Convergent Evolution: A Design Lesson

Design and evolution. To a scientist, using these two words in the same sentence borders on offensive, as it conjures up notions of intelligent design and other pseudoscience. I’m not even sure I would have ever contemplated this article until my recent immersion in the world of design.

Illustration: Jennifer Backman

Natural selection is, of course, the antithesis of what we would commonly think of as design. While design can be iterative, evolution is a system of trial and error on the grandest scale; it has neither stated goals nor briefs. In this natural system, progress is only made by accident and under pressure – which sounds like a bad way to go about designing anything. But what can we learn from evolution to help us become better designers? Hopefully the lesson isn’t to try everything until something works – design firms everywhere would be out of business very quickly if they employed that strategy. Instead, I suggest that by looking at some of the patterns that emerge as a result of evolution, we may find ways to improve our inputs, outputs, and efficiency.

Allow me to pose a simple question: If you had to design an animal that could fly, what would it look like?

You are probably already imagining wings, feathers, a beak, and maybe even more specialized bird features, like talons or hollow bones. But from an evolutionary standpoint, powered flight has been accomplished on no fewer than four separate occasions:

  • Birds
  • Insects
  • Reptiles (extinct dinosaurs)
  • Mammals (bats)

Each of these groups has achieved powered flight; in other words, these are all unique instances of the same trait evolving. This phenomenon, a concept known as convergent evolution, illuminates the reality that different groups of organisms can arrive at the same goal in vastly different ways. All of these organisms – with their unique genetic codes, environmental conditions, and restrictions – managed to evolve an ability that humans, for all our progress, can only dream of. What lessons might we take from this and apply to design?

Illustration: Jennifer Backman

The Brief Matters

What pressure drives an animal to develop powered flight? For the insect, flying might have been a means to more easily scour for food or find a mate. For the reptile, it might have been useful for escaping predators. For many birds, although perhaps not the first goal, flight became a way to hunt other animals, survey surrounding areas, and travel great distances to find more favorable climates.

In design, this pressure is the brief, and it is pivotally important. The question of “What are we going to deliver to meet the client’s need?” is always surprisingly open to interpretation. I personally think that delivering a clear brief is the most essential skill for a non-designer operating in a design environment to hone – though I don’t believe anyone has perfected it. It seems to me that everyone hands something off to design, only to be either confused or delighted by both the designer’s interpretation of the brief and their application of tremendous skill and creativity. The key to providing the ideal brief is to involve enough freedom to enable the designer to do what they do best, and enough detail to allow them to delight rather than miss the mark.

To achieve this, the designer must be aligned less on what you want or envision, and more on what the purpose of the project is. For example, rather than trying to articulate all the features that constitute a migratory bird, down to the placement of each feather, I would prefer to ask a designer to create an animal that can travel thousands of kilometers to avoid the grim realities of winter. The obvious advantages of flight, such as being impervious to terrain and allowing for straight-line travel, make this feature a necessity. Meanwhile, the need for a physiology that can endure long trips will invariably lead to a great result. Understanding the purpose behind certain features would also allow the designer to infer what features aren’t important – like a thick layer of fat to survive the cold, as the animal will be already be equipped to avoid winter altogether. Careful, though! Not enough detail, and you could find yourself with a migratory insect, like the desert locust.

The Designer Matters

Who is executing on the design? What skills will they incorporate? What will their style be? What materials do they have access to? These questions should play heavily into your thought process as you select the person or team that will be realizing your vision.

Illustration: Jennifer Backman

The insect designer is often rather minimalist – very little wasted motion, all lightweight materials. The bat designer might have been more about surprising features, like incorporating hearing heavily into the experience. And some designers will “make it fly” only because you told them to, resulting in the creation of a beautiful talking parrot rather than a beast with any particularly impressive flying capabilities.

Timing Matters

Whenever I ask designers how we can help them do their best work, I am told the same thing: They want to get involved early. If a designer is aware of the restrictions or needs they must accommodate, they can be much more thoughtful in their approach. For example, if hovering is important to your flying animal, the designer needs to know this before they produce a bulky eagle-like design, giving them time to opt instead for a hummingbird, or better yet, an insect that is even more tailored to hovering. If you pigeonhole a designer (forgive the pun), you often force them to take a sub-optimal approach – or, at the very least, a costly one – to achieve what you want.

And sometimes, no matter how good your designer is, it can be too late to incorporate something you want. Those gorgeous wings on the butterfly simply can’t be added to your run-of-the-mill pigeon to spruce it up. Even between closely related animals, one can’t simply trade features. You’ll just have to start from scratch, as painful as that may be.

But What If…

Illustration: Jennifer Backman

One of the constraints of the evolutionary model is that very few organisms can trade features. But what if they could? What would that sort of evolution look like in the context of powered flight? Could birds further reduce their weight by using insectlike exoskeletons? Could bats lend their hearing abilities to a toucan in exchange for a… makeover? We actually do see this in nature, though “see” is a bit of a misnomer. Microbes, particularly bacteria, have become quite adept at trading advantageous traits through a number of mechanisms. Humans are most familiar with their troubling ability to rapidly gain resistance to drugs. Indeed, this can happen between distinct species of bacteria, as full genes are often replicated and given to neighbors.

What can we learn from the “what if” scenario above? In the world of design and its many applications, we are often afforded the opportunity to get inputs from experts and specialists. With this multidisciplinary approach, we can take a cue from business, a sprinkle of something technical, and top it all off with some design – then, we will start to see all sorts of amazing things happen.

So, to answer my own question… if I had to design a flying animal, I’d probably gather experts on bats, birds, dinosaurs, and insects, let them ask me a ton of questions about why I want this, and have them contribute their best ideas. Oh, and I’d have a designer with me from the beginning.

the author

Tom Masterson

Tom Masterson is founder and CEO of Unburden Care Technologies.