4th Year Graduating Projects

Exploring Growth as Design

While most contemporary products may have the attributes of being economical, convenient and pleasing to the eye, they also tend to be monotonously mundane, inherently destructive of the environment, representative of grossly inequitable employment practices, culturally damaging in their blanket distribution and ethically questionable in terms of their marketing.

Stuart Walker (2006, p.10)

This project was initially triggered by the bleak realisation that anything I produce as a Designer will ultimately end up in a landfill, whether this be 1 year or 100 years after its design inception.

Leading me to greatly re-asses my practice and its implications. In the search for a more sustainable way of making I came across BioDesign: The collaboration between biology and design. This field has gained a renewed traction with recent bio-technological advances. The diverse material and functional opportunities that engaging with living materials has to offer represents a great attraction for designers.

The main aim of this project will be to explore material growth and properties in order to produce unique designs engineered by nature, addressing the growing desire for bespoke products through an alternative way of manufacturing. Through co-designing with nature, I hope to produce unexpected outcomes both for me and for the user
following a more ‘life-sustaining’ approach to product creation.


After decades of faithful study, ecologists have begun to fathom hidden likenesses among many interwoven systems. …a canon of nature’s laws, strategies, and principles…

Nature runs on sunlight.

Nature uses only the energy it needs.

Nature fits form to function.

Nature recycles everything.

Nature rewards cooperation.

Nature banks on diversity.

Nature demands local expertise.

Nature curbs excesses from within.

Nature taps the power of limits.

Janine M. Benyus (1997, p.7)

I began by defining nature’s way of manufacturing by adhering to Janine M. Benyus’ criteria synthesis of nature’s manufacturing material process:

  • Life-friendly manufacturing processes
  • An ordered hierarchy of structures
  • Self-assembly
  • Templating on crystals with proteins

With these parameters of what it means to design like nature, I could begin to build a framework for my ‘Growth as Design’ practice. I wanted to explore changes in morphology obtained from non-heat/beat/treat approaches but first I decided to begin testing precisely with the heat/beat/treat to gain quick insight into fast changes in morphology. Heat/beat/treat approaches are those involving heating materials at extreme temperatures, beating them into shape, or treating them with harsh chemicals.

They served their purpose of playing with morphology in 3 key ways:

  • A material surface that morphs by the addition of another (they all changed shape once hot wax was added)
  • A form that changes in property by the addition of another material (a once flexible material, has now become of rigid and ‘brittle’ structure)
  • A material surfaces that affords new functions (before the wax was added, water could not be contained in the mesh structures)

With these findings in mind I began employing materials that would change in morphology through non-heat/beat/treat approaches such as rice paper.

By providing a base structure I could maintain the co-creating aspect of my practice, Designer would guide the structure and it would be completed by the change in morphology of the living material. I then applied this to yeast (living material) obtaining the following results.

Testing 1
Testing 2
Testing 3
Testing 4

From this experimentation I concluded that for an object to be deemed co-designed with nature, its purpose must be completed by the growth of the living material. This completion can be understood through one or more of the following criteria:

– aesthetics: the visual aspect of the object is it’s main purpose, and thus a morphing of this results in a completion of the product.

– properties: the addition of the living material affords new properties not previously existing in the product.

– function: the living material affords the physical function of the product.

which have been mapped from my initial quick-wax experiment observations.


In order to gain deeper understanding of co-designing with materials, I needed to explore material development and testing, as the methodology would aid me in deciding whether I would want to pursue a bio-based material approach or continue to employ materials as co-designers.

3 Areas of focus.

Material Making

Pulp Foam: Combination of Waste paper, water and dishwashing liquid
Test 1: Dried Paper Pulp Foam
Different Materials: (Top Left: Dark street leaves, Waste Paper. Bottom Left: Brown street leaves, Cardboard)
Test 2: Tissue Foam
Test 3: Cardboard Foam
Test 4: Dark Street Leaves
Test 5: boiled Mandarin Peel
Test 6: dried Mandarin Peel Foam

Natural Foams: (possibility for packaging)

The way in which these materials dried led me to keep exploring a change in morphology through water evaporation, similar to how rice paper dried. This time I used Agar Agar (as a proxy for Microfibrillar Cellulose) as my main material.

3D printed (PLA) 0.3mm structures covered in Agar Agar solution

These explorations have re-defined some of my initial project aims, as they are not necessarily living materials but they do involve an alternative to heat/beat/treat manufacturing. (Criticism: Despite Agar being the main active ingredient, the structures are made from PLA, which has been heated to high temperatures, would need to find alternatives)

Material Agency

Through exploring design practices and working with yeast, some connections started to build. Until now I had seen Biodesign through the lens of a new edge-cutting design field mainly involving technology. However, the more I worked with how yeast grew and changed, the more I noticed it had a lot in common with craftsmanship and design fields such as ceramics, bakery and glass-making. All containing materials change in shape through manual ‘moulding’ during the design process, and which are sensitive to their environments (temperature, component proportions, humidity..).

Grid separating different experiment outcomes based on yeast (living material) vs sugar(food) concentrations
Test 1: Pushing form into shape
Test 2: using learned ratio knowledge (Green: highest rise, White: low) Fail
Test 3: Filling form (aimed to have a higher growth on left side, which did not occur) Plus form offered too little structure
Test 4: Living material output: air. Idea of using by-processes as part of the design?
Initial Framework for working with living organism
Revised framework

The interaction with these materials that change in morphology allow to place this design practice within Growing Design; which entails growing materials from living organisms to achieve unique material functions, expressions, and sustainable solutions for product design. 

Key framework:

From the experiments and prototypes I have begun establishing parameters for my work as well as definitions which will help guide the next steps.

From the first prototypes, I established that the fabrication of the product must move away from heat/beat/treat and I concluded that for an object to be deemed co-designed with nature, its purpose must be completed by the growth of the living material. This completion can be understood through one or more of the following criteria:

  • aesthetics: the visual aspect of the object is it’s main purpose, and thus a morphing of this results in a completion of the product.
  • properties: the addition of the living material affords new properties not previously existing in the product.
  • function: the living material affords the physical function of the product.

From the second prototypes, I was able to revise my definitions of living vs ‘dead’ materials and instead refer to them as Passive, Active and Semi-active materials:

Active: A living material that will continue to physically develop after the designer’s rigid input, resulting in a change of shape/colour/texture not stemming from water evaporation.

(e.g: yeast, mycellium, bacteria, fungi, algae…)

Passive: A non-living material that will adhere to the designer’s rigid input, without further post-designer development. Changes in texture, colour & shape occur directly from direct exposure to designer’s heat/beat/treat.

(e.g: wood, metals, plastics…)

Semi-active: A passive material in which changes in texture and shape may occur resulting from a ‘setting/settling’ of the material into place, but these will be due to water evaporation.

(e.g: pulp, agar, clay, plaster, cellulose…)

Additionally, I began to consider living material not only as visual co-designers but potentially benefitting from their products (e.g gas production, changes in colour/texture…)

In this manner I will take forward these parameters and apply them to the manufacturing and designing of the product to-be. The revised aim for my project will move away from current heat/beat/treat manufacturing methods, looking to design using less energy-consuming processes.

Revised project aim:

A co-design exploration of Active & Semi-active materials in product development as a response to unsustainable manufacturing methods, in search for unique and ‘life-sustaining’ design outcomes.