The power of the Biomimicry Design Spiral – Biomimicry Institute

Photo: , Shutterstock

By Denise DeLuca

They’re everywhere, hiding deep in your ears, emerging from flower buds, mounding on heads of cauliflower, swirling in river eddies, dominating weather maps, and defining the shape of entire galaxies. The spiral geometry can be found at all scales of nature, and apparently across the universe. Though we call them cycles, nature’s processes are also spirals, because with the passage of time, the endpoint of any cycle is never the same as the starting point.  

Spirals are everywhere in nature because they perform so many functions. It is no wonder, then, that when Carl Hastrich set out to create a design process for biomimicry, he turned to the spiral.  That is very fortunate for all of us, because the spiral design process not only allows us to tap into the power of nature, it allows us to tap into the power of our own creativity and imagination — exactly what we need to tackle the tremendous challenges that we face today.

The Biomimicry Design Spiral

The Biomimicry Design Spiral is a step-by-step process for turning nature’s strategies into innovative and sustainable design solutions. The Biomimicry Design Spiral was developed in 2005 by Carl Hastrich, an industrial designer who was one of a cluster of devoted individuals that we can thank for building the foundations for biomimicry as we know it today. Hastrich took a standard design process, added the unique steps needed for biomimicry, and then, emulating one of nature’s pervasive patterns, he turned the process into a spiral.  

Adapted from Carl Hastrich (2005) via The Biomimicry Institute

Adapted from Carl Hastrich (2005) via The Biomimicry Institute

The Biomimicry Design Spiral shown here is used when you know what problem you are trying to solve. To use this method, you start with the Identify step, where the objective is to identify the functions that your design needs to perform – what you want your design to be able to do. Once you have created a list of functions, you Translate those functions into words or terms that makes sense in the biological world. Next, you Discover strategies that Nature uses to accomplish these functions. (This is the step most unique to biomimicry.) In the Abstract step, you “reverse engineer” the strategies you have discovered, and describe how they work in terms that make sense to your design profession. The Emulate step is where you use your professional skills to create a design solution based on emulating one or more of the strategies that you have discovered and abstracted. In the Evaluate step, you do three things.  One is to evaluate your design solution against your original design brief. Another is to evaluate your design against Nature’s Unifying Patterns (or “Life’s Principles”), nature’s rules for sustainability. The third is to reflect on the many ideas and lessons that emerged in the previous steps, and strategize how you want to use the next lap or laps around the spiral – and you will likely take many laps!

So in one ‘lap’ around the Biomimicry Design Spiral you:

  • Identify one or more functions that you want your design to perform,
  • Translate those functions into biological terms,
  • Discover strategies that nature uses to perform those functions,
  • Abstract those strategies back into technical terms,
  • Emulate those strategies in your design solution,
  • Evaluate your design against your design brief and Life’s Principles, and then decide how you want to use your next lap.

The Power of the Spiral Process

One of the most powerful aspects of the biomimicry design spiral is the spiral process itself. You will notice that the biomimicry design spiral drives outward, just as spirals in nature grow outward. When following this spiral process, you start at the center, where each ‘lap’ around the spiral is small and quick. Taking numerous quick laps at the beginning of a design process allows you to rapidly explore many potential options and opportunities, reveal hidden assumptions, generate and sift through many wildly creative ideas very quickly, and see what begins to emerge before committing to a particular solution pathway. This approach minimizes time needed to achieve radical sustainable innovation.

The sequence of steps in the spiral includes divergent and convergent thinking followed by reflection and redirection. This sequencing, repeated with each lap, allows you to continually drive towards more innovative and effective design outcomes without getting stuck in “analysis paralysis.”  

The spiral is a fluid process. You can dive in at any point, focusing on what’s most important to you and your project at any given time. If you’re using biomimicry for design, you start with the Identify step. If you are seeking to invent something entirely novel, you might start with the Discover step. If you are interested in expanding your pool of innovative, sustainable design strategies and solutions, you could start at the Abstract step. If your goal is to get out of a rut and spark creativity, you could jump right into the Emulate step. If you want to assess and enhance the sustainability of an existing design, you could start with the Evaluate step.

The spiral process also allows you to dynamically optimize team performance. Depending on how you and your team work, you could go through the spiral together, collaborating and co-creating with each step. Another option is for each of you to step through the spiral independently, convening to co-create after each of you generates his or her own bio-inspired design ideas and solutions. You may find that different people are uniquely good at specific steps. Whichever way you approach it, you’ll find that using the spiral can catalyze curiosity, creativity, co-creativity, and even  trust in your design team.

To tackle the tremendous challenges that we face today, we need levels of curiosity and collaboration, creativity and co-creativity, imagination and ingenuity that are often suppressed in our working environments. It might seem like we need magic powers to achieve our goals at the speed, scope, and scale needed! It may not be magic, but you can use the power of the Biomimicry Design Spiral to generate wildly innovative and sustainable design solutions, whenever and wherever needed.  

Want to learn more?

Denise DeLuca, in partnership with TBI, is offering a 4-hour self-paced online course called Biomimicry Basics. Denise is also author of Re-Aligning with Nature: Ecological Thinking for Radical Transformation, out soon.

Tap into nature anywhere: