Crafting Design Strategies

Translating strategies from biology to design

Once you’ve identified a few biological strategies that meet your function(s) there’s an important transition you need to make in order to apply them to a design: translating the biological strategies into design strategies. This section will introduce the steps necessary to produce a design strategy from a biological strategy, and walk you through the process.

What is a design strategy?


The design strategy is the seed of inspiration that you will take forward into the creative phase of your design process.


As a reminder, a biological strategy is a characteristic, mechanism, or process that an organism or ecosystem exhibits to meet a function. A design strategy is a statement and/or sketch produced by translating key elements from a biological strategy into an explanation of the strategy that focuses on design elements.

The goal of creating a design strategy is to make it easier to translate lessons from biology into design solutions, by describing the biological strategy without relying on biological terms. This has the advantage of making cross-disciplinary collaboration easier because a design strategy is less likely to intimidate an engineer or product-designer who is not familiar with biological terms.

Example: How does nature insulate?

Here’s a simply stated biological strategy:

The polar bear’s fur has an external layer of hollow, translucent (not white) guard hairs that transmit heat from sunlight to warm the bear’s skin, while a dense underfur prevents the warmth from radiating back out.

A designer might be able to brainstorm design solutions using just that. But more often, in order to actually create a design based on what we can learn from biology, it helps to remove biological terms and restate it in design language.

Here’s a design strategy based on the same biological strategy:

A covering keeps heat inside by having many translucent tubes that transmit heat from sunlight to warm the inner surface, while next to the inner surface, a dense covering of smaller diameter fibers prevent warmth from radiating back out.

Can you see how stating the strategy this way makes it easier to translate it into a design application?

Example: How does nature protect from impact?

Here’s a more complex example based on a biological strategy about a woodpecker.

The biological strategy comes from a page on AskNature. Click the toggle below to see the summary with the key words and phrases underlined.

Biological Strategy

The high-speed drumming motion of the golden-fronted woodpecker causes a tremendous amount of stressed force on the animal, termed “incident mechanical excitations.” The hyoid bone, located in the cranium, secures and diverts vibrational forces away from the brain.

The hyoid bone is a strong, flexible bone covered in muscle that allows the woodpecker to extend its tongue out of its beak to grab food. It also serves as an attachment site for muscles around the throat, tongue, and head.

The hyoid bone begins in the nostril of the upper beak, where it divides into two parts between the eyes, and then travels over the top of the skull and around the back. At the base of the skull, the separate pieces rejoin and attach to the muscle of the tongue (see diagram). The woodpecker not only uses the hyoid bone to gather food for meals, but to protect the brain from neurological trauma. This happens in two ways.

First, when the woodpecker pecks a tree, the muscles surrounding the relaxed hyoid bone contract, propelling the tongue forward inside the beak, and forward even farther when collecting food. The tension results from the contracted muscles pulling on the hyoid bone. This tension stabilizes the cranium and spine, acting as a “seat belt” to prevent excessive movement of the brain.

Second, the hyoid bone design diverts vibrations (and any forceful impact) away from the cranium. Because of its longer length, the upper beak will absorb more of the shock than the lower beak when striking a surface. The forces will then travel up the beak where they will encounter the hyoid bone in the nostril before they hit the spongy bone in the skull. The stress forces will then travel along the path of the hyoid bone, rather than continuing to the skull, diffusing into the muscles covering the bone, or traveling to the tongue.

You can see an illustration of this strategy on AskNature.

 

Click image to enlarge.

Here’s a drawing and a design strategy statement based on the biological strategy:

To absorb and divert impact, a long, narrow, flexible band surrounded by a fibrous bundle can stabilize an object in need of protection. Vibrational forces first encounter this band as a single entity, which then splits as it encircles the object to be protected and rejoins as it ends up near the initial impact site. Upon impact, this structure tightens around a container holding the object, stabilizing the entire package, similar to how a seatbelt engages.

 

How to craft design strategies

Summarize the biological strategy

Hints and Cautions

If more than one function is represented in the strategy and you’re interested in the other functions for your project, write a separate summary for each one.

Don’t guess at what’s going on, stick with what the scientists know.

Watch for phrases like “we believe” or “we propose” as these will indicate they are speculating beyond what their data are showing. You want your design strategy to stay true to the science.

The first step to translate the biological strategy into a design strategy is to summarize the key elements from the biological research, capturing how it works to meet the function you’re interested in. To do this, you’ll need to distill the information in your research into a concise statement that describes the strategy.

In a scientific journal article, you can find relevant information and details in the following article sections: abstract, conclusion, discussion, and introduction, in approximately that order of value. Pull that information out and write a paragraph or two about the biological strategy. If you’re reading a synthesis of the science, such as that written by a science journalist, the author likely will have already gathered the relevant information. However, always try to check the original research because there might be important details, like measurements and illustrations, that will help improve your understanding and ultimately make your design better meet your needs.

Draw the biological strategy

The next step is to make a sketch showing your understanding of the biological strategy. This can be a quick sketch and could actually be a valuable exercise while you are writing the biological strategy, because it will help you visualize and then verbalize the strategy. Finding images in journal articles or online can be a big help. Sketching helps you narrow your focus to the most important lessons that can inform your design.

Write the design strategy

Hints and Cautions

Stay true to the biology.

Don’t jump to conclusions yet about what your design will be, just capture the strategy so that you can stay open to possibilities.

The third step is to turn that biological strategy into a design strategy. In this step, you will leave the biology behind but stay true to the science. The design strategy should be context-dependent, addressing the function you want to meet within the context it will be used. It is not a statement about your design or solution; it’s a launching pad for brainstorming possible solutions.

 

Draw the design strategy

After writing your design strategy, you should draw it. A drawing not only forces you to understand the strategy, but helps you communicate it within multidisciplinary teams. The drawing depicting the design strategy is not simply a copy of the biological strategy drawing—it should have all of the biology-specific information removed and focus on the functional elements.

Review the strategy

When you are done, review your design strategy with a critical eye to see if you have included all of the pertinent information and if your design strategy captures that lesson from nature that drew you to the biological strategy in the first place. That is, now that you have the design strategy, does it add to or improve on what we already know or is it “design as usual”? If it’s the latter, you might have oversimplified or overgeneralized the design strategy.

Practice exercises

The following exercises and answers will help you better understand the concepts of function, biological strategy, and design strategy. We recommend you try each exercise on your own first, then look at our suggested answers.

 Exercise 1:

 

Identifying functions and design strategies

  1. What are the functions of a house’s roof?
  2. Pick one function and write down the design strategy—if you were to describe to someone how the roof works to meet the function, what would you say?
  3. Try drawing the design strategy.

Click the toggles below to reveal answers.

Possible Functions

Keep water out, keep heat in, protect from sun, provide structural support for the walls.

 

 

Design Strategy

Here’s one way to write a design strategy for a typical house in the United States:

The roof keeps water out by being a slanted structure made up of waterproof shingles overlapping top-to-bottom and side-to-side so that water doesn’t seep into spaces between the shingles.

 

Drawing

A sketch of this design strategy is shown. A more detailed design strategy and sketch for this function might include, for example,  information on the size of the shingles, the amount of overlap between shingles, or information about the surface on which the shingles rest.Design strategy for roof_Ritter

 

 Exercise 2:

Turn a biological strategy into a design strategy

  1. What are the functions of your hand?
  2. Picking one function, e.g., grasping objects, what biological strategies does the hand have for meeting that function?
  3. Draw the biological strategy.
  4. Craft a design strategy. A good way to do this is to underline or highlight the words and phrases within your paragraph that are most descriptive and informative for meeting the function within the context of the solution you’re working on. Separate out those words and phrases, and use them to create a design strategy that strips away the biological terms, replacing them with terms that a designer in your field would understand.
  5. Finally, draw the design strategy. Caution: Draw the design strategy without drawing it as a design or as a solution. The design strategy is a launching pad for brainstorming. Don’t jump to conclusions yet about what your design will be.

Click the toggles below to reveal answers.

Possible Functions

Grasp or hold object, pick up object, feel temperature, communicate, sense texture.

Biological Strategy

Here’s one answer:

The hand grasps objects by having five fingers, each with three joints. The fingers have bones covered by muscles and skin creating a soft, flexible surface. The tips of the fingers have small ridges that provide friction. Four of the fingers are next to each other and bend mostly in one direction while the fifth finger is positioned at an angle to the others. The fifth finger has a rotating joint that allows it to articulate at various angles, enabling contact with each of the other four fingers. This lets the hand grasp objects of various sizes using the fifth finger combined with one to all of the remaining fingers. The hand has hard cords that attach to the fingers from the arm to articulate the fingers.

Biological Strategy Drawing

Hand biological strategy_cropped_Ritter

Design Strategy

Below is the biological strategy with the key words and phrases underlined. For this example, we decided that the texture of the fingers and the covering of skin and muscle wasn’t important for our particular context of picking up a rough object.

The hand grasps objects by having five fingers, each with three joints. The fingers have bones covered by muscles and skin creating a soft, flexible surface. The tips of the fingers have small ridges that provide friction. Four of the fingers are next to each other and bend mostly in one direction while the fifth finger is positioned at an angle to the others. The fifth finger has a rotating joint that allows it to articulate at various angles, enabling contact with each of the other four fingers. This lets the hand grasp objects of various sizes using the fifth finger combined with one to all of the remaining fingers. The hand has hard cords that attach to the fingers from the arm to articulate the fingers.

Using the highlighted terms and replacing biological words with non-biological terms, we came up with this design strategy:

A structure grasps an object by having four appendages, each with three joints that bend in one direction, with a fifth appendage of three joints positioned at an angle to the others. The fifth appendage has a rotating joint that allows it to articulate at various angles, enabling contact with each of the other four appendages individually or all at once.

To take this further, depending on the context, we might want to do some research on how the tendons (the hard cords) and muscles function to cause movement of the appendages.

Design Strategy Drawing

Hand design strategy_Ritter

Worksheets

Practice what you’ve learned in this section with these worksheets.

Function and Design Strategy Worksheet

Identify the function and design strategy of a push pin.

Biology to Design Strategy Worksheet

Translate a biological strategy about an owl’s feather into a design strategy.

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