Nature vs Nurture

April 5, 2013

As the painter Edward Hopper once observed, “No amount of skilful invention can replace the essential element of imagination.” He was absolutely right; imagination and the human, emotional experience of imagining are an essential element of design. When we look at a product, we start thinking about what it can do, how it would feel to hold, touch and experience. The same happens when we look at the beauty of nature. Whether on a holiday or just viewing a photo of a beautiful place in nature, we start imagining; we desire to indulge in the feel and experience of all that attracts us to that place. It is the result of visual beauty and the exciting promise of novelty, adventure and mystery.

From extensive psychology and neuro research, we know that many of our decisions are reinforced by affective memory structures1. Essentially this means that as our brain recognises things, it produces associated emotional responses to them. These are the result of neuro connections, the strength of which is important as they lead to more predictable decisions. Neuro connections made during emotive experiences, for example, are stronger and more durable. Subsequently they will have a stronger effect on the brain’s decision-making. There are numerous designs that incorporate influences from nature – either as a consequence of, or an attempt to capitalise on, our deeply rooted emotional connection to it.

Nature consists of both subtleties and extremes. It is diverse and dynamic, but always in harmony and many times visually just beautiful. When harmony is at risk, it will self-adjust and recover. Nature is a system. Everything is connected and continuous in an infinite (yet flexible and adaptable) loop. Nothing is waste. Everything is used and re-used. It is the opposite of the thoughtlessness and arbitrariness with which many things are designed these days and what seems to be acceptable. An understanding of – in part – how we make decisions and at the same time the way nature seems to work, is important for the way we design products. If a natural (influenced) aesthetic has an appeal and could positively affect our decision to buy products, should we as designers apply this? From a corporate perspective the answer would most likely be yes. If there is an appeal and desire, companies will be in favour, as it means the products will sell. To design this way would be a marketing driven choice though. Instead, the design process should always be exactly that: design driven. The design process should focus on users and how they will interact with and experience the product. From that, the ‘right’ aesthetic decisions will become clear. Design and nature have one strong similarity; only the strongest will survive. As designers we brainstorm and ask ourselves many questions as part of the ideation, prototyping and iterating process. At every part of that process only the strongest ideas are carried forward. So it might not be survival of the fittest, but definitely survival of the best.

Only from a deep understanding of the users and the design process, should product shapes, material, feel and overall aesthetic arise. It is a result of careful considerations and constant iteration. Instead of just looking at aesthetics, I believe there is something far more important to consider though. We should be looking at nature for how it works as a system. This is something the Japanese have understood and done well for a long time. They are known for using natural forms and materials in their designs. They have a very clear understanding of how things should be; simple, quiet and functional. Using influences from nature not just because it looks good aesthetically but also because it works so well as a system. A great example of this is their traditional housing. It is simple, very adaptable and incorporates natural materials like wood, rice fibres, clay, paper and glass. These traditional-build homes are never cluttered or ‘out of style’. Every part can easily be replaced or adapted. The Japanese know how to design and make things in a way that is simple, balanced, functional and aesthetically beautiful. Not superfluous or screaming for attention. Nature teaches us that we need balance. Harmony is better than divergence. Nature can show us how we can design things that are very interesting and appealing visually, and at the same time are calm and consistent. Every detail is correct.

It is clear that designing with nature as inspiration should not only mean exploring visuals and materials. As designers we should above all think about what is natural for us as humans. Like how it is natural for us to feel texture, detail and shape. That is what our hands are made for. It is also natural for us to desire and want something that looks beautiful and evokes certain emotions. This is how we are ‘wired’. In nature everything has certain colours, form and material for a reason. Genuinely designing with nature as inspiration should result in making those same types of considerations. As designers we need to focus on what the interaction and experience should be like for the user, how it should function and how its users will feel. We need to obsess about every little detail and use the right design principles. Only then can there be a product that not only looks right, but also feels right. Not just in the present, but also five, ten or twenty years from now. I’m making the point that the first thing we need to do is always be conscience about the fact that designing products needs to make life easier and at the same time should respect nature, our natural resources and make use of what is natural for us humans. That is the truly important thing we can learn from nature. We simply need better design, and to start applying these principles now.

Citations: 1 –   TNS – The Secret Life of the Brain.

Thomas Wensma is founder of Ambassador Design.