biomimicry: the next level of green

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Everyone is going “green“. Families are assuaging their consciences by replacing their home lighting with CFLs, businesses are buying out of conscience by purchasing carbon offsets, and eco-companies are selling conscience on every imaginable level. Despite the varying motives for this trend, it is one that appears to be sticking around.

- It is important, I think, to differentiate “green” and “sustainable” before we continue. “Green” (eco-friendly, low-impact, etc.) focuses on reducing our impact on the environment. A lofty goal worth working for. “Sustainable” is more of a methodology for innovation that seeks to understand and utilize the complex systems of the environment to better incorporate new technology into it. Thus, successful sustainability would render being “green” unnecessary. -

As I was listening to NPR the other day, they broadcast a story on biomimicry. The idea of biomimicry is to derive inspiration and solutions from nature for sustainable innovation. Essentially, when faced with a dilemma, we ask, “What would nature do?” For example, when faced with the dilemma of liquid storage, nature provides us with myriad solutions, ranging from the snail to the banana to lettuce. Lettuce is 98% water, but when punctured, the leaf does not leak. Imagine if we could produce packaging that, instead of employing the traditional method of thicker leakage barriers (and thus excess materials), could utilize the structural matrix of the lettuce leaf to render the vessel leak-proof?

Or, more pertinent to this blog, let’s examine nature’s construction of vibrant color in the peacock. All the colors of the peacock are actually comprised of just one brown pigment, melanin. The secret to those vibrant hues lies in the microstructure of the feather. This allows light to bounce off of the structure in a way that produces vivid blues and purples and greens. What’s more, this is done without dyes, is 100% permanent, safe, and edible! Imagine if we could create packaging for food on this model, so that you could eat the packaging along with the food! Or, imagine if magazines were printed in a manner that never required recycling to return to nature?

The introduction to this radio broadcast mentioned that the narrator met Janine Benyus (founder of the Biomimicry Institute, a collaboration between biologists and innovators) at a national graphic design conference. My ears immediately perked up. Though the story focused primarily on packaging/product design and structural design, I wondered how this concept can be applied to my trade. How can graphic designers employ biomimicry? The answer is twofold:

Concept:

Inspiration is all around us. Nature provides us with endless combinations of shapes and colors and textures. It is possible to incorporate these basic yet elegant images into our design, without being pigeon-holed hippie artists. The vision for biomimicry in graphic design is to subliminally promote respect for the natural world by incorporating nature into visual design.

This is not a new phenomenon and has been utilized for decades, again for myriad motives. Combined with color theory, abstract symbolism is used by corporations to portray a very deliberate image to the marketplace. A prime example comes from the marketing genius of multinational petroleum giant BP. BP, through the use of color and shape, managed to both subliminally portray itself as sustainable (yeah, right) with the liberal use of the color green, and to incorporate the sacred lotus blossom into its image. Though my sensibilities are offended by this double blasphemy, I must admit it is marketing genius. Below:

lotus flower

the sacred lotus flower

BP logo

BP logo

So how can we use our powers for good? How can we incorporate natural art into human art, when often the recipient is unrelated to eco-industry? I know my own clients range from NPOs to publications to software companies, and biomimicry presents a unique challenge in design for these clients when their marketing strategies are not focused on being “green”. Below is a wonderful example, including a portion of a social service industry ad and its biomimicry inspiration:

biomicicry advertising

print ad

Here the designer drew visual inspiration from the skeleton of a leaf, and the imagery was made all the more potent by the green element containing the main text of the ad. This accomplishes the concept of biomimicry without converting the subject into something it is not. We can all strive to take our cues from the natural world. Take note of color and shape next time you are in your backyard or even walking to the mailbox. How does nature construct itself visually? Art should, after all, represent life… even if abstractly.

Execution:

leaf skeleton

photo of a leaf skeleton

This element of biomicry is, for the graphic designer, much much harder. How can we find natural structure for the packaging or print materials we design for? Applying the idea of biomimicry to the end products of graphic design poses an intimidating challenge to those of us who are not inventors or structural designers. We feel we are limited by the product resources we are presented by our vendors. And perhaps we are. So must we then settle for “green” instead of biomimicry? Perhaps. And perhaps this is better than nothing?

An easy thing to do: When calling around for print bids, take bids not only on price but on availability of recycled materials or low-impact print processing. Present these options to your client. You’ll be amazed how often they will opt for the “greener” alternative.

And maybe, just maybe, by applying the concept of biomimicry to our visual design, the ideas will trickle down through the layered soil of the design industry and permeate the very roots, thestructure of graphic design. Perhaps if we insist on incorporating nature into the imagery, the innovations of the execution phase will follow.

So pay attention. Inspiration is everywhere, and you needn’t look further than your biological surroundings. Nature wrote the book on art, and perhaps it is time that we give it proper annotation in our bibliography of design.

Want to learn more?

WEBSITES

Biomimicry Institute

Package Design Magazine on biomimicry in package design

biomimicrynews.com

Biomimicry Guild

READING

Benyus, M. Janine. Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature

Gatter, Mark. Getting it Right in Print: Digital Prepress for Graphic Designers (some relevant chapters discuss environmentally-friendly inks and materials)

Papanek, Victor. Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change

EDUCATION

California College of the Arts
The College offers a course entitled “Applied Biology for Designers and Artists”. The goal of the course is to introduce students to the basic concepts of biology and relate these concepts directly to design and artistic work using the field of biomimicry.
Minneapolis College of Arts and Design
Offers an on-line course called “Biomimicry for Designers” taught by Dayna Baumeister of The Biomimicry Guild.

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