradition. For obvious reasons, designers tend to leverage biomimicry in physical disciplines, like architecture, engineering or industrial design. Bioinspired digital design is far rarer. After all, it’s far more intuitive to grasp how, say, a tortoise shell might have implications for packaging design than it does for building an app.

But that doesn’t mean there’s no room for biomimicry in digital design

“I absolutely believe it’s applicable across [disciplines],” said Suarez, who helped incorporate the approach into his firm’s human-centered design approach.

The results can be as striking as an undisturbed natural landscape. Success stories in the tech realm include an energy management system that mimics the swarm patterns of honey bees, a machine learning model inspired by insects’ nerve impulses and a digital government services project that emulates transitional ecosystems, where different biological communities come together in a productive fashion.

Here’s how to think about breathing natural life into digital product design.

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Biomimicry Is More Than Green Garnish

First, it’s worth understanding further what exactly biomimicry entails. Think of it as the more baked-in cousin to biophilic design.

Biophilic design is an approach that incorporates natural elements or access to nature, but doesn’t necessarily mimic how living systems operate. (Think moss walls or skylights in architecture.) Biophilia is “the innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes,” according to biologist and writer Edward O. Wilson, who coined the term. 

In other words, humans are inherently drawn toward nature and living systems.

Biomimicry certainly relates to that, but runs deeper. Essentially, it means borrowing from the natural world to solve a design problem — “the conscious emulation of life’s genius,” as biologist and author Janine Benyus first defined it. There’s a good chance that Mother Nature has already considered at least some aspect of your design challenge, the thinking goes, so you should probably ask her advice first.

For Denny Royal, a biomimicry expert and vice president of design at software firm MentorMate, biomimicry is the key that unlocks that mysterious pull that nature holds over us.

He’s an ardent fan of incorporating the Fibonacci sequence and the related golden ratio into his own work, including using the sequence to scale typography hierarchies. The fact that those patterns recur so often in nature — and are also considered so aesthetically pleasing inside and outside of nature — helps explain the lure that plants, animals and the larger physical world can hold over us. 

“We knew we were attracted to it; we didn’t know why though. Now we know why. That sequence and those spirals show up over and over and over,” Royal said.

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Biomimicry and Digital Product Design Are Natural Corollaries

Biomimicry may not have a long track record in digital design, but the principles behind the approach seem to dovetail remarkably well with general UX good practice.

The bedrock of biomimicry is what’s known as life’s principles, a framework for abstracting biological elements into design. Developed by Biomimicry 3.8, a firm co-launched by Benyus, the methodology consists of six core principles and 20 sub-principles. For example, under the core principle “evolve to survive” is “replicate strategies that work,” “integrate the unexpected” and “reshuffle information.” Sub-principles for the core guidance of “be locally attuned and responsible” include “cultivate cooperative relationships” and “use feedback loops.”

Little of that should sound like a stretch for digital designers.

“Any designer who’s been around for a while is gonna look at it and be like, ‘Yeah, duh,’” said Royal, who used life’s principles to guide the design of a digital mortgage product for a large financial institution. “For a fair amount of them, we’ve arrived at those principles anyway.”

Replicating proven strategies, for instance, is virtually synonymous with the UX hallmarks of consistency and standards and heuristic patterns, Royal noted. And feedback loops — like progress bar animations or a shopping cart icon that updates after an addition — are crucial for alerting users that their actions are successful.

“That’s a big one that a lot of designers don’t think about, particularly in the digital space,” said Royal. “That’s one that I would push the most — what does the feedback loop look like? And what’s the affordance you’re wrapping around it so [users] know the thing happened?”

Toni Ojo, a U.K.-based UX designer and researcher, dug for similar symmetry between the natural world and user experience in her dissertation. The way users expect different websites to operate similarly isn’t that different from how predators have adapted similar characteristics across species over time, and the way users associate pleasing aesthetics with usability aligns with the way numerous animals use aesthetics during courtship to prove their value, she told Built In.

That’s not to say that biomimicry is just a different way of stating what UX designers already know, but evidence that the two have plenty of natural symbiosis. From that point of understanding, designers can then begin explicitly looking toward nature for specific biological processes that might harmonize with their design challenge.

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Getting Started With Bioinspired Processes

Those kinds of happy symmetries can be fun (and useful) to spot, but how exactly can designers put the approach into action? There are a couple of ways to think about it.

One option is to go deep, by following each step of the Biomimicry Institute’s design process. The process offers a detailed roadmap of how designers should “biologize” a defined challenge, search for natural analogues, “abstract” them back into a design context and evaluate success. (There are some instances of designers starting with a biological solution and working backwards to a problem, like the inventor who modeled electronic displays after butterflies’ color structures. But those cases are rarer and less likely to occur in digital design.)

The steps can be pretty involved. One recommendation is to work with biologists or naturalists when looking toward natural forms and processes. “If you don’t have a background in the life sciences, speak with someone who does,” reads the process outline. “Seek out biology students and professors, discuss strategies with a staff person at a zoo or a natural history museum, or post a question to an online forum.”

Tips for Incorporating Biomimicry Into Digital Design

  • Consider UX challenges through the framework of life’s principles.
  • If possible, work with biology experts to “biologize” a design challenge and discover corollaries in nature.
  • Reference AskNature.org to discover biological processes and ecosystems that carry larger design implications.
  • Read natural history books, study biology and spend time outdoors.
  • Ask: What would nature do?

Most design organizations don’t have a biologist at the ready, so launching this kind of deep dive might require some convincing for the higher-ups. Plus, the fact that a multi-tiered education system exists to provide biomimicry professionals extensive training might give the impression of a too-high bar for novices.

Experts like Suarez certainly favor a more in-depth method. (He would have a biologist in tow during those zoo safaris.) But curious newcomers shouldn’t be afraid to try a light-touch approach either, he said.

First, understand the three essentials of biomimicry: emulate, ethos and reconnect. To emulate the natural world, be open to and attempt to incorporate nature’s “forms, processes and ecosystems” to the best of your ability. Think of life’s principles as a compass, and use AskNature, a collection of biological strategies, resources and biomimicry-in-action case studies, for practical guidance.

You can also internalize some of these approaches, rather than trying to sell a skeptical internal team or client on the benefit. Royal said he frequently references life’s principles without telling anyone he’s doing it. Stakeholders “don’t need to know the underlying biomimetic rationale as long as it works and solves the problem in the best possible way,” he said. “They don’t need to see the sausage-making.”

The second essential, ethos, meanwhile, simply means that biomimicry designs shouldn’t just lift from living systems — it should also support them. (“Maybe don’t use biomimicry to help produce better weapons,” as Royal said.)

Finally, reconnect essentially just means getting back to nature. “That alone will help you get a mindset, and at least help your health,” Suarez said.

Michelle Fehler, a biomimicry expert and professor at Arizona State University’s Design School, also suggests that beginners should read natural history books and learn basic biology.

Start by asking one simple question — the lodestar question of any bioinspired design work: What would nature do?

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