A Diary: Designing for Ants

My process of designing for the fictional world in A Bug’s Life.

For the last 6 weeks, I was tasked with learning, understanding and ultimately designing for a fictitious world. This process followed the three steps of human-centered design (despite not designing for humans): inspiration, ideation and implementation. Inspiration, in this case, took the form of a worldbuilding exercise that developed empathy for the non-human characters in the film. This was to replace research designers would normally do such as observational or ethnographic studies in the real world that would be impossible in the fictional one. Next was the ideation phase which included brainstorming design challenges, iterative prototyping and critical review. The final phase was the implementation phase. Since this product was made for the fictional world and cannot be actualized, a companion document was produced that contextualizes the design solution.

So, let’s begin!

Week 1: Select a movie

The original list of movies included Planet of the Apes, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, District 9 and a few others. Our group members did not want to be limited by this selection and chose to expand this list to include movies like Monster’s Inc, Avatar, In Time, and Men in Black. Our group’s preference leaned towards movies that are appropriate for children (so the members in our group with children can watch the movies with their kids). Additionally, we did not want to create anything that necessitated a digital solution. In the end after narrowing our options, our group agreed on A Bug’s Life. This allowed us to design for a colony of ants who had a defined set of needs, unique physiology, and a demonstrated innovative use of technology despite limited primitive materials.

Flik demonstrating his innovations to Princess Atta. As shown here, his telescope is made of a rolled up leaf and a droplet of water. Image from disneyscreencaps.com

Each one of my group members watched the A Bug’s Life individually to prepare to watch the movie together the following week.

Week 2: Worldbuilding and Analysis

Worldbuilding is a process of constructing an imaginary world. To my understanding, worldbuilding can be approached from the top down or from the bottom up, or a combination of the two. The top down method is when the designer begins by considering broad characteristics to generate an overview of the world. This can include developing the history, geography, technological level, climate and ecology of the fictional world. Then the rest of the world is developed with increasing detail. This leads to a more well-integrated and fully developed world, but may be more time consuming. The bottom up approach is when designers begin by detailing characteristics of a smaller location within the world, like an ant hill. This includes things such as the local geography, culture, social norms, political structure and even relationships between various characters. Following this, the rest of the world is developed with less detail with more distance from the initial location. This approach results in a more immediately applicable world.

For this assignment and the nature of the movie, my group decided to work with the bottom up approach.

As part of the worldbuilding exercise, we flushed out a few sacrificial concepts to help us better understand the world of the ants. A sacrificial concept is an object or scenario based concept that is used to understand an issue further. It makes abstract or hypothetical concepts more accessible. The concept can be extreme and does not have to be viable or feasible. It just has to help challenge assumptions and help develop a deeper understanding. According to IDEO, a sacrificial concept is used as a medium for provoking reaction, response and discussion among design teams.

My team watching the movie and adding detail to the sacrificial concepts.

As a team, we came up with a number of sacrificial concepts before we began watching the movie. We decided on a department store (a physical thing), colony defense (a system), and bug immigration (a process). We thought that the combination of these three concepts will give us a thorough understanding the ant society, their needs and wants, and would help us develop the ‘rules’ that help inform our designs later on.

Since we all watched the movie individually, we all made notes as we watched the movie as a group. Comments and observations about the ants motivations and behaviour were written down and points that pertained to our sacrificial concept were put up on the glass board.

From these sacrificial concepts, our group developed a number of rules that were mutually agreed upon by all members of the team. These rules helped dictate what we will build for them in the following steps. The worldbuilding exercise, sacrificial concepts and rules help build empathy for our users: the ants. We wanted to identify physical, mental, psychological, societal, or cultural needs that can be met by the technologies we design. These rules were constantly referenced throughout the following phases from brainstorming design challenges to critiquing the design solutions.

Week 3: Synthesis — Creating for Your World

This was the process where we bridged inspiration into ideation. From the insights and rules from the worldbuilding exercises the group collectively brainstormed a number of design challenges. We considered a variety of questions:

  • What do we want to make?
  • How would the ants use it?
  • Why would the ants need it? Does this object meet the needs of the ants?
  • What is the purpose of the object?
  • Are there any alternative uses for the object?
  • How would they use the objects differently from humans? Are there additional considerations or modifications?

We followed the rules of brainstorming (i.e. deferred judgement, encourage wild ideas, focus on quantity, positive language) and generated 23 ideas.

The team brainstorming process.

After brainstorming our potential designing challenges and putting them up on the white board, we individually added notes beneath each challenge. This included things we did not know or understand about the design challenge, questions we had about them, how we might interpret the challenge, etc. When we came back together, we went through each design challenge to address the notes beneath them to flush out details and answer concerns.

Adding questions and comments for each potential design challenge.

Brainstorming was the divergent process where large quantities of ideas were generated. After brainstorming, we started the convergent process of narrowing down our design challenges and vetting them for quality. We evaluated based on a number of criteria including:

  • Does the design challenge violate any of the rules?
  • How valuable would this object be to the ants?
  • Do the ants really need the object?
  • Do we want to design this object? Are we excited about potential solutions?
Narrowing down the design challenges.

Once we crossed out several of the design challenges based on the criteria above, we voted on the remaining designs. The six ideas with the highest votes became our final design challenges for the project.

Image on the left are our 6 final design challenges.

I chose to iterate on the flying machine design challenge.

Week 4: Prototype Round 1

The first idea that I came up with to respond to the “flying machine” design challenge was a plane. Despite the collective mindset of the ants, I imagined this plane to be a solo machine because I inferred that ants still look for food somewhat individually and come back together in a line to bring food back to the ant hill. This was based on the fact that the foods that they carry in the line vary, which means they find them in different places before resuming their place in the line.

The different types of seeds and berries imply that they the ants search independently in different places to find food. Image from disneyscreencaps.com

I started sketching some ideas on paper of what kind of mechanisms that I knew of and would be most suitable for ants. Since the ants in the movie are more anthropomorphous than in reality and humans have most of their power in their legs, a bike mechanism seemed the most appropriate to propel the plane. I thought about how the ants would get into the plane and how they might sit in it. Should they be lying down? Should they be in a more casual position? Should they be riding it like a mountain bike? I settled on how humans ride road bikes for maximum efficiency.

I considered how the ants might steer the plane and got a little stuck. Perhaps they would lean left or right. Perhaps they the wings would be attached to the handle bars and that would change the direction of the wings and therefore the rest of the plane. Perhaps something could control the tail of the plane. I am not an expert in aerodynamics so I was hoping that my teammates could give me some ideas.

Sketches for my initial prototype.

The ants did not have any electrical power but they are physically strong and capable. So instead, as mentioned before, I thought that they could power their own flying machines through mechanical power through pedaling a bike mechanism.

In the prototype below, I focused on the materials that the ants would use to build such a machine. The wings are made of a bird feather since it is light and the oils on it provide protection from the rain. The frame is made of sticks, similar to the machine made by Flik to collect seeds more efficiently. A vine could be analogous to a bike chain. Pieces of the bike plane could be held together using sap or leaves that tie around separate pieces of the frame. Other materials are labeled on the image below.

The following blueprint was my final prototype for round 1.

Later on in the week during the group meeting, we brought our prototypes to the group for “usability testing”. This took the form of design and usability critique of our initial ideas or Prototype 1.

Points that were brought up included considering using natural enemies of the ants such as birds or larger flying bugs, using human-made materials, and considering camouflage for safety. The thoughts, additional ideas and critiques from the team were taken into consideration for the next iteration.

Week 5: Prototype Round 2

For this second round of prototyping, I kept in mind the ideas and suggestions put forth by the rest of my group. While I kept the main powering mechanism of the bike and using mechanical power and natural materials, I made major alterations to the initial design. I was taken by the concept of using the bird and the concept of camouflage. Keeping this in mind, I came up with the idea of making an ornithopter for the ants. It has an advantage over the plane design since it allows for more granular control and hovering in place. It would use the wings of another insect such as a butterfly or a grasshopper and use its exoskeleton as the exterior of the machine. This way, when the ants use the ornithopter, they can camouflage as another larger bug.

A grasshopper and its moulted exoskeleton. Image from dailymail.co.uk

In the movie, there is a scene where the moth was able to distract the bird when they are being hunted in the valley between the ants’ island and the rest of the area. At the end of the movie though, the bird eats Hopper the grasshopper. So I thought that a moth would be a better option for the ants’ ornithopter wings. Additionally, butterfly wings are much larger which may provide better lift, can take more damage, and is a more effective camouflage.

The Gypsy the moth distracting the bird. Image from disneyscreencaps.com.

Based on this, I chose to make my prototype with butterfly or moth wings. In terms of how to steer the ornithopter, the ant could lean left or right like a sparrow to change the angle of attack. Straps can hang down from the top wing attachment member that the ants wear like backpack straps would keep them attached to the chassis of the ornithopter. It would serve a dual purpose: help steering using their body weight and keep them from falling out of the ornithopter.

The following .gif shows how the wings would flap as the crank rotates.

Second round of ‘usability testing’.

I brought this to my group and we did a second round of critiquing. This time around, there were fewer comments. The main take-away was adding a basket for the ants like on Flik’s device. I imagined that it would be built the same way that Flik built his, with a blade of grass hanging between two sticks.

The basket that holds the seeds in Flik’s machine. Image from disneyscreencaps.com.

Additional considerations included:

  • Where would they store it?
  • Would they be comfortable using it?
  • Is comfort important to them? What do the rules say?
  • Which rules does this invention support?
  • Would this machine be easy to repair if it broke away from the ant hill?

Week 6: Final Product and Companion Document

This last stage took us from ideation to implementation. This was made of the last prototype plus its new revisions resulting in the final product that would launch in this fictional Pixar world.

For the final prototype, I created a 3D model in Sketchup so that it would be easier to visualize all sides of the ornithopter. I thought about some of the suggestions from the previous round of critiquing and added the basket for storage. I imagined that the ants would us this machine for defense and gathering more food at longer distances from the ant hill. Perhaps even at night, the ants could add a glowing mushroom to the front of their ornithopter (it might not work with the camouflage though).

The rules that the ornithopter most strongly reflect are rules 3 and 4:

3 Ants are very resourceful and are able to use any material in their surrounding area to their advantage. This is reflected in the sticks, sap, leaves and moulted bug parts that are used to make the ornithopter.

4 The ants’ main needs are very basic, mainly physiological and safety related. The ornithopter addresses some of these needs as a tool for gathering food and water. It can also be used as a defense mechanism from birds and other larger predatory bugs.

The concept of comfort was brought up and I reviewed scenes in the movie to gain insight. Comfort did not seem to be a consideration of the ants. They have very basic needs: food, safety and water. They do have entertainment but only the celebrated ever sit, and when they do sit, they sit on rocks or other hard surfaces like a pencil. Perhaps ants find hard surfaces comfortable. They do have a hard exoskeleton that humans do not have. Or maybe they do not really care about their own personal comfort. Either way, comfort as defined by humans such as cushy pillows and soft fabrics are not a great concern for the ants. In response to this, I took away the seed bike seat in Prototype 2.

The circus bugs sitting on rocks. Image from disneyscreencaps.com.

I also kept in mind the issue of assembly and how the ants would repair the machine if any components ever broke. So I decided to highlight this in my companion document. My main physical prototyping was to understand how certain materials would look in 3D space. The crank was especially difficult to visualize so I made it out of a paper clip. I also prototype of the basket where I stole a mint leaf off my sister’s plant and “glued” the leaf between two tooth picks using Nutella as my tree sap.

The transition to the physical world: a crank made of a paper clip to help with the 3D modeling.

The following video was produced in Sketchup. It is the 3D model of the product. Since I’ve never used Sketchup before, there are some details of the model that I imagined to be different but was limited by my rudimentary skill level with using this new software.

For the companion document, I created an IKEA assembly instruction manual using a combination of Sketchup and Illustrator. The manual can be found here.

I acknowledge that the icon for the tree sap uses the shape of a typical glue bottle that only humans would use but just using the icon in the middle would have been too difficult for human readers to understand.

On the second page of the instruction manual, it indicates that the ants need butterfly wings and tree sap which are not included in the box (as though this product can actually be bought at an ant-sized IKEA). The sap would be used to glue the individual pieces of the frame together.

Also on the second page is the typical IKEA introduction page where they say without words what to and not to do when assembling the product. Adhering to the rules from week 2 that states that the ants are a collective society, I suggest so through the manual that the machine cannot be assembled alone.

This IKEA manual was modeled after the IKEA assembly manual that I had for the Klippan loveseat couch that my family recently bought. It comes with two manuals, one for the main couch and a second for the couch cover. I adopted this two-manual style for my manual and, as indicated on page 10, there is a second manual that teaches the ants to add the basket.

In case you’re curious, the name Fjäril on the front page of the IKEA assembly manual means “butterfly” in Swedish.

Images of the IKEA Instruction Manual. Logo and some images from IKEA.

The End of the Journey

I wish I could have found a way to physically user test this device better and gain more tangible insights from a more realistic testing. How does it feel to use the device? How easy is it to turn? How much effort does it take to use the ornithopter for long distances? I’ll never know these things unless I build a human-sized device and wore an ant suit (given that there were only 3 weeks of prototyping and a budget that totaled to $0, uh no). Even then, I could never do observational studies to see how the ants would utilize this device in their natural environment.

But we made it without conventional user testing. Through our worldbuilding exercises and pseudo-user testing, we were able to gain empathy for the ant population and build something that might just fit into their world and make their lives just a little bit easier.

For me, it was an ornithopter.