Design DNA: Beauty is the Signal of the Good

Scott Henderson, IDSA
INNOVATION Spring 2020

Vol. 40 No. 1, p. 14

Design DNA: Beauty is the Signal of the Good
An interview with Janine Benyus

Consider the lionfish. Described as one of the most invasive species on the planet, this poisonous predator only consumes, offering nothing in return—laying waste to reef diversity like an ecological brush fire. The invaded territory the lionfish mercilessly occupies slowly but surely loses all natural control, including its ability to sustain life.

Janine Benyus is the founder of the bio-inspired design consultancy Biomimicry 3.8, creator of the Project Positive initiative, and author of six, going on seven, books on the subject of biomimicry, including Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. She believes that all species need to be positive contributors instead of invasive detractors, or we don’t get to stay here.

Benyus’ work for giants like Boeing, Jaguar, Google, Kohler, Herman Miller and Microsoft centers on the premise that human beings should consciously emulate nature’s genius in their designs, and that design has the power to fix the evolutionary knothole we are currently navigating. I recently sat down with her to talk about exactly how we’re going to do this.



Scott Henderson: What kinds of things are you doing at Biomimicry 3.8? 

Janine Benyus: When I wrote Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, I quickly realized that designers were the audience. Designers should have biologists at the design table— not just to figure out how to stop toxins from happening at the end of the pipe but to really go upstream. That’s where we are going to figure out sustainability. At Biomimicry 3.8, we’ll work with North Face to figure out how nature repels water. We’ll work with Jaguar to look at how nature creates something really thin but really strong in order to redesign the A-pillar of the car to minimize the blind spot. We’ll look at the chemistry in packaging to figure out how to make the color white without using chlorine. If Sherwin- Williams asks us how to make yellow, what they really want is a way to make yellow without using cadmium because cadmium is toxic. Life creates white in moths and beautiful colors on the petals of flowers and on the feathers of peacocks not by using toxic pigment but rather by scattering light through their structure and fibers. We look at what all these critters have in common with each other, and we ask what the design principle is behind these things.

Through our Project Positive initiative, we do a lot of ecosystem services in the built world. For example, we’re doing four biomimetic buildings for Ford right now. We think that a biomimetic city or factory should work like the ecosystem next-door. The forest next-door cools the atmosphere 15 degrees, cleans this much water, builds this much soil, supports this much habitat, offers this much noise. With a site we’re building on, we calculate the eco-performance of the client’s regular buildings and calculate the performance of the ecosystem next-door. Then we use design to fill that performance gap, making their development more eco-friendly. We call this work Factory-as-Forest. The goal is that human developments are functionally indistinguishable from the wildlands next-door, meaning they do good things instead of bad.


Henderson: What if Factory-as-Forest became completely mainstream—every house, every building? What would the benefit be?

Benyus: We start with the corporations because they do lots of civic gestures like building museums and picking up trash. While these historic gestures are all good, our goal in building Project Positive development projects will elevate them further by helping these corporations deliver sites that benefit the surrounding ecosystems, from cleaner air right down to a healthier watershed.

The companies involved in our Project Positive projects—Google, Microsoft, Ford, Kohler, Aquafil—want to produce ecosystem services because they need to find their social license to operate. Nobody wants an Amazon distribution center or factory in their backyard. But what if that site actually cleaned up the neighborhood? What if these types of sites were something you actually wanted in your neighborhood?

As humans, we don’t think of ourselves as capable of being a welcome species on the planet. The ultimate goal for every species is that if you want to stay here, you have to figure out how to contribute. Species cannot be freeloaders. We must all be positive contributors, or we don’t get to stay. We will go extinct otherwise and take a lot of other things down with us.


Henderson: How does your work in Biomimicry affect consumer products that anyone can go out and buy or probably already owns?

Benyus: If you have an iPhone, there is a bionic chip inside of it, which means it has nanonets, brain-inspired software that cancels noise and keeps the sound clean. When you go through the airport right now, you go through a body-scanning machine where you hold your arms up that is inspired by Brazilian free-tailed bats. On the arms of a Steelcase chair you have a thin film you can’t see called Sharklet that uses the lotus effect and was inspired by Galapagos sharks, who don’t get bacteria on their skin. These physical instead of chemical surfaces don’t kill the bacteria; they just repel it, so the surfaces don’t breed bacterial resistance.

3D printing is going to be full of biomimetic ideas. The palette of materials in the natural world is very minimal, but nature adds and subtracts structure as needed depending on the function.

The reason we can’t recycle stuff very easily is that we use too many materials to make one specific product. With biomimetics, you can change the color, the function, the feel and everything else just by manipulating the structure of your 3D print. That’s where it’s going. Soon entire products will be made largely from a single material.

If you look at the periodic table of elements, 99% of the human body only uses six of those 118 things—only the ones that are safe—and then reconfigures that tiny subset into millions of outrageously interesting designs. Every time we humans need a new function, we make a new material. That’s why we have 350 polymers. Life doesn’t. Life says, we have polysaccharides and we have proteins—what can we do with them? Life doesn’t import anything in on ships.


Henderson: I love the idea that there are very few colors on this painter’s palette, but they can be reconfigured in countless ways to create amazing design.

Benyus: In human-made design, we use almost all of the periodic table because we can—even the toxic stuff—but life doesn’t. It only uses the ones on the light part of the table, the non-toxic ones. To me that’s the operating manual for how to be an earthling—for us to be the positive contributors instead of the invasive species. The chemistry is right there!


Henderson: It seems like much of nature is packed with pure geometry and lots of math. Using these principles that drive the natural world, do you think it’s possible to design an object or experience that meets the user’s mind with unimpeded flow, thus creating universal appeal?

Benyus: You’re right in that there is all this mathematical stuff in nature. My new book called Nature’s Universals is about people who study these things and see them everywhere. Leonardo da Vinci was the first one to figure out Murray’s law of branching in trees. The same mathematical law is in your lungs. Anything that needs to distribute flow through a three-dimensional object is going to have the same exact mathematical formula. My question is, Why aren’t our pipes and our electrical circuits all using this formula? As a new branch grows out of the existing branch, that step-down ratio is predictable, not random. What this does is reduce friction and improve flow.

Adrian Bejan’s constructal law states that all of life evolves with the purpose of reducing friction. Life’s entire goal is to have unimpeded flow. All of the shapes we see in nature are beautiful to us because we have a deep, instinctual sense that they work and work elegantly. Designers have a moth-like antenna for what works and a natural desire to re-create it.


Henderson: I love the idea that beauty is not superfluous. Even if it appears to be an abstraction with no ties to functionality, its appeal might very well be related to elegantly complex functionality that we are subconsciously expressing because it is engrained in our inner psyche. If you look at the rough sketches of Zaha Hadid, they are really random looking—almost like she was allowing something to flow through her, rather than trying to laboriously contrive the solution with her conscious mind, surprising even herself with the outcome. What do you think of that approach, allowing design to happen instead of trying to force it to happen?

Benyus: I think one of the common traits of being an artist is to allow the world to have its way with you. What is interesting to me is that we all have inherited what I call a cellular wisdom that we have really ignored and tamped it down for a long time, but it’s all there. This whole place where we have been outside of our watersheds—in other words, working against the tides of nature—is very recent. Evolutionarily speaking, though, this cellular knowing is within us, and if we just get out of our own way, we’ll let it flow through us again. One of the things we’ve tamped down is this innate sense of what’s good for us.

The whole time we were evolving, beauty was the signal of the good. Evolutionary psychologists would say the reason women love flowers is because women were the gatherers, and they knew that a flower in two or three weeks would become fruit and seeds. Flowers were the signal of the good. If you put your camp near sparkling water, that meant there was oxygen in the water and it would be healthy to drink. That’s why we like sparkling things—because beauty is the signal of the good.

As I move more and more into sustainability work, I think we have decoupled what is good for us from beauty. There is a biological trespass there that weighs on our hearts. I could pick up an iPhone and be very attracted to it because beauty is a signal of the good, but it may be leeching toxins into my hands. For a product to truly work, it has to be good for us, and not just for our personal safety but what is good for our planet. All our evolution and cellular wisdom for what works is leading to this.

Biomimicry is not just the mimicking of form but also what the process is—what it is made of and how it is made and also the larger systems aspects, like where is it going at the end of its life and where did it originate from.

Those three pieces all have to be working for it to truly be biomimetic. If we want to get through this evolutionary knothole we’re in right now and stay on the planet, we have to work this out. That’s why I work in design.


Henderson: Design thinking tells us to interview our intended user and base our solution on those findings. It’s a five-step process, almost identical to that of the scientific method. Since you are an actual scientist, what do you think about that as a process for creating great design?

Benyus: The thing about studying the user is that the real user is much bigger than any one individual. What does the world want? What does the planet want? Is this design conducive to life, or is it conducive to someone walking into Walmart and in 20 seconds they want to buy it?

I am not a big believer in human exceptionalism. Too many people out there believe everything rotates around humans. As Thomas Berry says, we’ve become autistic to the natural world.

It’s a huge creative opening for us when you think about expanding the user and who you are designing for. What about making the solution as welcoming as possible to wildlife, a concept called habitecture? Like creating a building with niches in it on purpose so birds can have a home there. It’s a whole new way to design. I also don’t think you can find that je ne sais quoi—design that delights and lifts the spirit—by using the scientific method. I don’t see the natural world as being full of struggle. I see the natural world as filled with exuberance and celebration. Design should reflect that.


Henderson: Artists have chosen a difficult path with very little, if any, chance of success or payback. Are they being driven by a set of clues so compelling and relentless that there simply is no other road?

Benyus: Scientists are very similar in this regard. They are hearing a whistle that the rest of us can’t hear. Our searches for patterns that give us clues for how to live here on this planet are urgent right now. We have all these laws and religions that keep us from murdering each other, but we have very few codes or guides for how to survive and thrive on the planet. That’s coming. You talk about climate change. We’re going to figure out how to do it in a million different ways—how to transition. But I think experimenting in this bubble of human exceptionalism without taking in clues from the natural world has got to end. This idea of what could go wrong—that has got to end. We need to take our clues from a system that works.

Humility is going to be a big part of design going forward.

We as humans are going to say to the planet, “What are you trying to tell me? I’ve spent a long time as a young, arrogant species, and now I am turning to you and looking for patterns that are not filtered through a bias where we only see ourselves over and over again.” We first need to quiet human cleverness so that we can learn something. Then we need to start listening. The third step is echoing, and the final step is to give thanks—to be a part of and not apart from. If we do these things, we get to stay here.


—Scott Henderson, IDSA

This article is dedicated to Mark Dziersk, FIDSA, who emailed me only two weeks before his untimely passing, taking time out of his insanely busy schedule to tell me that he enjoyed my last article in INNOVATION, because that is the kind of person he was. Thank you, Mark.

Modern Medicine
Tor Alden, IDSA