Does science need design?

Eleanor Smith
Feb 1, 2019 · 19 min read

It has long been an unfathomable notion that design and science could be interlinked somehow. The arts and sciences have been very much thought as polar opposites and the everlasting divide between the domains is one of the most prominent within both the academic and cultural sector.

However, with pressing reports on how our planet is becoming increasingly fragile, it is vital that specialists work against the constraints of their field and become more flexible within their repertoire of knowledge, making a conscious effort to expand their abilities in order to create and adjust to a more sustainable future.

Due to stigmatised assumptions surrounding both fields and recent governmental cuts to the creative sector, I aim to investigate these deeply engraved stereotypes and whether the scientific field needs design in order to initiate world-wide and long-term change.

Image: MaterialDriven

According to Boris Müller, Professor for Interaction Design at Fachhochschule Potsdam, throughout the 20th century the Arts and Crafts movement inspired design, taking the form of decorative and fine art that primarily strived for elegant and expressive aesthetics for the products and objects that contributed to everyday life. This was catalysed and enhanced by designers and artists often being taught within the same department at university, encouraging collaboration which ultimately formed a similar mindset between the two disciplines. Consequently the taboo surrounding the relationship between the arts and sciences is historic since design has been more associated with fine art than it has with science.

In his book Designerly Ways of Knowing, British academic, design researcher and educator Nigel Cross stated that “The scientific method is a pattern of problem-solving behaviour employed in finding out the nature of what exists, whereas the design method is a pattern of behaviour employed in inventing things of value which do not yet exist”. In other words, science is concerned with how things are whereas design is concerned with how things ought to be. Müller elaborates claiming how scientists aim to understand and explain the universe through inquiry based on measurable evidence whilst defining the principles and laws of our physical world.

However it can be argued that scientific breakthroughs and technical innovations need the power of design to make these discoveries accessible to a wider audience, making the industry’s progress visible and useable. In 1925 Otto Neurath created the Vienna Method of Pictorial Statistics which in 1934 became ISOTYPE (International System of Typographic Picture Education). This was one of the earliest attempts to use design to communicate scientific data and stood as a notable milestone in the antiquity of graphic design. Together with designers Marie Reidemeister and Gerd Arntz, Neurath wanted to create a new visual language that sought to explain the complexity of the world in pictorial form. Their aim was to communicate complex scientific data through a formalised visual design language that was easily understood by the wider public.

Image: Medium

Indeed the need for design to translate scientific evidence continues today. Visual Strategies, produced by systems biologist Angela DePace and visual communicator and biologist Felice Frankel is a manual of data design condensing the most meaning into the fewest visual elements to allow scientifically versed readers to quickly extract the information they need. Stefan Sagmeister, whose studio oversaw the design of the book, notes the lack of basic design concepts in some of the figures he reworked for the publication, suggesting that graphic designers will embrace the world of scientific design when they realise how important their services are in making improvements to the standard of scientific discourse.

Furthermore Information is Beautiful by British data-journalist and information designer David McCandless is a visual guide that distills the world’s data into stunning infographics and visualisations alongside its website.

Significantly, it is critical to realise that the opportunities for re-designing scientific data is endless, emphasising the versatile nature of the arts and the effective contribution it can make to another discipline.

Image: Medium

From September 2017 to January 2018, the Wellcome Collection hosted the exhibition Can Graphic Design Save Your Life?. It highlighted the widespread but often hidden nature of graphic design in shaping the environment, health and sense of self. With over 200 objects such as hard-hitting posters, illuminated pharmacy signs and digital teaching aids, the exhibition considered the role of graphic design in communicating global healthcare messages and how it has been used to persuade, inform and empower society.

The exhibition examined the persuasive strategies employed in shaping public perceptions around smoking, featuring advertising campaigns from the 1980s alongside objects showing the impact of plain packaging and anti-smoking imagery found in formats as small as postage stamps. It also revealed creative and imaginative educational approaches that were intended to inform individuals about their bodies; from 16th century anatomical pop-up books to 21st century apps.

Fascinatingly the section on hospitals by design agency PearsonLloyd aimed to reduce violence caused by frustration due to unexplained delays in accident and emergency departments. The designers installed a series of clear information panels throughout A&E areas explaining every stage of the process, from the waiting room through to consultation, and also showcased live waiting times. Most crucially however, after a 1 year trial, statistical evidence highlighted how violent incidents had fallen by 50%.

In the 1980s, designers Poulin + Morris developed ‘communi-cards’ in the form of colour-coded charts of simple pictograms allowing patients to communicate with doctors, identifying the type of pain, location and severity without requiring spoken language. Indeed the distinctive ability of design to transcend language barriers through unique mediums triumphantly initiates a social response that clearly shows how designers, as communicators, are influential within the scientific field and are valuable in constantly evolving scientific progress. As designer Massimo Vignelli states: “Just like a doctor fights against disease, for us the visual disease is what we have around and what we try to do is to cure it somehow with design”.

Images: It’s Nice That and Londonist

The sculpture Infinity Blue at the Eden Project is seen to rise almost to the roof of ‘The Core’ building based at the heart of the Eden Project, stretching 9 metres tall and weighing 20 tonnes, making it one of the world’s largest sculptures. Designed by Studio Swine, the immersive sculpture pays homage to one of the world’s smallest but most important organisms on our planet: cyanobacteria. Approximately 3 billion years ago cyanobacteria were the first to perform oxygenic photosynthesis, producing oxygen that permanently changed the face of the Earth- without them, we wouldn’t exist…

Image: Dezeen

The ceramics of the sculpture carries the patterns of the sea and its shape takes the form of a stromalite (fossilised cyanobacteria) embellished with minute cyan dots. ‘Breathing’ vapour rings through 32 vortex cannons that symbolise oxygen, the smell of the vapour was formulated by Parisian perfume house Givaudan who developed a series of fragrances inspired by the primordial world.

Japanese architect Azusa Murakami and British artist Alexander Groves, the founders of Studio Swine, say “Infinity Blue gives physicality to the invisible elements our existence depends on; our breathable atmosphere, microbial life and deep time”.

Therefore, it is clear to see that the sculpture highlights one of the most important contributions design offers science: visualisation. In fact this was proven when a famous Nobel Laureate chemist made molecular models out of clay; a material traditionally belonging to the arts. This way of working demonstrates a better way of thinking about the world, with art helping science to broaden its perspective. Additionally, physicist Niels Borg was inspired by Cubism and the ‘Principle of Simultaneity’ when seeking to understand electrons. As a result it can be argued that the arts provide new insights and perspectives that sow the seeds of scientific innovation.

Images: Infinity Blue (screenshots), Studio Swine

Naturally we have to recognise that scientific progress has reached a level of depth and complexity that makes it hard to (visually) communicate especially since scientific research often holds numerous uncertainties. Yet in order to achieve a better public understanding and engagement of science it can be argued that the scientific community needs to engage more with designers as in doing so its research is able to resonate more with the individuals who previously expressed little interest within the field.

Designer, technologist and former Associate Director of the MIT Media Lab, John Maeda claims “We seem to forget that innovation doesn’t just come from equations or new kinds of chemicals, it comes from a human place. Innovation in the sciences is always linked in some way, either directly or indirectly to a human experience. And human experiences happen through engaging with the arts”. He uses Apple’s iPod as an example of a piece of technology that existed for a long time in a form that nobody ever wanted (an MP3 Player), until design made it something desirable, useful and a product which could be integrated into one’s lifestyle.

Image: Vitsoe

German industrial designer and former academic Dieter Rams is seen as the biggest influence of the minimalist aesthetic that dominates Apple’s products.

Rams started his career as an architect and joined German appliance manufacturer Braun in 1955 to work on the interior design of its offices. The clocks, radios, calculators, cameras and various kitchen appliances he created for Braun between 1961–1965 have engraved such an iconic mark that they still inform the design of modern devices, with chief design officer of Apple Jony Ive verifying that his work is “beyond improvement.”

In the late 1970s, Rams distilled his design philosophy into 10 principles including:

Good design is innovative

Good design is useful

Good design is as little as possible

Good design is environmentally-friendly

His objective was to design useful products that were easy and enjoyable to operate. He claims “when I arrived at Braun in 1955, their products were still conceived by engineers…we began working on more modest product language that derived from function”. With function at the heart of design, Rams believe that this was in itself beautiful.

This statement highlights the significant contribution that design makes in improving scientific solutions so that they are valued by its target audience. Yet Rams’ design ethos goes beyond aesthetic pleasure and bathes in the realms of innovation, problem solving and contextual awareness. Designers use these tools to make a tremendous impact and initiate change, helping to tackle and solve global issues whilst defying the stereotype that they are merely image-makers.

Images: Vitsoe

Textile designer Natsai Audrey Chieza stands proudly at the forefront of the biodesign field in search of ethical alternatives that counteract unsustainable industrial processes.

Image: TED

Undoubtedly fashion has a water problem. A 2017 report by Global Fashion Agenda revealed that the industry consumed almost 79 billion cubic metres of water in 2015; enough to fill 32 million Olympic sized swimming pools. According to the World Bank, 17–20% of all industrial water pollution is caused by the dyeing or treatment of garments.

For the last century society has organised itself around fossil fuels which somewhat defines identities through the consumption of materialistic goods whether on an individual, national or global scale. Humankind’s insatiable appetite for fast fashion paired with the industry’s lack of recyclable products consequently accelerates a loss of biodiversity, acting as another reason why design is vital within the scientific field.

Chieza is on a mission to change the future of fashion: “When you take a designer and place them in a biological, scientific environment, that’s when you get a new way of thinking that can catalyse this kind of innovation”. She uses the bacteria Streptomyces coelicolor, usually found in the roots of plants, to produce the pigments she needs.

To apply the dyes, Chieza’s textiles are placed in a petri dish with live Streptomyces coelicolor. After an incubation period the textiles take on different hues, producing an array of rich blue, purple and red tones depending on the pH of the environment where the bacteria are grown. The natural excretion process dyes textiles with approximately 500 times less water than traditional dyeing whilst cutting the use of harmful synthetic chemicals. In fact the bacteria can survive on just 200ml of water, enough to dye 1 t-shirt.

By manipulating the bacteria in different ways in order to control colour application through techniques such as folding, scrunching, spraying or dipping, Chieza can create an organic pattern, a uniform dye or a graphic print. She states that there is a “profound lack of imagination of how else we could live within the limits of this planet’s boundaries” adding “there are new spaces opening up for designers to invite this interdisciplinary sharing of ideas. I think that’s where creativity has an amazing space to expand”.

Images: CNN, TL Magazine and Design Indaba

Indeed other creatives have followed in Cheiza’s footsteps. For example, MycoWorks is a startup business intending to replace animal leather with mushroom leather. This type of material is extremely versatile with a high performance level that has the potential to move beyond textiles and into product design or architecture. Moreover, Bolt Threads have engineered a yeast to produce spider silk protein that can be spun into a highly programmable yarn making the future of textiles a much more promising and sustainable one.

Although it is clear that science needs design in the sense that design causes critical repercussions on our planet, I cannot help but wonder from Chieza’s experiments whether design needs science in the first place. In order to create her textiles, Chieza not only needs live Streptomyces coelicolor but also the scientific knowledge behind how the bacteria function in order to effectively dye her garments.

When referring back to Nigel Cross’s statement about how science is concerned with how things are whereas design is concerned with how things ought to be, it can be argued that in order for designers to innovate they need to understand how the world works today in order to create change. In other words, designers cannot jump into the abyss without integral knowledge from the specialists that discovered it in the first place.

MIT professor and head of MIT’s Mediated Matter group Neri Oxman believes that design is at the intersection of technology and biology.

After studying medicine at university, Oxman discovered that her passion lay within architecture. Despite this she reveals that her medicinal knowledge is always present since everybody is a building and every building is a body. The imbalance between innovations achieved in fields such as synthetic biology and the primitive state of digital fabrication in product and architectural design is what shaped Oxman’s ambition.

The combination of computational design, additive manufacturing, materials engineering and synthetic biology enables Oxman’s creations to formalise. She describes this as ‘material ecology’; the new age of symbiosis between our bodies, the micro-organisms we inhabit, our products and our buildings. Her projects take on extraordinary concepts, including the use of 6.500 silkworms to craft the future of architecture and the ambitious utilisation of bacteria to create solar-system skins that could potentially help humans survive in a galaxy far, far away…

Image: The Architect’s Newspaper

Silk Pavilion

Silk Pavilion investigates the relationship between digital and biological fabrication within design in the form of architecture.

Oxman and her team began exploring this concept by placing a single silkworm inside a box with magnetic sensors, allowing them to create a 3D point cloud and visualise the complex architecture of a silkworm cocoon. However, when they placed the silkworm on a flat surface and not inside a box they realised it could spin a flat cocoon. As a result they ardently began designing different environments and scaffolds, discovering that the shape, composition and structure of the cocoon was directly informed by its environment.

Silkworms are often boiled to death inside their cocoons with their silk unraveling and used in the textile industry. Designing various templates allowed the team to give shape to raw silk without boiling a single cocoon.

A robot spun the template out of silk whilst a sun path diagram distributed light and heat onto the structure since silkworms tend to migrate towards darker and colder areas. By creating holes that would lock in the rays of light and heat, the team were ready to distribute the silkworms onto the structure.

6,500 silkworms were placed carefully at the lower rim of the scaffold and as they spun they mated and laid eggs. Over the course of 2–3 weeks the 6,500 silkworms spun 6,500 kilometres of silk, coincidentally the same length as the Silk Road. During the reproduction cycle, approximately 1.5 million eggs were laid which could provide an additional 250 pavilions for the future.

This ground-breaking research and discovery proves how the unnecessary desire to use artificial materials to construct the buildings that hold us is unsustainable and outdated. Although we co-exist with the natural world we have a tendency to underestimate its potential towards social innovation that will one day prove vital in maintaining our survival and well being. Oxman’s discovery proves how when design and science work in collaboration with one another extraordinary results can occur.


Wearable Skins

Using triple-jet technology, supplied by 3D-printing company Stratasys, the team were able to create wearable structures designed to facilitate synthetic biological processes that will inevitably allow humans to travel to and survive on the most inhospitable planets. Oxman states “This is the first time that 3D-printing technology has been used to produce a photosynthetic wearable piece with hollow internal channels designed to house microorganisms”.

The structures were formed from a combination of different plastic materials that produced various densities and transparencies. A series of channels were designed to allow liquid to flow through them, housing photosynthetic organisms that would generate energy from light and transfer onto the garment’s wearer.

To accomplish the project the team needed to contain the bacteria and control their flow. Therefore, similarly to the periodic table, they came up with their own index of elements: new lifeforms that were computationally grown, additively manufactured and biologically augmented.

3D-printing their own channels would ensure effective control over the flow of the liquid bacteria. The first garment combined two microorganisms: cyanobacteria and E. coli. One converts light into sugar, the other consumes that sugar and produces biofuels useful for the built environment. Before this experiment these two microorganisms had never before interacted with each other in the natural world.

In order to contain the relationship between the two, the team created a single channel that resembled that of the digestive tract, helping to maintain the flow bacteria and alter their function along the way. They then started growing these channels onto the human body, varying material properties according to the desired functionality. Where more photosynthesis was required, the team would design more transparent channels. In total, the entire length of this wearable digestive system spanned 60 metres, equivalent to half the length of a football pitch and 10 times as long as the small intestines.

Oxman reveals that “in the near future, such functions will augment the wearer by scanning our skins, repairing damaged tissue and sustaining our bodies”; a phenomenal experiment that has never before been attempted.

In 2018 Oxman was awarded the Design Innovation Medal at London’s Design Festival, a tribute to designers who are making, or have made, a significant difference to our lives through their innovation, originality and imagination. Oxman’s code of conduct undeniably challenges the way we regard the interdependence between design and science, blurring the line between what was once a vicious dichotomy.

Images: Dezeen

It is thought that the arts are poised to transform the economy within the 21st century just as science and technology previously did. Although the media voice how society need to invest into STEM industries in order to spur innovation and grow economies, Stephen Beal, President of California College of the Arts, and John Maeda believe that we need to expand the slogan to include the arts so that it reads STEAM. Artist-in-residence programmes in scientific laboratories are slowly coming into fruition and although small, are seen as desirable for many scientists, highlighting the need for this collaborative relationship.

This mindset is very much in keeping with the MIT Media Lab’s unorthodox approach to collaborative research with Joi Ito, the director of the MIT Media Lab, stating that “Connecting science and design is the future of the Media Lab”. Since its inception in 1985, MIT Media Lab has embraced the ideals of antidisciplinary work, differing from the likes of interdisciplinary work. Ito describes that “Interdisciplinary work is when people from different disciplines work together. But antidisciplinary is something very different; it’s about working in spaces that simply do not fit into any existing academic discipline- a specific field of study with its own particular words, frameworks, and methods.”

As a result, Ito and a team of MIT Media Lab professors recently launched the Journal of Design and Science (JoDS) as a way to explore and encourage antidisciplinary work. The first edition features papers from Ito himself, Kevin Slavin, Neri Oxman, and Danny Hillis- the pioneers in fields such as AI, game design, and digital fabrication, all of whom embrace the idea of interconnectedness between disciplines.

Image: MIT Spectrum

This leads me to determine that both design and science need each other. Similarly, astronaut Mae Jamison believes that the arts and science are “manifestations of the same thing. They are avatars of human creativity”. The studio and laboratory are hubs of inventiveness, where the iterative and practical process ensures advances in both fields. Both require research, observation, experimentation, discovery, collaboration and innovation.

The world is quickly changing and it is becoming naïve to believe that these two domains can continue in isolation when that opinion is what threatens society’s future. The way in which our planet is communicated to its inhabitants should not be limited to numerical form but instead should engage and spark curiosity amongst the population through innovative and insightful solutions that use design’s expertise.

As a community we need to become more accepting of collaboration and not let a job label define what we can and cannot achieve. It is a suffocating attitude to adopt when you realise the possibilities, mentioned above, that cooperation can bring when you allow it.

What I have come to perceive is that everyone seeks knowledge however it is the way you discover it which reveals that knowledge sooner.

Eleanor Smith

Written by

Currently studying BA (Hons) Graphic Design at Falmouth University with a passion for editorial, branding, art direction and writing.

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