Beaver Dams, Ants, and Spiders: Tapping into a New Solution Space for Sustainable Design

Michelle Fehler

What if we told you that there was a huge reservoir of sustainable solutions waiting for you to learn from and apply in your daily work? In fact, this solution set has been in research and development over the past 3.8 billion years! We will introduce you to Biomimicry, a new lens that allows you to learn from over 8.7 million species who have already solved many problems we face. This event will introduce you to what biomimicry is, where it is already applied, and lets you brainstorm how to apply some of Life’s principles to an existing challenge or project to help you find new innovative ideas.


Thanks for having me. I’m really excited to talk to this audience. We have so much potential to help change this world for a better place. We are all hopefully familiar with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals that have been set. There are 17 really wicked problems that we have to solve as a human race. I personally feel that user experience designers, as well as designers in general, have the tools and the special strategic thinking to be able to solve some of these goals. The problem is, if we keep doing the same thing over and over again, we will arrive at the same solutions. Like Albert Einstein said, we need to change things up a little bit. That’s where biomimicry comes in.

Biomimicry is a word that consists of the word “bio”, which means “life”, and “mimesis” means “imitate”. Janine Benyus, who was the author of the book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature in 1997, coined the term. She calls it a conscious emulation of nature’s genius. How do we do that? That’s what I’m going to walk through in this presentation. How do we tap into nature’s genius? Before I do, I would love to show this quick video that introduces you to the general ideas of what biomimicry is. [Video plays]

Janine Benyus is a wonderful speaker. If you ever have the chance to go see her, I would highly recommend you attend. Biomimicry has been infused in many disciplines already. Mainly architecture, chemistry, and design in general. Mostly in things that we can touch. We tend to translate biomimicry into things that we can create artifacts around. Applying biomimicry to design requires a different approach. I’m going to walk you guys through the design thinking process inspired by biomimicry.

Some of you might be familiar with the squiggle that Damien Newman, who is a designer, scribbled out for one of his clients to explain the process of how it works to design something. As we all know, design is not a linear process. It goes back and forth, up and down. I’m taking the design thinking process and overlaying it on top of this squiggle in order to compare it to the biomimicry process, which has been a formalized process on how to arrive at biomimetic solutions. All of the steps of design thinking are represented in the squiggle as well: emphasizing, defining the point of view, brainstorming and ideation, prototyping, and testing. Of course, there’s a lot of back and forth even after the testing to make sure that we followed the original brief and fulfilling all of the requests that we have for the design. Taking the biomimicry thinking process—which is somewhat similar, but has some nuances—and superimposing that over the design thinking process is where my research is currently. It really strives to infuse biomimicry into what designers are doing already, rather than asking designers, who are really busy people, to add tasks and steps to their daily lives. Let’s walk through some of these steps and see where biomimicry can be infused.

As we know, design thinking requires us to emphasize with the user first. Looking at the context to define the area and where the product has to live. We’re asking all of the right questions: who, when, where, what, and how? We do this through interviews and observations and we’re mainly doing it human-centered. Those are some of the characteristics of the design thinking process that is very human-centered. That has served us very well in the past. I’m trying to suggest that we might infuse the questions and include nature’s genius at this moment so it becomes more life-centered. One way to do that is with life’s principles. Life’s principles have been a set of six main categories that describe how nature works. Pretty much all organisms function according to these life principles, because they are operating according to the limitations of the planet. They know that resources are limited, space is limited, nutrition is limited. But they all create conditions conducive to life.

These six overall categories describe how nature does that. In biomimicry we use the life’s principles a lot. We work with them to begin with. We set them as a model that we want to achieve. We use them as a mentor when we want to go out into nature as ask ourselves, “How do these organisms do it?” Then at the end, we’re looking at it as a measure, to ask, “How successful is our solutions? Did we fulfill that goal of reaching as many of life’s principles as possible?”

Let’s see how nature would function if it didn’t function according to those operating conditions and to its needs. [Video plays] I would venture that those species might not have a high survival rate because they did not adapt to the conditions that they need to live within. Some of our designs might have the same kind of results. We design something, but because we didn’t consider a couple of the context factors, it might become and overweight animal that can’t catch prey.

The next step in design thinking is to define and understand the point of view of our user. The insights from the research in the first step will lead us to ask, “How might we solve the problem?” In biomimicry, at this point, we’re actually looking at functions. The functions are normally a verb that lets us ask how nature does something. For example, we can’t ask nature, “How do you design a light bulb?” Because nature does not have light bulbs. But we can say, “How does nature illuminate?” Which is a verb and it’s a function. Therefore, we can say nature illuminates by bioluminescence or through the chemical reactions in a firefly. If we ask our design point of view or our problem in a verb version, we can define what our design should do rather than what we want it to be. We should not go out and say, “Let’s design an app or “Let’s design a website.” We should say, “How do we connect this audience with this audience?” That will open up the space to ask nature how nature does it.

That will give us actionable insights to explore. In biomimicry, those insights are called function bridges. Let’s say we have a couple of functions. Let’s say illumination is one of the functions. Now we can go to biology. At this point, we would go into the biological and science research. We would talk to biologists and say, “How does nature illuminate?” Through that process we will discover nature’s genius and how organisms do this. We can extract information from that process.

In design thinking, we would then move on to brainstorming. Brainstorming is most often an activity done indoors with hundreds and thousands of Post-It notes or a whiteboard. Normally, designers and users stand around that space and exchange experiences and creative ideas of what they think could work. This is mainly an internal process where we explore those ideas. In biomimicry, we would go external. We would ask 8.7 million species, “How do you do it?” So we can get solution ideas from the external world rather than from the internal world. The funnest part about being in biomimicry is that it forces you to go outside. It would be really nice to think that instead of going into a room with Post-It notes, you could put on your hiking boots and sketchbook and you’re out in the forest, out in the grasslands, and observing insects and whole systems that work together to find ideas of what could inform your design project. Talking to experts, reading a lot of books, maybe watching Discovery Channel—who doesn’t like to do that? If you can draw ideas from those sources, it will let you infuse some of the biomimetic examples into your design.

Once you have an organism that tends to do something that you think might be a good solution for your function, you would abstract a design principle. The extracted design principle is a rewording or reframing of what the organism does without mentioning biology. At this point, you want to make it so that it becomes a design principle that could be applied to a human design problem, rather than having the biology terms that designers might not understand. One source I can highly recommend is It’s a database full of research from biology and other areas that have done part of that job already. You can search for biological strategies that will tell you how an organism illuminates and you can extract the design principles from there. A lot of the work has already been done and you can tap into this research anytime. Even if you want to go browse, there are some amazing either biological strategies or actual case studies of products that have been developed through this process.

The next step in design thinking is prototyping, where we actually come up with some kind of low or high fidelity project to test it on users to gain more insight. At this point, in biomimicry, we would brainstorm designs based on that abstracted design principle in order to test them on people. The testing phase in design thinking is normally done with the user. At this point, in biomimicry, we would also bring in the life’s principles. We can ask ourselves, “Did we fulfill all of the different life’s principles that we set out to do? Are we actually creating conditions conducive to life?” We would also go back to the original intention, to say, “We strove to cover three life’s principles. Did we actually do that? Could we fulfill another life principle?” Now that we have more information, maybe there’s something more that we can introduce that would allow us to cover a fourth life principle. Just to give you can idea, all of the organisms in nature actually operate within those six. Oftentimes, human systems have problems getting more than two or three. So it’s a good goal to have at least three life’s principles to be your evaluation measure.

Lastly, we want to ask, “Would nature hire us again?” Not only is the customer happy, but the question is, “Did we do something that made nature happy?”

These are the expanded life’s principles. We have six main categories that are subdivided into three or four subcategories that describe how life works. Some of these lend themselves well to user experience designers. For example, to integrate development with growth. In this idea, the beavers build dams that actually follow this life’s principle really nicely. I’m going to show you a quick video. [Video plays] Beavers build their dams from the bottom up, to create a strong foundation that can hold up tons of water. But they also do that in a modular way. Beavers design the beaver dams the way we design houses. They have multiple chambers for different uses. One is the nursery, one is for food storage, and sometimes they even have tenants stay over and rent one of the rooms. What can we learn from user experience designers from this life principle and from the beaver? One suggestion, for example, if we were to code a website or an app, we do that consciously as a modular structure. We would first make sure that we have a good foundation before we build it out. Sometimes, economic or marketing or business factors do not allow us to take the time to make sure that what we have as a structure with a sound foundation. But if we rush it at that moment, it might come back to haunt us later on. It might be more costly to fix it. Building from the bottom up and building modularly will allow you to have a flexible design that is easier to test new ideas if you grow, so you can take one module out and test something with another module to see if that would actually work. You can turn off components to replace them with smaller pieces without replacing the entire design. Increase fidelity as you go, while you’re designing. You can’t start in the middle of the project; the beaver dam is not able to be built from the middle structure. It has to start at the bottom. We have to consciously do that. A lot of companies and designers do it already, but doing it consciously might prevent even the slightest little details that make us repeat some of our steps.

The next life principle that I feel is a very good fit for user experience designers is the adapting to changing conditions. This one talks about maintaining integrity through self-renewal or embody resilience through variation, redundancy, and decentralization. This plant called the Mimosa Pudica is a plant that stays alive because it reacts to movement of herbivores that walk by it. They actually have a chemical process where the water is retracted from the leaves and pulled into the stem, so the leaves fold up. It looks dead, so the herbivores will not nibble on it, because they think there’s nothing there to eat. How can we, as user experience designers, adapt to that changing condition? A couple of the apps have already done that. The nightshift app for Apple reduces the blue light at night when it becomes dark. Or the Android app that changes to the drive mode when it senses that you’re going into your car. Also some changes in markets, of how users interact with products. For example, the real estate market went through a huge change through the housing boom. As a visual communications designer, that affected our industry. For example, we used to have mailing lists to send out direct mail pieces to 30,000-50,000 households. But because so many people lost their houses and had to move, those addresses were not valid anymore. There was a huge return of invalid and undeliverable mail, which was a huge waste. Being able to adapt to those changing conditions, and know what is changing in order to adjust our designs, can help us reduce waste and stay more efficient with our time and resources.

The last life’s principle that I feel works really well in user experience design is to be locally attuned and responsive. Again, many of these we already do, but we never formalize them and do it consciously. Using feedback loops, for example, or cultivating cooperative relationships and leveraging cyclic processes are great tools to improve on our projects. This little movie talks about the ant and the cecropia tree. [Video plays] This movie was done by a couple of researchers at ASU that looked at the symbiotic relationship between the ant with the cecropia tree. In terms of user experience design, the tree grows special hairs for the ant to stick to it, as well as that growth beneath the branch to feed the ants. The tree is not doing that for itself. It’s doing it for the ants. Then we can ask ourselves, “What can we do to make our users happy?” Because in turn, the users will give us something in return. One example of a user design piece that I feel was really fun to watch happen was Southwest airlines last year when they had a technical glitch. People were stranded and none of the flights were able to fly. They have a listening department—which is actually the social media department, but they call it listening, which I find very appropriate. They found the feedback loop they were getting was that people were getting frustrated. They went out and bought food, like pizza, to keep their customers happy while they had to wait. They were able to turn a really unfortunate event into a good user experience, so they were able to keep their customers happy.

Life-centric design thinking is a way for us to switch from an ego-driven design thinking process to an eco-driven design thinking process. We see ourselves as part of those 8.7 million species and we can learn from all of them in order to increase our solution space, so we can solve these 17 really wicked problems, elegantly and with the least resources, as nature does.

I listened to some of the talks earlier. I’m definitely going to have to go through and scrub my website and make it more sustainable in terms of size and everything. If you want to check out my work, it’s under Lastly, I just want to say, if you want to think outside the box, you should go outside the box. Thank you very much.

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals
Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature


Michelle is a visual communicator who became conflicted about the wasteful behavior that is associated with graphic design. Believing that there is a better way to help businesses be heard and seen, she decided to pursue a Master’s in Interaction Design with a focus on Biomimetic Graphic Design. Currently, she is part of the faculty at the Design School at ASU teaching Visual Communication as well as Biomimicry.

Nature Factor