Natural by design


The Husband complained this morning that his shoes were falling to bits. I asked him to be more precise. The Velcro turned out to be the issue. (Some day soon he may master laces.) It was losing its grip (aren’t we all?).

I spent yesterday writing an article on the how the design world often borrows from the natural world. Velcro is a case in point. Back in 1955, the Swiss inventors of Velcro based the idea on the hooked seeds of the burdock plant (a fact which failed to impress The Husband as he raced to catch a train). Dry reusable tape mimicked the feet of the gecko. The idea of self-cleaning paint came from thinking of the leaves of the lotus plant.

It seems that in the world of design, analogies like these can be used to help generate new and novel ideas (Wilson, Rosen, Nelson & Yen, 2009). By making the brain stretch to find similarities with examples from the biological world, designers widen the search from the familiar to the unfamiliar. This takes more cognitive effort, but can result in increasing both the novelty and variety of design ideas. Wilson et al. give the example of the design of an air conditioning system for an hotel. An analogy which is ‘surface similar’ would be other commercially available air conditioning systems from other suppliers in other hotels. A distantly related but ‘structurally similar’ analogy on the other hand would be self-cooling termite mounds. The analogy at this level is that both provide a cooling function. It’s easy to see how differently the designers might approach the task.

By forcing the brain to make new and unfamiliar connections, we change the quality of our thinking. Try choosing an analogy more distantly related when your team needs to come up with some fresh ideas. You might just be naturals at this.


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