There’s a lot around at the moment about the importance of design, and it’s worth thinking about where all these different kinds of design inspiration can come from, in tech and elsewhere.
Lots of new product designs are incremental and evolutionary. A few are revolutionary — a whole new way of doing things, even if that breaks a lot of the things you were relying on.
That’s successful when the trade-off gets you what you want, even if it breaks rules that the evolutionary designers respect. For example, those companies that had compliance rules that said email had to be encrypted were still happy to adopt iPhones that didn’t at first have the hardware to do mail encryption.
Throwing away expectations can be a more positive approach. Game controllers had to fit in both hands and put the same layout of keys under your fingers until the Xbox Adaptive Controller threw out all the preconceptions about what a controller looked like — and what gamers looked like — by making it fully accessible and adaptable.
The latest wind turbine blades aren’t smooth the way you’d expect; they have the same kind of bumps (technical term: tubercule) as the flippers of a humpback whale because the bumps change the distribution of pressure along the edge, so different sections of the edge stall at different angles. That lets a whale spin in tight circles to catch its prey and a blade spin with less drag, so it’s possible to generate the same amount of energy with fewer blades (or at slower wind speeds with same number of blades).
This kind of biomimicry isn’t as common as it could be, in large part because biologists and engineers use different terms for the same things. Throwing the net of inspiration wider could work wonders, especially as there are already plenty of examples around us.
Slug slime is actually a liquid crystal and it might inspire more effective lubricants for industry: the three different ways defensive slug slime helps a slug stick itself to a leaf when it’s afraid a bird is going to grab it are already the basis of research into surgical glue that works even when wet.
Maybe we could use concrete to sequester CO2 the way molluscs use the carbon dioxide dissolved in sea water to secrete their shell, or use microbial affinity for certain metals to filter water, or use blueberry juice as the dye for thin-film solar panels because it’s such an efficient absorber of light.
But engineers look at structured property databases rather than the original papers written by biologists, and they’re not going to have the right terms. Machine learning might help with that: using word embeddings to analyse the literature of materials science can spot the functional applications of materials even when they’re not explicitly mentioned in the papers.
Generative design tools in CAD often look like they’re doing that kind of biomimicry because the shapes they create look so organic. It’s actually a mathematical process where the designer puts in constraints like the size, weight, operating load, cost, and manufacturing methods, and algorithms generate multiple designs using structural simulation and topology optimisation to find a design that best fits those constraints. Like evolution, that can produce something that looks strange, but does the job perfectly.
But designers being creative can also come up with unusual approaches that work when you wouldn’t expect them to. Park Road Apartments is a 1970s block of flats overlooking Regents Park in London; it’s covered in ribbed aluminium panels, which are cheap to make but look like new four decades later.
To get the panels to fit the curved corners of the building, the architect Nicholas Grimshaw (best known for the Eden Project) had the manufacturers run the panels through the rollers that make the ribs faster, which made them bend.
A bit closer to home, a hexagonal frying pan might sound strange. Aren’t frying pans (and just about every other kind of pan) supposed to be round? Round shapes are easier and cheaper to make (a circle is the smallest perimeter to enclose a given area). Plus they distribute heat evenly; if you have a square pan over a round burner, the corners tend to stay cooler than the rest of the pan. But polygons are also efficient at distributing heat efficiently and don’t have corners to stay cool: for the last few weeks I’ve been cooking with a hexagonal pan with the catchy name of Stingray, from aircraft grade aluminium with a high-tech non-stick polymer surface (made by ILAG, who makes UV coatings for planes as well as polymer and ceramic).
At a grander scale, how about making buildings hexagonal rather than rectangular? We’ve known since the time of Euclid that a hexagon makes the most efficient use of space and materials (from wasp hives and honey combs, to the injection moulded honeycomb structure in the frame of a BMW i3 that absorbs the force of side impact). People are more comfortable with the usual four walls but a 48-story tower going up in Toronto is going to have a facade of hexagons, to fit in passive solar heating and cooling and balconies for every flat.
What’s the lesson of all of this? That design isn’t always about minor tweaks or an individual’s vision; there’s plenty of potential inspiration around for changes. Even on the smallest projects or products, think big.