A Q&A with Biomimicry Expert Ignacio Urbina Polo

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.

Photo courtesy of Ignacio Urbina Polo.

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. 

Check out the rest of our Insight series to learn more about the design industry. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Instagram and LinkedIn for design news, multi-media recommendations, and to learn more about product design and development!

Design News N. 035

Design News Category Image

Design News is your tiny dose of design, technology and other important news, curated monthly by Interwoven Design. In this issue we take a dive into sustainable protective head gear, chocolates inspired by biomimicry and marine life, a new cement-like material from repurposed seashells, our new adaptive lingerie and a new platform connecting plastic alternatives with designers and developers!

Photo: Brian Riley

Protective Headgear Made of Seashells

The Shellmet is a protective hard hat manufactured with a combination of discarded shells and recycled plastic. Plastics manufacturer, Koushi Chemical Industry, along with TBWA\Hakuhodo Agency have collaborated to conceive a piece of safety equipment from the most commonly eaten shellfish in Japan. According to TBWA\Hakuhodo, not only is the shellfish the most commonly eaten by people in Japan, but one fishing community alone produces 40,000 tons of scallop shell waste! Koushi Chemical Industry’s material, Shellstic, is made by sterilizing, crushing, mixing with plastic and pouring it into a mold. The material can also be colored allowing the Shellmet to be offered in multiple colors. The product’s aesthetic features use biomimicry and pull a “ribbed structure” inspiration directly from the attributes from which it is made. These attributes increased the Shellmet’s durability by 30% during testing. And if that wasn’t enough, the helmet can be recycled into a new helmet or repurposed into building materials!

via Dezeen

Photo courtesy of Melissa Pérez Puga

‘Chocoral’ Bites Inspired by Coral Reefs

Melissa Pérez Puga, a Mexico-based industrial designer, has found the similarities between the process of making nonedible materials and chocolate. By utilizing 3D printed molds, and inspiration from marine biology, the designer has created coral reef shaped chocolate pieces. To complete the beauty of the product, Puga designed colorful packaging that also connects with marine life. The designer explains that ‘Chocoral’ aims to bring more appreciation to the texture and beauty of the coral species. The Chocoral boxes are categorized and sold depending on the percentage of cocoa in each package: 30%, 50% and 70%. Each of the packaging is designed with a differentiation factor that allows chocolate lovers a way to determine which to purchase!

via Design Boom

Photo: newtab-22, seastone

New Sea Stone Material

Our second repurposed seashell material on this month’s Design News is that of Newtab-22. Dubbed Sea Stone, the new material is made from discarded shells that are ground down and mixed with a non-toxic binding material that enables the creation of a concrete-like texture. The aesthetic attributes of the grinded shells adds a seemingly terrazzo finish, while also having the ability to add dye doloring. As previously mentioned, hundreds of millions of tons in seashells are thrown away every year and while some are recycled, the majority end up in landfills or on beaches. Newtab-22 explains that their ambition to help repurpose waste from the seafood industry led to the creation of a sustainable alternative to concrete, due to their similar properties. Currently, the process of grinding shells is done manually to avoid use of energy. There are some limitations due to the need of heat to ensure durability, but currently the Newtab-22 team is focused on applications where the material best fits while keeping the process as sustainable as possible.

via Dezeen

Even Adaptive Interaction
Even Adaptive Interaction

Even Adaptive Lingerie

Even Adaptive Lingerie designed by Interwoven is soon to launch! Even Adaptive is a line of adaptive undergarments with contemporary silhouettes that can be put on with the use of a single hand. The design process spanned all the way from creation of the brand strategy and assets, to hardware and garment development. Interwoven Design Group developed a new fastening clasp to replace and improve the user experience of the outdated closure mechanisms of the adaptive bras and panties on the market. The closure experience combined with the modern, comfortable, and colorful designs make Even Adaptive lingerie truly inclusive, innovative, and one-of-a-kind.

via Interwoven Design

Photo: PlasticFree

A Plastic Planet Launches PlasticFree

This month, we had the opportunity to attend A Plastic Planet’s online platform, PlasticFree, launch event! PlasticFree is a database that connects designers, architects and developers with sustainable alternatives to materials. One problem that designers have when sourcing material is the plethora of information that leads to dead ends with the inability to pinpoint a specific material let alone accurate information that includes properties and production. This new tool allows users to collect Plastic alternatives virtually, in a mood board style, from all around the world. All of the data collected on PlasticFree has been verified by a team of scientific advisors. This allows designers to bridge the gap between design and material science while having access to digestible information. Moving towards a world where a package’s or product’s full life cycle can be planned, shifting away from the negative connotations of consumerism!

via PlasticFree

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