A design process that doesn’t take into account the environment cannot, by definition, be human-centered.

The design of any product unrelated to its sociological, psychological, or ecological surroundings is no longer possible or acceptable.”  – Victor Papanek

Design is, as any human activity, the result of a social construction and, therefore, its evolution is the reflection of the social context in which it takes place.

Irresponsible Design

The philosopher Vilen Flusser explained more than a decade ago that objects are not only objective but also inter-subjective, as they mediate between the designer and the people who interact with the objects.

This has important consequences in design, since when we create products without taking into account their social nature, overlooking the people who are going to interact with them, we are creating obstacles instead of solving problems.

Object-centered design, where success is measured solely in terms of technical quality and functionality, is, therefore, irresponsible design.

The appearance of the user

When designers began to expand their focus to include users in their design process, they soon realized that they knew nothing about people. It was necessary to get out of the comfort zone and collaborate with other kind of professionals, experts in human behavior.

Thus, in 1991, Tom Kelley proposed to include the anthropologist’s role at IDEO in order to boost the innovative capacity of the company. Since then, anthropologists, sociologists and psychologists have begun to form part of some of the major design and consulting firms.

Which user?

Human-centered design. Yes, but who are them? In most cases, the users with whom designers work are only a stereotyped and unreal image, an average user who doesn’t represent anyone.

A design that excludes 90 percent of the people is of little use. Designer Victor Papanek accused the industry and its “captive designers” of targeting a small portion of users without addressing the real needs. Advancing in time, Papanek already proposed in the 70s to design for those supposed minorities who, in fact, are majority. An invisible majority that gradually is becoming visible.

Natural design

But the consequences of a design focused on objects that only takes into account a stereotyped user go further. In this context, the designer is not able to see that products not only interact with people, but also with their environment. The irresponsibility of design is not limited to people. It is also irresponsible with the environment where people live.

To be truly responsible, design must include sustainable products, achieving a better ecological performance and reducing the environmental impact. A design process that doesn’t take into account the environment cannot, by definition, be human-centered.

If Tom Kelley and Victor Papanek talked about the need of creating multidisciplinary teams with sociologists and anthropologists to understand the user, environment-centered design is leading a new generation of designers to collaborate with biologists and scientists (or to become scientists themselves).

Just as human-centered design has included the user in the design process, environment-centered design is giving nature different roles.

Nature as inspiration

We must admit that, while natural design relies on efficient systems, sustainable products, simple mechanisms and closed-loop production, artificial design (created by designers) is often inefficient, unsustainable, and unnecessarily complex.

Human design is based on processes to manufacture and process materials invasive for the environment and people, consumes a large amount of resources and generates products and waste that cannot be reused and damage the environment.

In this regard, a sociology professor of mine used to tell us, “look at what others have done and, if it works, copy it.” Nature has already done so, and it certainly works. It is for this reason that the human being has always sought inspiration in nature to solve design challenges.

AskNature is an online catalog of curated biological strategies created by The Biomimicry Institute to look for inspiration from nature for life-friendly solutions. Here we discover how learning from termites can help us create sustainable buildings, the Shinkansen Bullet Train, the fastest train in the world, imita a kingfishers o mosquitos to create “a nicer needle”.

Nature as technology

But nature is not only a source of inspiration. Living organisms, such as bacteria, fungi, algae or cells, can be incorporated into the design process to produce more sustainable materials and products. It is about designing “living technologies” that don’t to use intensive industrial processes.

Although the use of organic materials is nothing new, a new generation of designers is now exploring how to integrate nature into human activity in a way that is beneficial to both. An example of biodesign is BioMASON, a biotechnology start-up manufacturing company that employs microorganisms to grow biologically controlled structural cement, without emitting greenhouse gases, and without the depletion of non-renewable resources.

Nature as a co-designer?

Physarum polycephalum is a slime mold that grows over bacteria, spores or anything it can eat, to digest them. To continue growing and exploring, the Physarum transforms its tendrils into a network of tubes. Those tubes carrying a higher volume of nutrients will expand, while those that are little used eventually disappear.

In 2000, a team led by Toshiyuki Nakagaki and Atsushi Tero at Hokkaido University (Japan), placed the Physarum in the centre of a Petri dish with oat flakes corresponding to the locations of major cities around Tokyo and modelled water, mountains and other traffic obstacles.

For 26 hours, the slime mold grow, self-optimising towards a web of lines that interconnected the oat flakes finding the shortest path. The visual similarity to the Tokyo rail system was striking.

Can we use an organism as a biological computer?

During my last years at the Faculty of Sociology of the UAB (Barcelona), I was part of a research group that used computer social simulation to understand, generate and predict aggregated social patterns. Through our knowledge of social behavior, we coded “people” with simple rules in a limited universe and then we leave them interact for hours. The results were sometimes really surprising.

Now, learning about the experiment with the Physarum, I wonder if in a future sociologists, designers and engineers will be able to work with living organisms instead of computers. Perhaps the answer to our design challenges is not in technology, but in nature.

Biology has been creating and building for billions of years. Its creativity is quite distinct from human creativity; it has evolved extraordinarily efficient systems.” – Emma van der Leest