Developing locally attuned and responsive curricula
Department of Industrial Design
Faculty of Informatics & Design
Department of Graphic Design
Faculty of Informatics & Design
Department of Graphic Design
Faculty of Informatics & Design
Design, curriculum, education, collaboration, innovation, creativity, sustainability, local context,
complexity, opportunity, Biomimicry.
Developing curricula responsive to the complexity of the current time is the challenge for design
educators. This paper explores the development of an innovative module driven by the need for
sustainability throughconsiderationof a more productive relationship between design, technology
and science. The authors believe it is imperative for design students to be taught to investigate
design solutions from a more sustainable and holistic perspective, acknowledging that habitual
approaches to design are proving to be destructive to our environment.
We discuss the merits of a trans-disciplinary, holistic approach to project development in design
education and practice, and provide a rationale for Biomimicry as an imperative consideration in
design education curricula. A pilot project is proposed which will involve Graphic, Industrial and
Surface Design students at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) focusing on
Biomimicry both as the topic for study, but also as the lens through which the design process is
Biomimicry is about learning how to innovate by mimicking the design systems, strategies and
processesevidentinnature.The biomimetic process gives us a highly structured methodology that
enables us to investigate carefully what organisms are doing to survive. From this we can move to
and frobetweenbiologyandhumanneedsto develop strategiesthatcanbe beneficial touswithout
impacting negatively on our context/environment.
“Design is no longer just about form anymore but is a method of thinking
that can let you see around corners. And the high tech breakthroughs that
do count today are not about speed and performance but about collaboration,
conversation and co-creation.”
Bruce Nussbaum (no date)
From a businessperspective,Bruce Nussbaum, Editorof BusinessWeek,describesdesignthinking as
no longer about form but about an anticipatory, collaborative way of thinking which leads to
responsible innovation. Clarke and Smith (2008:8) maintain that people educated in design should
be able to offer organisations valuable insights in addressing problems as complex as systemic
re-evaluation of corporate companies’ responses to sustainability in product development and
As educators, our responsibility lies in designing appropriate learning contexts which develop
students’ capacity to act (Quinn, Spreitzer & Brown, 2000; Welsh & Dehler, 2001, in Welsh and
Murray, 2003:221). Thispaperdescribesaplannedcollaborative, transdisciplinary module designed
to empowerstudentsthroughadeepand critical understanding of Biomimicry’s life principles and
design methodology. It is projected that this will then enable them to innovate products and
communications in a genuinely sustainable manner.
Our job is made easier by acknowledging the unique context we find ourselves in – a Faculty of
Informatics and Design (FID) housing 14 design disciplines within the context of a University of
Technology. This unique configuration affords us the opportunity to engage relatively easily with
manyother design disciplines as well as with Informatics, Commerce, the Sciences and Education.
Our local context is constantly influenced by rapidly changing social patterns and new technology
and as such,we have begunto increase students’exposure to, and capacities for innovative design
by taking advantage of local opportunities for solving immediate and accessible problems in and
around the city.
In our broadercontext, we find ourselves situated in a developing country with a new democracy.
This presents many challenges for education – many of which have to do with infrastructure and
improvement of quality of life for all citizens. An example of this is the proposed Design and
InformaticsHubplannedforthe areain Cape Town East City, now known as the Fringe initiative. In
concept phase since 2007, the project is under way with the FID at CPUT playing a role as a key
partner. The project focuses on the need for an environment to support innovation and
development in the design, media and ICT sectors (The Fringe: Cape Town Partnership Proposal,
Building capacity for conversation and response
Overthe last three yearswe have begun respondingpromptlytonew transdisciplinaryopportunities
posed,andhave increasedourcollaborativecapacityasa faculty. Asindividuals sharing this ‘space’,
or place of education, conversation has deepened as a result of pilot collaborations, consistently
growingourcollective awarenessof all aspectsof environmental andsustainabilityissues. We found
by maintainingan opennesstowardovercomingroutinelyacceptedrestrictions inherent in subject-
specifictimetables,we were abletoalmostimmediately accept opportunities for civil involvement
offeredbygovernment and corporate business. Creative solutions to problems posed by logistical
and assessmentchallengeswereovercome throughcommitmentand collaboration, and as a result,
some highly successful interdisciplinary projects were run.
The first of these involved the development of proposals for graphic concepts for the new MyCiti
Bus Rapid transport system developed for the 2010 Soccer World Cup in Cape Town, with social,
economic and environmental concerns underpinning the brief. For a week students worked in
groups of four to present concepts and artwork for the glass panels of the terminals which are
situatedinandaroundCape Town. The processwas documentedand presented to representatives
fromthe city. We foundthat the interaction enabled the sharing of skills and approaches between
the two disciplines,suchas knowledge of materialsand presentationof three-dimensional modelsof
the industrial designers,togetherwiththe visual andconceptual communicationskillsof the graphic
Although only Graphic Design was involved, another successful introduction to the curriculum
includedthe re-design of the Steenbras Gorge information system and signage. The students’ task
was to propose solutions to the lack of information about safety in a potentially dangerous and
environmentallysensitivereserve.A daywasspentexperiencingthe locationphysically,thuscoming
into contact with all situations visitors encounter. We found that being involved with a local and
critical need,producedhighlymotivated students – and exciting innovation resulted. Similarly, the
shark threat at a local beach was tackled. The students designed some very workable solutions to
the historicallybadcommunicationonthe beach. Again, playingarole insavinglives - andthe shark
habitat- became astimulatingchallengeforthem, andthere wasnew- found understanding of the
kinds of situations where design can change perception and action.
On reflection,Stehr’sclaimof the emancipatorynature of knowledge which leads to capacity to act
and exercise influence (1994:259, in Welsh & Murray, 2003:220), is a powerful reminder to
educators of the need to involve our students in projects that generate meaning and purpose.
Nature as inspiration
In late 2010, our earlier experiences of interdisciplinary collaboration and ever-expanding
consciousness of environmentalissues resulted in four design educators from the FID (three being
the authors) attendinganEducator’sworkshoprunby the BiomimicryInstitute ata Game Reserve in
the North West Province. The week-long workshop had attracted fourteen people from disparate
sectors such as Engineering, Game Ranging, Geo-informatics, secondary school Education,
Architecture andZoology. An intensive week spent learning and analysing nature’s strategies, and
then implementing these to solve design challenges resulted in innovative and pragmatic design
solutionstoa numberof situations posedlocally.Thisbore testament not only to the methodology
introducedandthe range of skills present, but importantly, to the importance of inter-disciplinary
collaboration. The settingandcontextof a game reserve allowedpowerful learning to take place as
‘live’ situations presented themselves for examination and analysis. The sharing of vastly diverse
knowledge became the most valued commodity, and a keen awareness of the limitations of
discipline-specific solutions was evident.
The experiencehascatalysedanumberof educational initiatives through the Biomimicry network.
Relationshipswithresource-producers,civil bodiesandcorporate businesshave beenidentified and
established as willing partners for the Faculty. The potential learning for students is that through
exposure to local initiatives they will gain a better understanding of the complexity involved in
reconciling social, economic and environmental concerns as well as how their employers may
respond. According to Welsh & Murray (2003:222), it is not the collaborators themselves that are
important in an educational setting, but the purpose and process of collaboration itself. They
maintain that for corporate, governmental and private enterprise, collaboration of this kind is
necessarytoimprove anddeepenunderstandingof environmental concerns thereby improving the
quality of corporate decision-making.
We are confidentthatwe have a pedagogical model thatworks,andconvincedof the efficacyof the
rigorousdesignprocessasdisplayedby natural systems. In the next section we provide a rationale
for Biomimicry within curriculum design, and go on to describe and outline the proposed module
Biomimicryliterallymeans,‘to imitate life’, and is derived from the Greek words bios meaning life
and mimesis meaning to imitate. It is a design discipline that studies nature's best ideas and then
imitates them in artifact, process or system design. The term ‘biomimicry’ was coined by Janine
Benyus,authorof Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature,andreferstothe “conscious emulation
of nature’s genius” (Benyus, 1997:1). The concept as a whole is not new. An example of early
adopters of this concept can be seen in an early letter by Wilber Wright in which he mentions his
investigation into buzzards’ wings for design of a more stable aeroplane wing (quoted in Culick:
What isnewthoughis the developmentof the ideaof mimicking nature’s solutions to solve human
needs, into a specific field of study. Life on earth has been around for approximately 3.85 billion
years,that means3.85 billionyearsof trial anderror, selectionandrigoroustestingthatresultedina
99.9% failure rate of species. What this means is that the 0.1% of species alive today must have
developedorevolvedsome prettyremarkable strategiesforsustaininglife(BiomimicryGuild, 2009).
Biomimics aim to identify these strategies and understand the underlying principles, then apply
them to designing sustainable solutions to human needs.
Biomimicryisaboutseeingnature asa model,measureandmentor(BiomimicryInstitute,2009). This
is done by imitating or taking inspiration from natural designs and processes, by using ecological
standardsto judge the efficacyof ourinnovations,andbyviewingnot what we can extract from the
natural world but what we can learn from it. Biomimicry is thus a tool for attaining sustainable
products, processes and systems.
There are different levels of inquiry within Biomimicry. The first level is the mimicking of natural
forms. Interrogatingnatural processesinvolvesadeeperform of Biomimicry, which looks into how
nature moves,maintainscommunitiesandprocessesinformation, to name a few. The third level is
investigatingnatural systems/ ecosystems. This is probably the most important area of curriculum
developmentasone looks at how nature’s systems work together. The focus here is on the bigger
picture. To mimica natural system one must ask how each aspect relates to the other components
to form the greater whole. Possible questions for such inquiry could include: is it necessary; is it
contextuallyrelevantand;what is its role in the system? Through this investigation into the bigger
picture one can visualize the systemasa sortof interconnected web where each meeting point is a
dialogue or interaction between two or more components of the system.
At the heart of Biomimicry are Life’s Principles. These are intended to represent nature’s
overarching patterns and strategies for sustainability, and are how we use nature as a measure in
evaluating the sustainability of our designs.
The first principle, ‘Life Adapts and Evolves’ presents a systemic approach or design that alters in
response to changing conditions, in order to stay relevant. This is done in various ways. Some of
whichare:optimizingratherthanmaximizing;and leveraginginterdependence. One asks questions
such as: doesthe designenhance the systemscapacitytosupport life overthe longhaul,and;doesit
foster symbiotic, co- operative, community savvy relationships?
The second principle, ‘Life creates conditions conducive to Life’, is a systemic approach that
enhancesthe environmentandfosterssurvival. Here one wouldinvestigate if the design,processor
systemislocallyattunedandresponsive,whetheritintegratescyclic processes, and if it is resilient.
These traitsare achievedthrough:beingresourceful andaware of opportunities and limitations; by
responding quickly and appropriately to feedback; by creating opportunities for cross pollination;
and by using mistakes to encourage continual idea generation, to name a few.
There are two approaches one can take in putting this methodology into practice.
The first is ‘challenge to biology’. Initially the design brief is defined and the real challenge
identified, through reinterpreting the brief as not “what do you want to design?” but rather ”what
do youwant yourdesigntodo?” Thisapproach broadensone’spotentialsolutionspace significantly
and isgood practice,independentof turningtonature. The nextstepsare to contextualise the brief
and biologizethe question,inother words, interpret the design brief from nature’s perspective by
investigatinghownature doesordoesn’tperformafunction. The processistoidentifychampionsin
nature, whether forms or strategies, which answer or resolve aspects of the brief. One then
developsideasandsolutionsbasedonthese natural models through mimicking form, function and
context (Biomimicry Guild: 2009).
An example of thismethodologyhavingbeensuccessfully putinto practice is the Eastgate Centre in
Harare, designed by architect Mike Pearce. Instead of designing a building that uses standard air-
conditioning, natural methods for keeping a structure cool were interrogated. Here the challenge
was to create a self-regulatingventilationsystemthatwouldkeepthe buildingat temperatures that
are comfortable forworkers and residents. He drew inspiration from the thermal control found in
termite mounds,whichuse airflowtomaintainidealtemperatures(Onwumere:2008). The building
is designed so that cool air is drawn in from the open lower sections, while warm air is blown out
from chimney-like structures in the roof creating a cooling effect. As a result the construction
company saved 10% on costs up front, and the building uses 10% less energy than similar-sized
The second approach is “Biology to Design”. Here one identifies organisms or ecosystems that are
achievingwhathumanswanttodo. Thisis done initiallythroughobservationandby asking“who, in
the natural kingdom, has innovative strategies one could use to solve design challenges?” These
strategiesare then used to abstract relevant principles and emulated (Biomimicry Institute: 2009).
An example would be to investigate how animals that swarm but rarely, if ever, collide with one
another. Thisobservationhasledtothe developmentof collisiondetection and avoidance systems
for motor vehicles.
Biomimicry as an educational lens
Designeducation needstostaycurrent,withthe flexibility torespondtomultiple external and
internal requirements. Thesecouldrange fromthe size of student cohort, industry’sneedsandnew
technologies toplace of delivery(instudiooroff-campus). The curriculumneedstoevolveand
adapt inorderto stay relevant.
Possibilitiesforcurriculadevelopersandhow theycan draw from life’sprinciplesare presentedin
Curricula should adapt and evolve by:
- Being designed with context in mind
- Being designed to be responsive, and
- Improve resilience through taking into account:
building in feedback loops
using simple common building blocks
Curricula can be designed to create conditions conducive to life by:
- Identifying neighbours and creating productive, mutually beneficial relationships
Table 1: potential curriculum development guidelines
The pilot module
The aim is to pilot the integration of this approach by running an interdisciplinary module in the
second term of 2011 involving students in Graphic, Product and Surface design.
Fig 1: Module structure
As all designdisciplinesdependoncreativityandproblem solving,thispedagogicmodelis consistent
withcurrentand historicmodesof learning indesigndisciplines.The module usesreflective practice
as a basisfor learning,whichisconsistentwiththe iterative process of design and rolls out in three
distinct phases namely:
Phase 1: A weekissetaside forstudentstoabsorband practice the Biomimicry designmethodology.
After a two-day workshop run by the South African representative of the Biomimicry Institute we
thenmove onto the methodology and available tools while working on short exercises to put into
practice what is being learned. Students will be shown how to use AskNature, an online resource
where biologyanddesigncross-pollinate providingarichsource of information where they can find
biological blueprints and strategies, bio-inspired solutions and design sketches, talk to and
collaborate withotherbiomimics as well as contribute case studies and pictures (AskNature 2008).
Time for reflectionandpresentation of research and findings is an important part of the process of
immersion into the field. Field trips will take participants into various local biomes in order to
engender appropriate listening and noticing behaviours. In working within these areas alongside
relevant experts, we would be identifying the needs or problems that require
Phase 2: A potential projectpartnerhasbeenidentifiedtodevelopabrief thatislocallyattuned and
responsive tothe needs of the Cape Town community. As the module coincides with Cape Town’s
Water Week,the theme of water as a natural resource has been decided on. This intention blends
well with the ‘Reclaim Camissa’ project. The project is located in Cape Town at the foot of Table
Mountain and is described by von Zeil as a ‘stewardship for the waters that flow from Table
Mountain to the sea’ (2010). The aim of this project is to reclaim the common heritage of Camissa,
‘the very waters that defined the location of the City of Cape Town, reflecting the public past and
embracinga newcivicinfrastructure - thistime inspired by a deliberate recognition and respect for
the social / cultural andecological significance of thiswater’ (ibid).Thisinitiative hasthe potential to
yieldsome veryinterestingdesignproblemsandissuesdue toitsecological,economic,historical and
socio-political layers. Forthe projectchallenge studentswill workingroupsof five, using the lens of
Biomimicrytodevelopinnovativesolutionstothe problemsidentifiedwithinthe localizedcontextof
Cape Town’s CBD.
Other project partners are Biomimicry SA, Creative Cape Town, and For Love Of Water or FLOW.
Creative Cape Town communicates, supports and facilitates the development of the creative and
knowledge economy in the Central City of Cape Town, it’s key aim being to facilitate dynamic
partnershipsinthe central citytopositionitas a leadingcentre forknowledge,innovation,creativity
and culture in South Africa (2011). FLOW is a solution and innovation based national campaign
aiming to instill awareness and create practical solutions regarding our water supply.
The module will conclude with presentations for assessment. This is designed to support learning
formativelyatthisstage,andispart of the continuousassessmentpolicyatthis level. Students will,
intheirgroups,delivertheirdesignsolutionsaspresentationstothe appropriate stakeholdergroups
and partners. Opportunity exists for the presentation of the more successful ideas at the Young
Water Professionals conference in July 2011.
Phase 3: Having completed the first two phases of the module, a further week is devoted to
retrospective reflection. This will involve students making further improvements to their designs
accordingto recommendations made by stakeholders at the assessment stage, and reporting back
on insightsgainedduringthe process.Thiswill engender the notion that design does not stop at an
evaluationpoint,butthatlearningisacontinuumthroughwhichwe can arrive at fully resolved and
workable solutions. Continuous and rigorous testing needs to be understood as part of the design
process,sidestepping students’commonmisunderstanding of assessment as judgmental and final.
Roles of faculty staff
After an initial phase of guidance and facilitation, staff will follow a learner-centered approach,
collaboratingwithandworkingalongside studentsastheyuse the methodology toexplore solutions.
In this way roles become decentralised and distributed and knowledge is co-created and shared,
using a bottom-up approach.
The interdisciplinary approach
The interdisciplinaryapproachisitself biomimeticinthe way that it helps students develop a sense
of mutual appreciationandinterdependence - these are keyaspectsgoverning any living organisms
success story. Students recognize how ‘similar their underlying crafts are and then also see how
incomplete either craft is when enacted in isolation’ (Welsh & Murray, 2003:223). In this way we
endorse the idea that life works around simple common building blocks and how they connect to
create the whole. Itisour belief that,workinginthisway, students tap into a wider knowledge and
personalitybase (Haynescitedin Jones) where theycanlearntobe the problem solvers and change
agents we need in society today (Staples 2005:18).
In addition, the aspectof mentorshipandleadership isadded tothe dynamicas groups are made up
of a combination of third and fourth years. Students in their fourth year will be expected to play a
project management role. It is our belief that Biomimicry provides us as educators with a very
positive andproactive approach to teaching sustainability. There is overwhelming evidence of the
lack of respect shown to the environment by human beings and this creates a negative, rather
hopeless perception. Biomimicry begins rather by ‘inspiring admiration for the remarkable
adaptations that organisms historically deemed ‘lower’ or ‘primitive’ employ’, and therefore
encourages us to take a more humble view of our relationship to life on Earth (Staples, 2005:5).
Why Biomimicry in Design Education?
We believe thatwe canenergize ourcurriculum by including Biomimicry for the following reasons:
• to encourage students to ‘develop a better understanding of how naturally occurring processes
and patternsmaybe usedasdesigninspirationforthe developmentof forms, structures, systems
and interactions.’ (Ontario College of Art and Design Biomimicry 1: Points of Departure)
• by being cognizant of natural patterns and the way we intuitively ‘read’ archetypal patterns we
stand a better chance of designing better communication, products and systems.
• recognisingpatternisone of humanities greatest abilities - it is what helps us to make sense of a
chaoticworldallowingustosee contrast as well assimilarity(Macnab, 2008:9). Patternawareness
runs deep, as designers we are able to touch on universal concepts to communicate.
To site a graphic example, in this logo design by Herb Lubalin, the shape of the letterform ‘O’
becomes the womb for an embryonic ampersand.
Fig. 2: Herb Lubalin’s mother and child logo (McAlhone & Stuart 1998:86).
There isan economicuse of elements,optimizingrather thanmaximising,multifunctional inthe way
information is layered and how the letter-forms are exploited to reveal function.
An aimfor thismodule istodraw attentiontowardthe source,andto create consciousdesignthatis
‘naturallyaesthetic,efficientandenduring by its very nature of being nature’ (Macnab, 2008:10). In
effect,these approachesopenapathfor a perspective shiftbytransferringenergiestocreativityand
ingenuity,revealingsolutionsand sustainability(Staples2005:5). We will attempttomimic the basic
principles of ecology in the way that the module is structured and run, so that we encourage
‘interdependence, recycling, partnership, flexibility, diversity, and as a consequence of all those ,
sustainability’ (Capra, 1996:304).
It is our hope that by introducing students to Biomimicry it will help develop them as mature
designers with a sense of responsibility toward their environment and fellow human beings.
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