A Q&A with Biomimicry Expert Ignacio Urbina Polo
Spotlight articles shine a light on designers and design materials we admire. Our founder and principal designer Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman has encountered many talented designers throughout her career, and in our Spotlight interviews we ask them about their work, their design journey, and what inspires them. In this interview we spoke with design leader and biomimicry expert Ignacio Urbina Polo. Ignacio has his own design firm in addition to being the current chair of industrial design at Pratt Institute and the chief editor of di-conexiones, a prominent Spanish industrial design platform. He is known for his innovative initiatives across design disciplines and for his international collaborations with design schools in Latin America, Europe, and Japan. We asked him about the power of biomimicry, the importance of communication in design, and the connection between being a designer and being a musician.
Q: You are known for your innovative biomimetic studios. Could you talk about how you became interested in biomimicry and nature-inspired design?
A: When I did my undergraduate in Venezuela, there was a course called Bionics Applied to Design. At that time we understood that it was something related to nature, and we were trying to apply certain concepts from nature. It became more clear to me when I started working in the Brazilian Laboratory of Industrial Design in Florianopolis, Brazil—a significant initiative launched in the early 1980s by German designer and theorist Gui Bonsiepe and a team of Brazilian designers—where I did a specialization with the Mexican designer Fabricio Vanden Broeck, an alumnus of Ecal in Switzerland. It became clear that getting interested in the complexities of nature can be useful for us as designers. I remember learning about notions of growth and notions of systems, notions of structure. I started to understand that for the projects we do—in the sense of designing objects and trying to create material outcomes—we need this expertise that is different from engineering. My school was pretty technological. We did math and physics and focused on structure and materials. But with bionics, because the term biomimicry came later, we began understanding how we can use nature to help us in our design work.
Q: How does a biomimetic approach impact the design process?
A: When I finished my undergraduate and moved to Brazil to start working in the field of industrial design, the field concentrated on how objects communicate with people, how they function. It focused on the idea of structure and how we actually make pieces and parts and components. It focused on how we make those parts strong enough, and how those parts can be manufactured with machines. This was an engineering approach. The idea of aesthetics? We were barely touching it. There were just little flavors of it: This needs to be balanced, this needs to be in scale. We were focusing on how we construct. When the idea of bionics came along, there was a lot of thinking: What is the natural form about? How does it work? We were automatically more connected with beauty because beauty and structure: they came together. Without having to spend too much time, we were doing structure—trying to make components stable and working with the structure visually and physically—and the aesthetic was intrinsic to the natural building strategy, and came naturally out of the process. A bionic approach was solving all of the engineering problems and, at the same time, the aspects related to aesthetics.
Q: Could you share an example of a nature-inspired design or collaboration with nature that has inspired you?
A: During my time at the Brazilian Laboratory of Industrial Design I had the opportunity to explore diverse areas. The LBDI’s key areas of focus included industry projects, design promotion, and educational programs. A highlight of my experience was attending the bionics course with Fabricio Vanden Broeck that I mentioned earlier. This course opened my eyes to the works of various designers, engineers, and architects, like Frei Otto and the renowned Italian designer Carmelo Di Bartolo, known for his nature-centric research and design.
One of Fabricio’s projects at Ecal was particularly intriguing. He focused on replicating the seed distribution and ejection mechanisms found in nature. His prototypes aimed to mimic the dispersal methods of airborne seeds. His goal was to apply these natural, random distribution patterns to the allocation of medicines and supplies in urban areas ravaged by earthquakes. This approach was not only about mimicking natural forms but also about applying complex concepts of natural growth and systems to solve pressing issues. This was especially relevant considering the significant damage caused by the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City. Such innovative thinking demonstrated how biomimetic design could extend beyond aesthetic interpretation and tackle real-world challenges effectively.
Q: You and, by extension, your website, di-conexiones, are an impressive design resource. You have an extensive social media presence as a design thought leader. What are some of the things you enjoy about communicating about design? How does this tie into your position as the chair of industrial design at Pratt?
A: I knew that there was something interesting and important about disseminating design and talking about design. The more I talked about design, the more it enriched my own work. I wanted to see what was out there, and if there was a better way to do this or that. Communicating about design is something we need to do all the time. The platform di-conexiones started as notes to myself. Fifteen years later, there are more than thirty people writing and it is something that I still feel is interesting. I have my professional practice. I have my job as an educator. I work in an institution. But di-conexiones is an independent website, meaning I don’t have to answer to anybody to write what I write. I haven’t made it a business, partly because I have other businesses to take care of but also because I want that freedom. At least for now, I need to maintain this independent way of talking about design – that is why I enjoy it. It has to be for myself and for the community.
I always have the idea, I need to write about this. I do free research all the time because I don’t have to deal with anybody, and this creates a space that is more interesting to research my own ideas. I think we need that for what we do.
Q: You’re also a musician, do you see a cross-over between musical improvisation and design ideation?
A: There are many parallels we can make between music and design, though they are very different as well. The first difference is that we perceive them with a different sense. So the acoustic space is the territory of musicians and, as designers, we don’t often work within the acoustic space. Another big difference is that music is a performance art, meaning you play and then you hear it. As designers we create before you see the outcome. We create and then we see. Where I see connections between music and design is in the design process.
I tell my students that there are three aspects that are interesting to consider in design, and the same three aspects are important to a musician. When we learn to play an instrument, there are three elements that we need to figure out. The first is physicality, meaning that I need to understand the physical instrument; how to play the notes, the technique. We need to develop that technique. We need to get good because the better we are at the instrument, the more we can hear the nuances of the sound. It is the same in design. The more we do models, the more we draw: the more we see.
The second part is the content of the music, the form. The music tells you, This is rock, this is jazz. Music, because it is a language that you can write, you can learn. The music has a structure that you can play, there are typologies. I can play rock because the rock has a standard form that I can recognize. The more I study the history of music, the more genres I can recognize. We can think of design in the same way. What is the typology? What is the form, the history of the art? All of those things are within the content. It can take a whole career to understand these things. So one part is the instrument, the technique, the second part is the content, and the third part is the sensibility to get involved.
If you’re a good musician, you can play the instrument and you know how to play certain kinds of music, but you have to develop a sensibility to create music that nobody else can. The moment you play, there needs to be an energy—a sensibility—that makes you not only a good technician and a good musician but also a good performer, who can communicate with the music. That’s why we connect with certain musicians and we don’t connect with others.
At Pratt we have a 3D methodology that teaches how to observe and create the phenomenon of form and how to talk about that. That is close to what we do with music. We work with eyes and hands in design and with hearing in music, but we are also trying to communicate and create a connection. This is a special thing you need to work on that is the third part of the design process as well as the music process.
For example, we can talk about the song of a birthday party; it has three notes and the form is very simple. We can also talk about a Beethoven suite that has many parts, and each part has a momentum. Both of these demonstrate the three aspects I talked about; How do you play it? What are the notes? What is the feeling? In product design it is the same. You can design a flower vase that is very simple. It can be one material, one gesture. Or you can design a car that has 7,000 pieces. The designs still need to answer the same questions.
Because design is different from music, the response happens later. There is a timing gap. When people actually get the product is when you confirm the response. With music, you feel it right away. The way you play music, that will be the way you design. This is not mathematical, it’s more qualitative, and this is something that you learn. It could be thought of as a designer’s voice but I could even go back to more basic things. Part of what you contribute as a designer is not even conscious. The big musicians are not saying, I’m good. They just do their thing. It’s the same with good designers. They just do it.
This is part of why it’s difficult for me to talk about innovation. Every time we talk about innovation, it seems like we are saying that we are going to innovate on purpose. In reality, innovations often happen later, when somebody recognizes, Oh, there is an innovation there. But you weren’t working on that. If you do good work, there may be an innovation in there somewhere. As designers, we are close to innovation because we have that thing that innovates.
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