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The Last Possible Place I Expected to Learn Design

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 21/03/2016 Hareem Mannan

2016-03-20-1458490484-1282795-90d34f441520f37c3f3182d56f09956b.jpg © Provided by The Huffington Post 2016-03-20-1458490484-1282795-90d34f441520f37c3f3182d56f09956b.jpg (source: patternbank)
... ended up being the place I learned the most.
We see examples of good design everywhere- on billboards and magazines, websites and posters, and everything in between. But only while studying UX design at General Assembly after a degree in biology (?!!?) did I realize that a field I thought had naught to do with design was actually four years of me studying design- in it's purest form- all along.
"Picasso had a saying - 'good artists copy; great artists steal' -- and we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas."
Mimicry is an evolutionary concept in biology in which two organisms both adapt a similar design as a protectionary mechanism. Whether it is adopting a similar behavior or morphology, organisms copy others for one simple purpose: survival.
A famous example in biology is butterflies. Unpalatable butterflies have distinct patterns that allow predators to distinguish them as inedible. Turns out, palatable butterflies mimic the design of toxic butterflies to avoid getting eaten by predators, such as the palatable Dismorphia and Heliconius species, both of whom imitate the unpalatable Ithomiines species to avoid getting eaten by birds, snakes, and other predators. (Talk about stealing great ideas. Dismorphia and Heliconius can probably anticipate a lawsuit soon.)
By the way, that quote above about stealing great ideas? That was Steve Jobs. The tech world has seen its fair share of imitation and mimicry for the survival of innovative ideas that differentiate their brand from others. I'm sure you all remember 2011, when Apple v. Samsung occurred: litigation over similar designs in tablet and phones resulted in a patent battle that resulted in more than 50 lawsuits across the world. The battle over specific technological features: everything from slide-to-unlock to autocorrect to the very basic, fundamental design of the iPhone has drawn much attention into not only what makes good design, but also, what the ethics of such design look like with regards to imitation.
If imitation is the best form of flattery, tell that to Uber and Lyft, AT&T and Verizon, Netflix and Amazon, Xbox and Playstation, Microsoft and Google, and countless other giants who copy not just to survive- but to thrive.
"The human body is the best work of art." ― Jess C. Scott


We rarely stop to think about how our human bodies are designed to function seamlessly as we go about our day to day activities. So speaking of phenomenal design... let's talk about the human body! The way our bodies are designed ensures that we don't have to think about the phenomenal things that are happening in our bodies as they happen, so we can focus on more important things like binge watching season 4 of House of Cards on Netflix and Instagram. But you have no idea. You are a walking piece of flawless design, an impeccable, functional work of art resulting in a user experience that you don't even think twice about.
You started dreaming before you were even born. Your body has enough iron in it to make a metal nail that is 3 inches long. Your eyes can distinguish more than 9 million different colors. Your heart, throughout your life, will pump more than 1.5 million barrels of blood. Your blood, by the way, is on a 60,000 mile journey every day. You make anywhere from 1 to 1.6 litres of saliva every day, and you shed about 600,000 particles of skin every hour. When you touch something, you send a message to your brain at 124 miles per hour. Each one of your brain cells can hold five times as much information as the Encylopedia Britannica. It is so powerful, in fact, that simulating one second of human brain activity takes more than 82,000 processors.
All of our cells, tissues, organs, organ systems, and the way all of these interact with each other provide a perfect design system that operates so perfectly, we don't think twice about it. And only now do I realize that's exactly the kind of user experience we should be providing- extraordinary in its capacity, and flawless in its execution.
Everything is designed. I mean, everything.

When you see a bird, you might think about the sky, about wings, about flying... Actually, you probably think about Twitter. But do you ever think about a nest? That mess of twigs and whatever else birds create to lay eggs and raise their lil' bird babies in?
Turns out, they are actually so intricate, so detailed and highly functional, so designed, that you'll never see them the same way again.
Nests are designed the way we design homes to be now- minimal and functional. They are also designed to decrease the risk of predation. In fact, nest design can even influence the sexual selection of birds- certain birds literally build big nests to attract mates. The height they are established in sets a precedent for who can and cannot interact with the birds, and the materials they use are carefully chosen to repel microparasites (even going so far as to incorporate cigarette butts into the building of nests to repel certain parasites!). The way nests are designed also creates an entirely unique microclimate within the nest by moderating the sunlight and weather within the nest to optimize the environment for the eggs.
And that's just functionality. The attributes of design that we use to evaluate the design of anything from products to art applies here as well; everything from harmony, proportion, and rhythm to balance, unity, and pattern are all principles birds inadvertently use to create the perfect home for their little ones. Even the simplest aspects of nature that we might not give a second thought to- an accumulation of twigs and natural materials to create a nest- are sophisticated and purposeful: complex in it's functionality, but, in its essence, simple in design.
Richard Dawkins, famed evolutionary biologist, defined biology as "the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose." I've read that hundreds of times, but never internalized it until now. Who knew? Looks like we can learn a thing or two (or everything) from biology when it comes to design after all.

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