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Students collaborate on sustainable product design

May 13, 2011

What happens when you integrate a class of biology and design majors?

The answer is creative tension, trial and error, innovation and, ultimately, the potential for earth-friendly designs that meet urgent needs. This is what students discovered this spring in ASU’s inaugural course in biomimicry, the practice of emulating nature to solve human problems.

"Biologically Inspired Design," taught by Adrian Smith from the School of Life Sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Prasad Boradkar and Adelheid Fischer from The Design School in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, is the first of its kind at ASU and the latest in a series of biomimicry initiatives led by InnovationSpace, a transdisciplinary education and research lab for product innovation in The Design School. Since the launching of the program’s biomimicry initiative in 2008, InnovationSpace has helped pioneer the use of biomimicry in sustainable design, business and engineering education. In 2010 the Montana-based Biomimicry Institute recognized these efforts by admitting ASU into its Biomimicry Affiliate Program. ASU is one of only six institutions worldwide to be awarded affiliate status. 

Class projects, tackled by transdisciplinary teams of designers and biologists, considered how nature could inspire solutions for problems such as reducing water consumption, mitigating urban heat island effect, regulating household temperature or utilizing solar radiation.

For Michele Fehler, who worked as a professional graphic designer before returning to ASU’s Design School to conduct graduate work in interaction design, biomimicry is a valuable tool in achieving the goal of sustainability.

“In graphic design, marketing is ‘spray and pray’ or send out as many pieces as possible and hope someone responds. We know that there is only a 3% response rate and in nature this would be a failed system,” says Fehler. “Every time I produced a postcard, I would get a stomach ache, knowing that 97% of them would be thrown away. In the end I want to do graphic design without the stomach aches.”

Biomimicry has helped Fehler to explore other alternatives. “In nature, we see more targeted communication systems,” Fehler says. “For instance, flowers have evolved to display colors that attract bees, and bees have evolved lenses to be able to pick out the flowers they need. This is a communication system without waste.”

This kind of nature-inspired solution could change the scope of a graphic designer’s job description. In the workplace, for example, designers might spend just as much time strategizing with the heads of marketing departments to better pinpoint their audiences as they do creating compelling visual designs.

Similar real-world experiences motivated Karen Ellis, an undergraduate student in the School of Life Sciences, to become interested in biomimicry. Ellis worked on a research project in which she explored inexpensive and sustainable material for diabetes wound care in third world countries.

“In the medical world everything has to be sterile and has to be disposed of after use,” says Ellis. “While, as a microbiologist, I understand why it has to be sterile, I wish we didn’t have to produce so much medical waste.”

Raphael Hyde, a senior industrial design major, discovered a new principle of full-circle product design as a result of the class.

“Waste = Food; a concept which has taught me to strategically understand how we can utilize materials at the end of their life cycle, creating better solutions that support our ecosystem and the wonderful community around us,” says Hyde.

Ellis says that the course offered her more than a new perspective on utilizing the gifts of nature. Students were exposed to the language, processes and stresses of their peers in other disciplines.

“I like the creative energy of the class, and the tension between the designers and the biology students. This tension motivates us to gather more information, rather than just presenting information in forms that only biology students will understand,” Ellis says. “This class is the epitome of what President Crow’s New American University is all about. When students in each of the disciplines let themselves go to consider the impossible – meaning biology students forget for a moment about the limits of physics and chemistry and design students forget about product limitations – what we come up with could evolve into what is possible.”

Written by Jennifer Fraser

Media Contact:
Adelheid Fischer,
Program Manager, InnovationSpace