Design in the Age of Biology:
Shifting From a
to an Organic-Systems Ethos
Dubberly Design Office | email@example.com
In the early 20th century, our understanding of
physics changed rapidly; now our understanding
of biology is undergoing a similar rapid shift.
Freeman Dyson wrote: “It is likely that biotechnology will dominate our lives and our economic
activities during the second half of the twenty-first century, just as computer technology dominated our lives and our economy during the second half of the twentieth [ 1].”
Recent breakthroughs in biology are largely
about information—understanding how organisms encode it, store, reproduce, transmit, and
express it—mapping genomes, editing DNA
sequences, mapping cell-signaling pathways.
Changes in our understanding of physics,
accompanied by rapid industrialization, led to
profound cultural shifts: changes in our view
of the world and our place in it. In this context,
modernism arose. Similarly, recent changes in
our understanding of biology are beginning to
create new industries and may bring another
round of profound cultural shifts: new changes
in our view of the world and our place in it.
Already we can see the process beginning.
Where once we described computers as mechanical minds, increasingly we describe computer
networks with more biological terms—bugs,
viruses, attacks, communities, social capital,
digital displays, and printers) have altered the
pace of production and the nature of specifications. But production tools have not significantly
changed the way designers think about practice.
In a sense, graphic designer Paul Rand was correct when he said, “The computer is just another
tool, like the pencil [ 2],” suggesting the computer
would not change the fundamental nature of
But computer-as-production-tool is only
half the story; the other half is computer-plus-network-as-media.
Changes in the media that designers use (the
Internet and related services) have altered what
designers make and how their work is distributed
and consumed. New media are changing the
way designers think about practice and creating
new types of jobs. For many of us, both what we
design and how we design are substantially different from a generation ago.
[ 1] Dyson, Freeman.
“The Question of Global
Warming.” New Yorker
no. 10 (June 2008).
[ 2] Rand, Paul. Personal
conversation with author
during a visit to the Art
Center College of Design,
Pasadena, Calif., 1993.
How Is Design Changing?
Over the past 30 years, the growing presence of
electronic information technology has changed
the context and practice of design.
Changes in the production tools that designers use (software tools, computers, networks,
What Do Electronic Media and
Designing Have to Do With Biology?
Emerging design practice is largely information
based, awash in the technologies of information
processing and networking. Increasingly, design
shares with biology a focus on information flow,
on networks of actors operating at many levels,
and exchanging the information needed to balance communities of systems.
Modern design practice arose alongside the
industrial revolution. Design has long been tied
to manufacturing—to the reproduction of objects
in editions or “runs.” The cost of planning and
preparation (the cost of design) was small compared with the cost of tooling, materials, manu-
September + October 2008