Sep 29, 2016 · 7 min read

For this first full week of research, I want to expand my literature resources and investigate various species that could inform my designs from a biomimicry standpoint. I added more readings to my list that involve biomimicry.

I read Skin: Surface Substance + Design by Ellen Lupton as a way to get inspiration for how designs can expand the concept of “skin”. The piece features the work of various designers and architects who are asking the same sort of question, “What is skin?”. These works offered me inspiration and expanded my thinking about how textiles could be used as both a barrier to the outside world and as a way for someone to connect to the outside world through the expression of their identities. Furthermore, there were a few projects that directly related to my work, where textiles, by mimicking the design solutions of other organisms, are used to improve the human form in order to better achieve a particular goal. Some of the works explore the possibilities of smart textiles, a medium I would like to explore further through my prototyping.

Specific takeaways include:

  • Inspiration from pieces in which textiles are used to improve the human form in order to better achieve a particular goal, especially those whose design solutions come from adaptations used by another organism to solve a similar problem (i.e. Speedo Fastskin’s mimicry of sharkskin).
  • I need to look into the various smart textiles (thermo- and photo-conductive threads, for example).

I began thinking about my own experience as a cyclist in Pittsburgh and the points at which I felt most uncomfortable or downright scared by the behaviors of motorists. These are the ones that first came to mind:

  • Intersections, specifically when making a left turn across oncoming traffic or when going straight through as locations where cars often make a right turn.
  • Two way streets with parking lanes, where my only safe option is to try to take up as much of the land as possible to prevent drivers from trying to pass me at a point I know is extremely dangerous for everyone involved (and they still do it regardless of that car in the oncoming traffic lane…)
  • The fear of “getting doored”. When traveling next to a parking lane and a driver in a parked car opens their door without looking. I’ve had a friend get seriously injured in one of these encounters.
  • Getting passed while biking uphill, specifically when reaching the cusp of the hill. There’s no way the driver could know whether a car is just about to come over that cusp to head downhill. I’m always concerned that the passing driver will swerve and hit me in their attempt to avoid the downhill vehicle.
  • When I’m headed downhill, going 35 mph or more, and a vehicle in the oncoming lane decides to make a turn across the lanes, crossing in front of me. I’m sure they are thinking, “oh a bike! Well, they’re always slow. I can make the turn easily.” I wish I could alert them to the fact that I am going the speed of a car, only without the same braking ability.

I have many more concerns that I will spare you…for now…but the point is that there are very specific, yet distinct, situations where I need to communicate and can’t. So, how can my gear help me to communicate these concerns effectively? Additionally, each of the situations would require a different message — “I’m going faster than you think!”, “There’s not enough room for you to pass!”, “This is a dangerous place to pass! — communicated at different times with various levels of urgency. I need to find a way for my gear to be dynamic, to change, and adapt to my needs, without me stopping or becoming distracted.

In my initial investigations into new, dynamic textiles, I found some really inspirational examples:

Also, I’ve begun considering a natural selection approach to my prototype testing. Consequently, I’ve started reading more around applying natural selection principles to research methods (note: I have a paper for seminar for which this work could be beneficial. I’m trying to make my seminar assignment forward my thesis work.)

Visual Analysis

I began to investigate the use of color as warning signals by various organisms to better understand what are the qualities of colors and color combinations that are favored by those species in their attempt to avoid predation. This concept of aposematism, a predation avoidance strategy in which a warning signal is associated with the unprofitability of a prey animal to a would be predator. A great example of this is the coral snake, which uses a combination of red, yellow, and black to signal to other animals, “Stay far away for me!”. This snake is one of the most venomous snakes in the world, injecting its victims with a power neurotoxin that will paralyze the breathing muscles and inevitably kill the individual.

Interestingly, the coloring of these snakes are mimicked by another non-venomous species, the milk snake, in a effort to appear dangerous. However, the patterning of this relatively innocuous species differs, giving humans and more knowledge predators a way to tell the two species apart. As the saying goes, “Red next to black, friend of Jack; Red next to yellow, kill a fellow”

Coral snake (left) and its mimic, the Milk snake (right)

After reading the New York Times Magazine article “The Connoisseur of Pain”, about the work of entomologist Justin Schmidt, I began interested in the defense mechanisms of insects in the family Hymenoptera. This particular taxonomic grouping is home to a wide array of stinging insects, specifically bees and wasps. From the article, I learned that these species use varying levels of toxicity in their stings to teach their predators, or just curious animals, a specific lesson, “Don’t mess with me!”. This message is not dissimilar to the one I would like to share with aggressive drivers when I’m on my bike, so maybe it’s worth looking into. Specifically, Schmidt noted that the form of the wasp, with its thin waist and accentuated thorax and abdomen, signals to other animals, humans included, stay away. They also exhibit interesting patterning and colors, which could be useful to my research.

I started a cursory investigation of the colors, patterning, and form of wasps and tarantula hawks (very cool, but very scary creatures). Insects like these are fascinating because they have been around since the dawn of the dinosaurs. They somehow, despite their small size relative to other creatures in their environment, have been able to avoid being trampled and eaten by larger organisms. I do question whether these particular organisms are the correct metaphor for human cyclists as they have strong physical defenses that usually come into play when it is too late to save the life of the individual. Not ideal.

Paper wasp, showing colors and patterning
Tarantula Hawk, showing iridescent orange wings with dark blue bodies

I began investigating the colors exhibited by these organisms and playing with ratios of the various colors as a way to think through their color strategies. I built out triads and dyads for various wasp species and played with ratios of colors within these to see which combinations were most eye-catching to me (noting that their combinations are chosen to avoid certain predators, not humans in particular).

  • From this exercise, I began to think about possible tests I could run with participants to determine color ratios in my eventual prototype.

I’ve began to investigate form of and use of pattern in wasps in order to better understand what qualities of these patterns are and how are they used by the organism.

My main takeaways and questions from these exercises:

  • The strategy implemented by wasps may not be the best analogy for human cyclists.
  • Wasps seem to use the patterning on their abdomen (the stinger area) to enhance the volume, or really just the appearance of volume. This would make sense given that the stinger is the wasps only real defense, so if the colors don’t signal “leave me alone”, then perhaps drawing attention to their potential to inflict damage to predator will dissuade the potential attacker.
  • What if the cycling gear enhanced and drew attention to the “humanness” of the wearer?

My next steps will be to discover species that are less aggressive, probably prey animals, that also use aposematic coloration as a defense strategy.

Protection Through Identity

Improving Cycling through Design Informed by Cognition, Perception, and Biomimicry


Written by


Designer. Anthropologist. Cyclist. Hiker.

Protection Through Identity

Improving Cycling through Design Informed by Cognition, Perception, and Biomimicry

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