Product Design

Biomimicry

Biomimicry takes inspiration from nature to find better ways of making or doing things.  Biomimicry can work at any scale, from self-cleaning paint that mimics the micro-structure of a lotus flower, to a high-rise office tower that mimics a termite mound's ventilation structure to passively keep itself cool.  

In addition to form, biomimicry can be applied to both processes and systems. For example, a biomimetic process might involve growing an item rather than cutting it from a block of material and a biomimetic system might involve wireless sensors coordinating activities the way swarming bees do.

What Biomimicry Is and Is Not

Biomimicry is a rich and exciting method of getting new ideas and perspectives on design.  For example, Velcro was inspired by burrs from wild grasses sticking to a dog's fur--tiny hooks on one strip of Velcro act like burrs, catching the fur-like loops on the matching strip.  
 

Velcro imitates burr hooks on one side, fur on the other (images from Wikimedia Commons1,2,3)

 

Biomimicry, when done well, is not slavish imitation of nature.  Instead, it is inspiration--discovering the principles which nature uses.  For instance, when airplanes were first being invented, the best designs were not ornithopters (which precisely copy birds by having flapping wings), but the fixed-wing craft that used the physics of the airfoil (based on the cross-sectional shape of bird wings) to balance lift and drag.

Biomimicry, when done well, is also not merely about form: it is about function.  A building shaped like a duck may be entertaining, but it is not biomimetic in the way described here, unless it also derives some useful function from the shape (such as being more energy efficient, or waterproof, etc.)  The Velcro described above does not look like a burr or like a dog, yet it perfectly recreates their physics to provide strong adhesion.

 
Not everything that imitates nature does it in a useful way. (Wikimedia commons)

 

Sources of Bio-Inspiration

Often the best inspiration is found by directly observing nature--whether in an exotic terrain or in your own back yard.  However, you may not know what you are looking for, or looking at.  Most people in the design, engineering, and architecture professions are not experts in biology, so it is useful to lean on others' expertise.
 
Many resources on biomimicry exist, from books to consultants to courses to professional networks.  The following are some helpful resources

Design advice:

Books:

Doing Biomimicry Yourself

Generally speaking, there are two basic ways to do biomimicry.  The direct method is to seek out specific organisms to act as mentors, whether you seek them out in the wild or in published resources.  The indirect method is to use principles of nature that others have identified over the years.  For more information, see the links below.
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