Biomimicry as a Tool for Mindful Design in the Anthropocene

The challenges of the Anthropocene call upon all of us as creatives, designers, and scholars to design new methods of survival. In this work I seek to explore how the process of design, broadly conceived, can solve vital problems, improve human and non-human lives, and even benefit the planet we share.

This work, presented as an illustrated manifesto, draws upon literature in the study of the Anthropocene, biomimicry, and design thinking in order to create a set of design rules, which I call mindful design. Heavily influenced by geographic context, mindful design is adaptable to feedback and prioritizes the overall health of the Earth and its inhabitants. Biomimicry is a more recent term for the long-established practice that draws inspiration from the natural world in order to guide human-made design.

My work explores both the potential and the limitations of the field as a tool for problem-solving design in the Anthropocene. I put these design rules into practice in a visual book, combining writing with photographs, diagrams, and comic-style illustrations to accessibly communicate my ideas to a broader audience.

Mindful design is an ever-important tool that now holds even more weight in moving us closer to, or further from, the predicted futures of climate catastrophe in the Anthropocene.


Artist Statement

As I am completing this thesis project — that has taken the majority of my academic and creative energy for the past year — the world is in the midst of a global pandemic. These unprecedented times have plunged humanity into a world of uncertainty that we do not know how to grapple with. The novel coronavirus is an invisible force that has completely changed public spaces all across the world. Entire cities and countries are in lockdown, leaving behind urban landscapes that sit eerily empty. We did not directly create this virus, but the things and systems we have created — airplanes and global travel, our expensive and inequitable U.S. healthcare system, an ill-equipped and indecisive government — are exacerbating problems and leaving us unable to effectively respond. Welcome to the Anthropocene. 

Even as we navigate this current pandemic we are looking ahead to an increasingly uncertain and still terrifying future. There is no normal to which we might return once this ordeal is over. Unpredictable extreme weather events, significant sea level rise, the decline of the fossil fuel economy, and rapidly decreasing biodiversity loom on the near horizon. Each a direct result of unsustainable human action and design. Design got us here, and if we are to survive the obstacles ahead, it will have to lead us forward. 

Underlying this project is my quest for tangible answers — concrete ways of designing our way out of this mess. I seek to explore how the process of design, broadly conceived, can solve problems, improve human and non-human lives, and even benefit the planet. Many cite the process and practice of biomimicry — using the natural world to guide human invention — as a perfect solution for these modern global problems. Proponents of biomimicry argue that it not only provides a set of design guidelines for using nature’s strategies, but also has the potential to positively redefine our relationship with the natural world (Benyus, 2002). Yet, biomimicry as a field is broad and vaguely defined, which can make it hypocritical at times. Critics of biomimicry, such as Freya Matthews (2011), Elizabeth Johnson (2015), and Jesse Goldstein (2015), rightfully point out that many can and have used biomimicry selectively in order to greenwash capitalist and militarist production. In my work, I was motivated to explore both the potential and the limitations of biomimicry as a problem-solving design tool. 

As a geographer I am drawn to engaging with the varied ways in which humans shape and are shaped by the places that we inhabit. The field of geography at its core is grounded in placemaking and storytelling — much like the field of design. Place-based design is crucial to building sustainable futures, and we need geographers to help navigate us there. As biomimicry is intrinsically place-based, geographers have the potential to influence this field further. 

This book is my design manifesto. It is the result of academic research, a mix of long-held passions, and a need to cohesively define my own design philosophy. As a practicing designer, I am painfully aware that the choices I make have consequences. Design is problem-solving with no perfect solution, and this project is driven by my need to critically analyze the choices I, and others, make in our work that shapes our world. My hope is that this examination can help us all adjust our choices in ways that alter our collective future. 

Drawing from a number of different fields and sources, I revisit specific topics that have captured my attention over the past few years of my education. Monsters and ghosts, jellyfish, architecture, microbes, and fungi — these interests once seemed random, but now are woven together through this work. All of them give insights into new ways of learning about the world we inhabit today, and point towards design practices that might help us better adapt to these times. The Anthropocene is both a terrifying glimpse of the world today and in the future, and also an incredible opportunity for re-learning and re-design. 

Mindful design is what I call this collection of design principles I have drawn together, inspired by Anthropocene studies, strategic design principles, and biomimicry concepts for design. The name is inspired by John Thackara (2006), who references design mindfulness, as a way to consider the impacts on the larger picture as a part of the design process. Mindful design is what I hope to pass on to the readers of this work. It is a set of tools and values to help designers (yes, you too are a designer!) in making decisions in these unpredictable, complicated, and crucial times.  

I know that this book does not adhere to the norms of a traditional college thesis, and this is a conscious decision. Instead of a formal research paper, I present my inquiry, findings, and conclusions in the form of a visual book. This book combines writing with photographs, diagrams, and comic style illustrations. I choose this approach for two main reasons. First, this creative format fits into the arguments I draw from research on the Anthropocene. The age of the Anthropocene has blurred traditional binaries, and in order to adapt to this time we must form new relationships as well. The Anthropocene is inherently an interdisciplinary field, drawing in researchers from the hard sciences, the social sciences, and the arts alike. Geographers such as Noel Castree (2015), Bruce Braun (2015), Elizabeth Johnson (2016), Jessi Lehman (2014), and Sara Nelson (2014), and social scientists like Donna Haraway (2014), and Anna Tsing (2017), all stress the importance of art and creativity in addressing the unique problems of the Anthropocene. In the Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet (2017), Tsing, Haraway, and others explore the role of storytelling on navigating these new landscapes of the Anthropocene. We need stories to understand the consequences of our past actions, and guide us towards the future. Without creative imaginings of the future, we have no future to work towards. In this vein, my project takes an interdisciplinary approach, combining research from Anthropocene studies, design theory and practice, biomimicry, and geography, with creative and artistic ways of presenting this information. 

Second, above all else, I am a graphic artist. My brain thinks in terms of visual spatial arrangements — much like the way geographers see the world through the organization of space. As a graphic artist, I know the importance of communicating information in a clear and beautiful presentation. When graphic design works well, information becomes accessible, and the accessibility of information for many and diverse audiences is of paramount importance in an age when we need everyone to be part of the solution. When information is accessible on many levels, people are more willing to engage with it, and as a result movements become stronger. My aim for this project is to be part of this process, so I reached beyond the traditional academic audience. 

For geographers, I hope this book encourages creative interdisciplinary action, and shows the importance of a strong relationship between the study of place and design. Jennifer Wolch (2007) argues that the field of geography is particularly well situated to help guide our cities towards a sustainable future. We have tools — theory, GIS, and spatial analysis — but we need to further engage with other disciplines to tackle the most demanding and essential challenges of our time. Yet while geographers should play a vital role in moving through the trials of the Anthropocene, we will not be able to do it alone. 

For designers and artists, I hope you find inspiration in the merging of these disciplines. We have much to offer academic and scientific fields. Our stories, imaginings, and creative spirit offer inspiration, which in turn can move these fields forward, and are especially crucial in bringing people together and encouraging them to take action. The world needs artists and mindful designers, now more than ever.

The time is now to re-design and re-learn how we make things. We can make things better — from soap to cities — for ourselves, our non-human co-inhabitants of this world, and the planet itself. 
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