Biodesign is a new and emerging field of design that applies research from biosciences. Biomimicry has, for a long time, been used by designers to apply what we learn from nature to design challenges in architecture, engineering, medicine and many other fields. Biodesign intends to go beyond mimicry to partnership with living organisms.
There is a concept called “affordances” in design. The affordances of an object is anything you can do with it. A pen affords many actions and uses; you can make marks on a page to communicate or express your creativity, but also you could throw it across the room, or twirl it between your fingers. Designers consider the affordances of new products as they are developed, but biodesign applies affordances (or tropisms) of life that have been perfected through evolution, so they can be used to help address human needs.
For example, when the Racomitrium canescens moss is dry, its leaves close. The moss then responds quickly to a spray of water: you can watch the leaves open over a few seconds. A spray of water can be digitally controlled using a cheap microntroller, and therefore it creates an opportunity for a living display. This display would be low-resolution and have a slow refresh rate (it takes seconds for the leaves to open, but minutes for them to close, depending on the environment). This presents opportunities for design, perhaps to present slowly changing information, or for displays that don’t create light pollution. This kind of tangible manifestation of data urges the designer to consider what information would be interesting to present in this context and how might it be represented in a way that the end-user may find useful.
Biodesign approaches design problems using the affordances of living things. This could range from interactive systems created from genetic circuits created with bacteria, to physical and material applications of mycelia, bacteria or plants.
Biodesign as a method requires an interdisciplinary approach that follows three stages. First, a user centred inquiry explores the needs and context of the user and forms a description of a space suitable for scientific research. The intractable problems of user needs are more suited to design methods, but the design process can be used to frame a question suited to the scientific method. This second stage, the scientific inquiry is used to understand how biosciences are applied, possibly by creating new materials, designing genetic circuits, or modifying and functionalising microorganisms. The scientific process defines the conditions needed for the living organism to thrive, which informs the final stage, designing the product, which not only allows for the organism to participate and survive, but addresses the needs of the user. This process is followed in examples collected in recent research, that demonstrates applications of synthetic biology, finds applications from new materials, or reframes existing problems as design challenges, though they may have medical or scientific solutions.
The challenge is identifying the role of designers in collaboration with scientists in the future, and how design methods can frame a space for scientific investigation. But this challenge will pay off as biodesign is identifies new kinds of applications of biosciences, particularly through synthetic biology, to address the needs of everyday users and create living and tangible interactive systems.
Dr Phillip Gough is a Lecturer in Biological Design at the Affective Interactions Lab, in The University of Sydney School of Architecture Design and Planning. He is an interaction design researcher in the Discipline of Design, and collaborates with scientists, clinicians and statisticians. Phil uses design to support human wellbeing, particularly related to the evolving nature of the home and work, using biodesign, data visualisation, digital fabrication and Human-Computer Interaction. He is the Program Director of the Biological Design Major, a program launched in 2020 that allows students to apply life science research to human problems through design thinking methodologies.