Biomimicry in UX: learning design from nature – UX Collective

How to apply the concept to our work

Original photo by Vincent van Zalinge on Unsplash

Biomimicry is a fascinating topic in design. The Biomimicry Institute defines it like this:

“Biomimicry is an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies.”

From architecture to medicine, communication to energy, designers have had incredible success taking inspiration from the natural world and applying them to design solutions for human good and technological advancement.

In this video from Vox on Japan’s Shinkansen Bullet Train, we see how the kingfisher’s beak led to a faster, more aerodynamic and energy efficient high speed train. Just one example from the wonderful world of biomimicry.

Also see this episode from 99 Percent Invisible

UX & biomimicry

This made me ask, how can user experience and interaction designers incorporate biomimicry into their work? To my knowledge, it isn’t a topic that gets much—if any—consideration in digital design.

Which makes me ask, does it apply to us?

At first glance, to be honest, I didn’t know. I didn’t see where it fit in.

We design for consistency and order. We align text and objects to a grid. Our websites and apps scroll up and down or side to side.

We want to be predictable. We want to be understandable. We want to be usable, useful, and organized.

The natural world is orderly and full of patterns, but our human perception of the world is that it’s random, confusing, and uncontrollable. Not adjectives we’d want anyone using to describe our work.

Much of what we do then, is against how the natural world works. The randomness of how a stream meanders. The awesome feeling of insignificance when standing on the top of a mountain. The shapes formed over time, and the adaptations of species to survive in harsh conditions.

None of these things seem to make sense in digital design. Even when designers break their grids and forego established patterns, it’s often more an artistic endeavour than designing a solution.

What now?

I arrived at this idea. Biomimicry in design imitates the natural world when the design solution is physical. The shape of a train, structure of a building, or the material of a wetsuit. All physical objects that can be inspired by naturally occurring phenomena.

Digital design is different. Users do not touch our products with their hands. Our products don’t interact with the elements, and are not bound by the physical world.

The interaction takes place somewhere else.

And that place is the human mind.

Design and the mind

Many others have written on the topic of psychological laws and principles that the best UX and interaction designers bring to their work. This is not an article to tell you that again. I’ll link to some of them below.

The takeaway is simple, and it’s that biomimicry does apply—in a way—to our design work. But since the interaction is digital, designers mimic the ways the human brain processes information.

Beyond human psychology, designers can explore how information is processed and communicated between non-human species, especially when done without language. This, I feel, is the most obvious way for biomimicry to gain traction in ux/interaction design.

As technology continues to advance, designing a future with more and more immersive experiences that are partially, mostly, or fully digital, looking to the natural world will be even more important. Both for innovation, as well as for making stronger digital products.

When touch screens are a thing of the past, designers will need to harvest new inspiration to shape where we’re going.

Now your turn. What do you think?

*Disclaimer: I am a designer with no background in biology or any other science. In case that wasn’t already obvious. ?

Thanks for reading! Let me know in the comments below if you have thoughts on the topic. Or, if you have examples of biomimicry in digital design, I’d love to hear about them.

Here are some additional links by designers who know these things much better than me:

  • The Psychology Principles Every UI/UX Designer Needs to Know— Thanasis Rigopoulos for Marvel
  • 14 Design Psychology Articles for UX Practitioners— Jerry Cao for UXPin
  • UX & Psychology go hand in hand — Introduction to human attention— Norbi Gaal for

Author: Craig Phillips

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