Nature-based Design

I love being inspired by other designer’s work. However, I feel that design inspiration as of late, feels too based on the subtle deviations of previous forms of…design inspiration. Additionally, many forms of inspiration appear to be hyper-focused around an omni-channel approach, housed within a bevy of device sizes. Don’t get me wrong, there are some extremely cool design-driven solutions happening in the industry, but the “cooler” they are, the more editorial they seem to be – custom structure and layout (print). I want to propose a change in where, and how, we gather inspiration.

Tom Uglow, Creative Director at Google Creative Labs gave a Ted talk in May 2015 about creating solutions that extend beyond the contemporary devices available. Much of the dialogue focused on integrating innovative technology into the world around us, into physical objects which are not only simple, but familiar.

Design Into Nature

Tom mentioned an interesting example of this technology integration, where his children may navigate their way through a digitally enchanted forest. The forest he describes would be fully outfitted with a user-centric, two-way comms AI interface; an immersive, invisible user interface as the experience. This presents an interesting paradigm where nature, something so familiar and fundamental to mankind, is a catalyst for consuming information. This is a brilliant perspective and I believe much will come from this idea. However, I want to present an alternative approach, instead of focusing on technology and nature from an outside-in perspective, what if we flipped that paradigm where the latter inspires the former?

Nature into Design

I was raised on a cattle ranch in Central Illinois. My father who founded, operates and evolves this ranch, believes that instead of driving productivity and profitability through man-made solutions, we allow nature to be our guide. He started with around 400 acres and integrated this philosophy into a tactical strategy, to take the land back to its state, before human intervention. Without going into specifics of the process, which took many years, the outcome resulted in a resurgence in the native species, flora and fauna that had once inhabited this micro-ecosystem for millennia. The results on his cattle operation were transformative. By allowing nature to be his teacher, guide, and inspiration in this journey, his cattle’s health and production has evolved to a point where his direct involvement is very limited. As a shepherd tends to a flock, he only intervenes to provide nature-based management – routing water from a private pond on the property into the various pastures, assisting in calf delivery, and moving cattle through a buffalo-inspired grazing pattern. His cattle management philosophy is inspired and driven by what nature teaches and provides. Needless to say, Freeman Bros Ranch is one of a few generationally-organic (USDA Certified) cattle ranches in the country. Spanning nearly one thousand acres, this ranch’s success is attributed to a strong nature-centric foundation.

The previous two examples depict opposite approaches to how we look at nature’s impact on learning. The first shows how man can integrate technology into nature for learning. The second depicts a theory of how we can allow nature to inspire the solutions we create, which is where my theory begins. How can nature inspire our design?

Setting the Foundation for Nature-based Design

Nature-based design is a theory which spans from the philosophy of an idea’s origin, to the surface-level aesthetic treatments of tone, hue and saturation. As accessibility of information widens, designers and developers from around the world are looking for means of smarter, lighter systems, that connect people to information. These solutions are embodied within phones, tablets, wearable devices and smart AI systems, which communicate through voice and touch. These solutions all possess a constant, all have evolved from and been inspired by, man-made devices. Well they have to, right? What if they didn’t?

It seems we place focus on creating innovative digital solutions based on what technology “is” and “allows”, as opposed to what it “should be.” Our evolution of technology has followed a relatively linear path; quick, but sequential. Instead of subtly shifting along a path, what if we change direction entirely?

A direction-change proposes more abstract, theoretical reasoning, such as taking things that may be “physically impossible” and challenging the convention behind such a stance. As humans, we tend to believe, “what we know to be true,” ideas that are proven by scientific reasoning and sensory solutions – “see is believing,” or better yet, “experiencing is believing.” I challenge convention to ideate around creating solutions inspired by our origins and phenomena that occur around us, that we may have never perceived as “instructional.” But what is a theory without justification? Allow me to propose an example of reasoning, among dozens.

Inspiration from Ants

An article written by Ed Yong in 2016, “Ants Write Architectural Plans Into The Walls of Their Building” describes how ants intuitively construct their surroundings from behavioral cues of peers. Through “stigmergy,” where animals coordinate and communicate through behavioral triggers, ants are able to create massive structures, complete with chambers, pathways, helical ramps, and air-conditioning systems. Ed’s article referenced the research of Guy Theraulaz, who has provided ground-breaking scientific research into the behavior of ants since the early 1950’s. Being fascinated by this phenomena, I “dug deeper.” Emily Singer, referenced Theraulaz’s findings, along with several other research studies, in a 2014 article, “The Remarkable Self-Organization of Ants.” In this article, she cites several studies of how researchers and scientists are investigating means of creating smarter, more sustainable infrastructure solutions, such as buildings, bridges, and tunnels, by learning from ants. Toward the end of Emily’s article, she writes a statement that is profound to the nature-based design theory, “Dynamic ant architecture might also provide insight into how to make buildings more adaptive, changing its properties based on how many people are inside, for example.”

Allowing ourselves to think freely, while referencing other naturally occurring phenomena, may present new methods of creating digital solutions. For example, as code and platform sophistication continues to advance, the display layer between content and consumer is evolving, forming much more personalized experiences. Ants are able to intuitively create structures which adapt to the needs of the colony. Through that same lens, we are now able to take a similar tact, by allowing platforms to morph to the needs and preferences of the user. Although this type of personalization is still in its infancy, it serves as the beginning of intuitively-generated experiences and interfaces.

Based on the previous example, I would like to go a step further, to expose the potential of ants being inspiration to design. Creating learnable, customizable platforms is achievable based on the behavior tracking capabilities of “smart” systems. We see these smart systems in many personalized platforms; for example, most social media and news sites use this type of learnable platform. However, the peer-to-peer behavior influencing example has additional implications for the social connectivity of individual, across an omni-channel journey. As ants perform through stigmergy, we can theoretically design a platform, with representative algorithms, that incorporates the user journeys of others. Instead of architecting solutions for a single individual or static persona type, we can create macro-behavioral pathways that map back to the visitor’s search-follow behavior. Integrating these two ant-inspired approaches, a solution can be conceptualized that not only is customizable and learnable to the current user, but adapts and morphs to the behavior patterns of the user, relative to the his/her peers.

A New Approach to “Experience”

I believe this orientation trend is another step closer to experiences activated through an “invisible experience.” Please note, an “invisible experience” is not to be confused with voice activated platforms, such as Apple’s Siri, Google Voice, Window’s Cortana, Amazon’s Echo, and IBM’s Watson. These previous examples have swapped the visual interface, for an auditory response platform – invisible, but still present. From a psychological perspective, visual and tactile interactive interfaces will always serve as an ideal medium for users to interact with and experience information (imagery, content, videos, etc.). Therefore, the “invisible experience,” in this example, speaks to an experience solution, with a structure that is user-dependent and flexible – intuitively creating a seamless, natural, imperceivable experience for the user.

Today’s current restrictions to the ideal invisible experience, revolve around the delivery method – the device. The next major evolution in experience and interface design will not only be device and operating system agnostic (as we see today), but device-free.

To provoke thought around nature-based design solutions, I would like to propose an experience challenge referencing the restrictions of device limitations. Countless articles refer to the experience Tom Cruise’s character interacts with in “Minority Report.” The interface he worked from was nearly freeform, floating in the air around him, in a command center type room. Looking at the interface, from a solutions architect perspective , we ask ourselves, “how would that actually be created?” Holographics? A technology more similar to Xbox Kinect, or similar solution that tracks gestures to interact with a device medium? Why don’t we think away from a building block technology and gain inspiration from…well, nature.

Although a”fluffy”example, let’s take clouds as our inspiration. Clouds are composed of condensed water, in the air, have no fixed structure, and can change and react based on a wide variety of influencing variables. The extreme dynamics of clouds is incredible, as they generate themselves! As ions of the opposite charge attract one another, is it possible to condense matter to emulate a desired interface around a focal point, or focal range? Through this process and a bit of advanced electromagnetics, an interface could be created – theoretically. This is crazy right?! No! This example is a very rudimentary idea, which breaks down mental barriers we impose on ourselves. In reality, this example is an aspect of condensed matter physics, which has been, and is currently, one of the most popular areas of scientific research.


We tend to focus on building and evolving from what is proven and “works.” I get it; why dive into the abstract when the abstract may not be possible? This is the exact statement that frustrated me. Let’s break ourselves free to ideate on “the crazy” and generate ideas that challenge conventional thought. All we have to lose, is a small amount of time where we learn more about the naturally occurring phenomena around us, which can inspire us to create more intelligent, sustainable, scalably efficient, design solutions.