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!

Designer as Artist

Exploring the Intersection of Design, Craft, and Art

Design is often thought of as a practical discipline, focused on creating functional objects or systems. However, design can also be seen as a form of art, with designers as artists who use their skills and creativity to produce beautiful and meaningful objects. The art of making, whether it be through design or craft, has evolved over time. Designers and makers have constantly sought to create aesthetically pleasing and functional pieces, and the question of whether a piece of design or craft needs to be functional remains a topic of debate. This article explores the relationship between design and craft, Designer as Artist, the role of aesthetics in both fields, and the differences between handcrafted and mass-produced pieces.

Craft and design have a long history of overlap and collaboration. Many areas of design, such as jewelry, furniture, ceramics, and fashion, are also considered crafts. The difference between craft and design lies in the production process. Craft emphasizes the action of creating something with your hands, using historic techniques and a mastery of materials. Design, on the other hand, often involves the use of technology, mass production, and a focus on functionality.

Design and Art

The boundaries between design and art have blurred over time, leading to the emergence of the concept of “designer as artist”. Many designers are motivated and inspired by materials, and find joy in mastering various mediums. For example, the furniture designs of Charles and Ray Eames are often considered works of art due to their innovative use of materials and attention to detail.

Another example of a designer as an artist could be the fashion designer Alexander McQueen. McQueen’s runway shows were known for their elaborate and theatrical presentations that often incorporated sculpture, performance art, and other elements beyond just the clothing. His designs were not only functional but also conceptual and thought-provoking, pushing the boundaries of what could be considered traditional fashion design.

Aesthetics play a significant role in the relationship between design and craft. The intricacy and attention to detail that goes into creating furniture or ceramics can be appreciated when examining them. Aesthetics are crucial in communicating the intended message of the piece in both design and craft. Although functionality is often a central focus of design, it is not always necessary for a piece to be considered good design. Some designs are created purely for their aesthetic value or to make a statement or evoke an emotional response. The same can be said for craft, where many are functional, but some are purely decorative or conceptual. For example, the glass sculptures of Dale Chihuly are considered works of art for their beauty and innovative use of color, despite not having a specific functional purpose.

Craft as a Preconceived Notion

The term “craft” often carries a negative connotation, as it is associated with being amateurish or not up to par with professional design. However, this is not always the case. The act of creating something with one’s hands can result in beautiful and functional pieces. Jewelry, furniture, ceramics, and fashion all fall under the category of craft.

While the method of fabrication is a key difference between craft and design, it’s important to note that there is often overlap between these two fields. While craft pieces are typically one-of-a-kind and made by hand, there are many designers who incorporate handcrafted techniques into their work, resulting in pieces that are both functional and aesthetically pleasing. Similarly, while design pieces are often mass-produced, there are many designers who create limited-edition or one-of-a-kind pieces that blur the line between design and craft.

One example of a designer who blurs the line between design and craft is the fashion designer Rei Kawakubo. Kawakubo’s work with her label Comme des Garçons is often described as avant-garde, with pieces that challenge traditional notions of fashion and design. Many of her pieces are handcrafted, with a focus on the techniques and materials used to create them. While her pieces are often mass-produced, there is a strong emphasis on craftsmanship and attention to detail.

Another example of the intersection of craft and design is the work of the lighting designer Lindsey Adelman. Adelman’s pieces are all handcrafted in her New York studio, with a focus on the techniques and materials used in their creation. While her pieces are often produced in limited editions, there is a strong emphasis on the craftsmanship and attention to detail that goes into each piece.

The Future of Craft

There is a growing concern that craft is a threatened field. As technology continues to advance and mass production becomes the norm, the art of handmade objects is in danger of being lost. However, there are still many people who are interested in learning craft skills, and there are a variety of ways in which they can do so. While academic classes such as those offered by Pratt Institute, can be a great resource, not everyone has access to them. Many people learn craft skills from family members, friends, or online tutorials.

Despite the challenges facing the craft industry, there is still a bright future for handmade objects. Creative marketplaces, craft communities, studio rentals, and shared maker spaces are all helping to promote and preserve the art of craft. Additionally, there is a growing appreciation for the value of handmade objects, and designers and consumers alike are recognizing the unique beauty and quality that comes from a handcrafted piece.

Design and Craft: Learning from Each Other

Finally, it is important to recognize the ways in which design and craft can learn from each other. Hands-on making is an influential process that can make better designers, and designers who understand craft techniques can create more thoughtful and meaningful designs. One example of this is the success of the ceramics brand Franca, which emphasizes the importance of craftsmanship, design, and artistry in its products.

The relationship between design and craft is complex, with both fields valuing aesthetics and functionality. While craft is often seen as a preconceived notion, it can be a valuable skill that should be celebrated. As the creative industry evolves, the intersection of design and craft will continue to be a source of inspiration and innovation.

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.024

Design News is your tiny dose of design, technology and other important news, curated monthly by Interwoven Design. In this series we share the latest on our favorite topics, including women in design, technology and architecture, and sustainable design. In this issue: a tribute to women in the fields of design, science, and technology, a Nigerian architect and designer to watch (and follow!), a historic moment in plastic policy, and a cute new audio device with a retro design that takes us back to the 80s.

If/Then she can!

Life-sized orange 3D-printed statues of women stand on a lawn
These life-sized 3D-printed statues depict women who have excelled in STEM fields. Photo credit: IF/THEN®, courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute.

The Smithsonian will commemorate Women’s History Month in March by displaying 120 life-sized neon orange statues depicting women who have excelled in the fields of science and technology. Over 3 million visitors have experienced the installations since they started popping up in 2020, and the IF/THEN website features a biography of each woman showcased in the piece. The 3D-printed statues are the largest 3D printed project of its kind, and will be displayed in the museum’s gardens and in select museums in the Smithsonian network from March 5th to March 27th.

via Smithsonian Institute

Oshinowo x Sharjah Architecture Triennial

Portrait of Tosin Oshinowo in her office
Architect Tosin Oshinowo will curate the 2023 Sharjah Architecture Triennial. Photo by Spark Creative courtesy of cmDesign Atelier.

Nigerian architect and designer Tosin Oshinowo has been appointed to curate the 2023 Sharjah Architecture Triennial. The aim of the Triennial is to highlight architecture across western Asia, southern Asia and the African continent, and this second edition will focus on “sustainable architecture, urbanism and infrastructure.” Oshinowo, a socially conscious voice in the field, intends to offer a new perspective on sustainable architecture with an emphasis on adaptability. She is the principal designer at the Lagos-based architectural firm cmDesign Atelier, a firm known for socially and environmentally responsive projects throughout Nigeria and the African Continent. She describes herself as an “Architect, Designer, Curator, Creative Entrepreneur, History-Junkie & Mummy!” on her instagram profile, an account well worth following for those interested in art, fashion, architecture, and design.

via Dezeen

Plastic pollution from source to sea

colorful plastic utensils on a white background
Leaders from 175 countries will create the first UN treaty to regulate plastic production and pollution. Photography by Heiko Prigge.

World leaders from 175 countries have agreed to draw up a legally binding UN treaty that will regulate plastic production and pollution on an international scale for the first time. Passed at the UN Environment Assembly in Kenya, the resolution calls for participating nations to determine a set of universal rules and timed targets to work toward the end of plastic waste.

via Dezeen

Playful tech device for kids

Yoto Mini audio device with data cards
Pentagram’s Yoto Mini audio device is designed for children but appeals to all ages. Photo courtesy of Yoto.

The Yoto Mini is a screen-free audio device with retro styling that evokes classic 80s designs. The form is a small white box with cheerful red knobs and a card slot on the top where kids insert a card of their choice to make a music selection. The cards themselves have a clean, jaunty styling that uses bold color and charming illustrations to engage the user. The playful system, designed by Pentagram, includes hundreds of diverse audio options for kids to explore, bringing an analog interaction back to what can so easily be screen-obsessed lives.

via Designboom

Pratt presents: Woman Made

Pratt Presents: Woman Made
This special panel will feature designers from Phaidon’s Woman Made: Great Women Designers. Image credit: Pratt Institute.

This special panel discussion will feature distinguished designers included in Phaidon’s recently published book Woman Made: Great Women Designers. The text provides a comprehensive overview of some of the most influential and iconic designs created by women. The talk is free and open to the public, and a video recording will be available after the event.

via Pratt Institute

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!