Bacteria to Biomimicry: CCAD Explores Intersections of Art, Design, and Science

November 14th, 2011 by IMAGE Magazine
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Student looks at display.

A decade ago, the worlds of science and art collided in an albino bunny named Alba. Alba was normal by all accounts—until the lights were turned out. Then, thanks to an intervention by Brazilian-born, Chicago-based artist Eduardo Kac, the fluffy white rabbit glowed neon green as she hopped around the room.

Today, the same science that allowed Kac to transfer the “glowing genes” from a jellyfish to a rabbit egg is being taught—albeit on a more basic level—at CCAD. Why is this important? Because in today’s world, concerns about cost and sustainability are causing artists, designers, and scientists to find more and more to learn from one another.

“The point is not to teach the students how to create glowing animals,” says Julie Posey, chair of CCAD’s science department. “It’s to get them thinking about how science can be used not only to influence their work, but to create it.”

Student looks under microscope.

In CCAD science courses, students examine cadavers; dissect eyeballs, hearts, and brains; test body fat and blood pressure levels; extract DNA (creating glowing bacteria à la Kac); and explore a myriad of other experiments and observations designed to help them think differently about art and design.

“The small but imperative details that make the heart beat, the issue of sustainability, potential health hazards—we teach students all of this to give them the information they’ll need to step back and take a second, deeper look at their work,” Posey says.

The newest example of art and design blending with science is taught by Dean of Industrial and Interior Design Carl Garant and ecologist Kim Landsbergen, who is an associate professor of cross-disciplinary studies and sustainability research. Together they have created a course in biomimicry, in which students explore the application of nature’s solutions to a wide variety of design challenges.

Although there are a few other schools of art and design that teach biomimicry, CCAD is the only one at which the course is fully co-taught by a scientist and a designer. “Nature’s diversity presents us with a wide selection of viable design strategies that are sustainable and worthy of recognition and application in today’s world,” Garant says.

If this is the first you’ve heard of biomimicry, it probably won’t be the last. Biomimicry is being pursued by everyone from InterfaceFLOR, a leader in commercial flooring, to the consumer product giant Proctor & Gamble. In fact, Proctor and Gamble’s Behavioral Science Organization (the branch of the company that works with biomimicry) has already hosted an intern from CCAD: Joel van Gilder, a senior Industrial Design major who participated in the inaugural biomimicry course last spring.

Students listens during science lab.

Students in the course research the unique biological and ecological characteristics of a particular insect and then develop a variety of design solutions informed by their work. Like many science-focused courses at CCAD, the biomimicry class takes advantage of the resources at nearby Ohio State University—in this case, with a visit to the entomology collection in OSU’s Museum of Biodiversity, where students come face-to-face with the biology of their organisms, measuring and drawing their insect subjects. Students ultimately present their biologically inspired designs in portfolio-quality, self-published books.

“Students cannot learn in a vacuum,” Garant says. “Biomimicry asks them to look to nature for design inspiration and to think about the sustainability ramifications surrounding their design choices. It’s about understanding the impact and importance of the design process as we strive to design more intelligently.”

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Published in print twice a year, CCAD’s IMAGE magazine shares stories about our creative community, whether here in Columbus or around the world—what we’re doing, thinking, and planning next. The IMAGE blog brings those stories online for transmission at the click of a mouse.

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