Design, Biology, and

The Shape Of Things To Come


The Concerns of Then, and Now

It is said that it was scrawled on Richard Feynman’s blackboard the time of his death; “What I cannot create, I do not understand.” In these words, Feynman applied basic scientific logic to scientific practice and references his work within the field of quantum mechanics—in which to control a system in it’s multitude of complexities is to fully understand it.

The same metaphor can be applied to and differentiates natural biology from the emerging field of synthetic biology. Through this practice, researchers understand systems by viewing individual fundamental parts, then re-assembling new systems that perform specific actions far more efficiently than those naturally occurring.


Indeed, genetic modification within agriculture has been commonplace since the 1980s, with some GMO crop yields enjoying nine-fold increases within North America over the past twenty years; with some 94 percent of all soya-bean acreage now dedicated toward GMO breeds—consider also that there are 33 engineered varieties of corn within the US alone. (Johnson and O’Connor, 2015)


In recent years however, attempts made by designers seeking to adopt synthetic biology into designed artefacts has instead exposed rifts in the ways consumer and industry interact with synthetic biology—highlighting perceived inadequacies of synthetic biology practice in it’s capability for creating more efficient, culturally-relevant and useful product futures. Aesthetics once restricted to the labs of industrial agriculture and medicine have been shown to be incompatible with consumer practices—both in the ways these products are sold, and within the wider context of cultural practices around biology in the home. What is going wrong for designers working with synthetic biology, and why are their efforts at popularising synthetic biology going unnoticed by the public at large?

Inconsistent Synthetic Futures

Labs of synthetic biology, as a biologist and researcher once mentioned to me, “are not spaces friendly towards designers”, as context can be everything—the scope of current projects are often limited because of reliance on prescient without obvious justification, often in the form of weak narrative, intangible technologies or lack of historical arguments. Consider how the premises of most science-fiction films require a suspension of disbelief, and how concept artefacts from designers that explore the capabilities of synthetic biology could be mistaken for theatre props from a science-fiction film that does not yet exist—the same criticisms once extended to science-fiction film, considered unrespectable because of “their frequent emphasis on bug-eyed monsters and spectacular, science-induced calamities” (Telotte, p.33).



The work of designers in translating the old vernacular of synthetic biology—one of automated pharmaceutical testing and GMO crops in labs—to vernacular that justifies the use of synthetic biology to consumers (within the context of purchasable product), could be considered the first step toward wider acceptance and trust toward synthetic biology.

The Hidden Power of Moss, 2011

Consider the work of scientists and designers at The University of Cambridge in creating a table lamp powered through the bio-photovoltaic capabilities of moss (The Hidden Power Of Moss, 2011)—although the lamp can explore the function of human-microbe relationships within the home, it is unconvincing when placed alongside a regular lamp—and therefore works to make synthetic biology appear weak and inefficient, when the vast (and invisible) industrial complex of pharmaceuticals, synthesised biologies and GMO warehouses would show it to be anything but.


Further examples include the work of Shamees Aden on running wear constructed from adaptive protocells, in which aesthetically, she distances herself from existing footwear design and produces work alien to almost all consumer taste. Research conducted for the project in partnership with the University of Southern Denmark is undoubtedly rooted in reality, but is presented in a form and with a narrative that is far displaced from the realities of our lives now. In proposing a concept for the year 2050, she risks alienating those not interested in imaginations far displaced from the present, or those still apathetic with imaginging a synthetic biology future.


Daisy Ginsberg in Synthetic Aesthetics, a book of explorations on the boundaries between realms of design, art, and biology, admits of new biological materialities that whilst they can challenge narratives of mass production, this could ultimately “provoke discomfort”—not at the direct fault of designers, but instead as a result of “entrenched cultural disgust at biology out of place” (Ginsberg, p.119), a critical bias held by many consumers that designers should be adapting for and reflect upon within their own works.


These engrained biases are not unique to synthetic biology—and have been discussed extensively in the works of design psychologists; such as within Donald Norman’s work on the design affordances, and within the works of cultural anthropologists working within design; such as Mary Douglas, discussing the human obsession with “chasing dirt, in papering, decorating, tidying” as a method by which to normalise and rationalise fears that surround the unknown—“There is no such thing as absolute dirt: it exists in the eye of the beholder. [...] we are left with the old definition of dirt as matter out of place” (Douglas, p.3). It is this “dirt”- the ambiguous aesthetic forms, the indecipherable narratives, that surround synthetic biology that need to be made welcome within the design of product form before it can be accepted by the people who are intended to use it.


The uphill struggle that designers face is as a result of synthetic biology’s exact opposition to many existing social narratives around dirt within the home—a Lasky noting that “organisms brought into domestic environments often need to be protected rather than defended against.” (Lasky, 2013)


That is to say—the current aesthetic library of most synthetic biology proposals is not linked to sufficient historical narrative and reason as to justify itself to most consumer values—as MoMA Curator Paola Antonelli discusses in Synthetic Aesthetics, “Design can indeed mean making beautiful ‘designed’ things, [...] but design should be about making things meaningful. Designers stand between revolutions and everyday life” (Ginsberg, p.63). She argues, therefore, that to sensationalise for attention would be the wrong way—Ginsberg herself warning that whilst exaggerating synthetic biology futures may feel necessary to attract funding for synthetic biology, “these are essentially tales of science fiction, and they lead to debate structured around world saving-green living or world-destroying tales” (lbid, p.60), echoing the earlier words of Telotte and Johnson. It is the narrative and seeds of social change that exist within well-balanced synthetic biology concepts that make them meaningful, and give them the capability to shift attitudes across society—realistic design futures should make themselves known in steps, rather than leaps of imagination.

Sea Me Algae Rug, Nienke Hoogvliet, 2016

Crocheted Membrane, Sonja Baumel, 2008

Katharina Unger’s exploration into dining experiences with Fungi Mutarium is another proposal—not entirely driven by synthetic biology, but occupying the same space within the public consciousness in the way that it targets many of the same aesthetic points as Aden’s work. A large dome of transparent plastic covers a series of artificial pores for fungi to be grown in, accompanied by specific cutlery for transporting grown fungi pods for consumption.


In proposing the design as a possible pathway for the future kitchen, and at a time when the contemporary consumer values design so greatly (lbid, p.174), these aesthetics are important—influencing what is popular and will be marketed further, and what is will fade into obscurity. It is, of course, acceptable to propose alternate futures for relationships that we may have with objects and aesthetics—but these futures would need to be reinforced with context and then not framed as solutions for the now. And as consumers become more attuned to the presence of designed intention within objects, they too become will be aware of how the aesthetics that they invest in can dictate wider change within the field of consumer design.


Both examples from Unger and Aden are beautifully produced and have a great depth of research, but are projects that have struggled to build relationships with the popular mind, and though advance the field of synthetic biology design, may restrict its impact to an intellectual few. For at-least the current moment, conceptual projects are perceived as too elitist and abstracted for the non-designer, attracting parody as opposed to serious discussion.


Sonja Baumel’s “Crocheted Membrane”, a series of delicate explorations of design solutions manifested through the help of bacteria is another example of an aesthetically thoughtful project that at first glance, may lack mass applications. Specific bacteria are bred for human-specific requirements—aversion to cold, network strength, with items of clothing then created using the patterning best decided by bacterium. Through artistic collaboration with the bacteria, Baumel seeks to re-assess our perceptions towards the uses we have for micro-organisms—but I worry that it’s depth of research is lost on most, who will interpret it as a conceptual art piece, not as a designed product—the semantics and applications of which is are sharply divided within the popular mind.

Sea Me Algae Rug, Nienke Hoogvliet, 2016.

The Terrior Chair, Edvard and Steenfatt, 2015

Farma, William Patrick, 2015

Algae and Cultural Narrative

It’s important that synthetic biology and design is therefore relatable, applicable and visible within daily practises—Sea Me from Dutch maker Nienke Hoogvliet is a rug woven from algae cellulose onto a fishing net frame, a tactile exploration of algae and its possible position as a material to be designed with. Indeed, dyes synthesised from algae have been a part of coastal European cultures for many hundreds of years—the new processes of synthetic biology enabling a revival of traditional techniques and construction of bridges between disciplines of craft and science. Farma from William Patrick poises a future in which we can grow our own antibiotics, a future made realistic through believable form and current product vernacular—a stark white and green tube not dissimilar to a Braun coffee grinder.


And so to address the biological time-line and prescient used to justify synthetic biology is to understand the history of our relationship with biological organisms within the home, and the importance that these narratives can play in selling concepts to the wider public. To understand is to know that the new materialities offered by synthetic biology are connected with old materialities already commonplace within the home—and on a level relevant to many of the projects researched as well as my own, there is almost no other biological material with which we have a longer history than algae.

Two Women Collecting Seaweed,

Katsukawa Shunko, 1810

History of British Seaweeds,

David Landsborough,1849.

Human interaction with algae came after hundreds of million years of evolution, first introduced as edible seaweed to Chinese nobility around 2700BC—alongside the birth of the Silk Trade and the Pyramids of Giza.

Our classification of algae has always been disconnected from our historical relationships with it—but these areas of scientific research are dominated by scientific bodies; bio-fuels have been a US Govt. project since the1970s, and edible algae exists mostly in labs owned by Monsanto. These processes are invisible to the majority of consumers—and if confined, would offer a future little different from our current attitudes towards synthetic biology, driven by negative press surrounding GMO crops, or sensationalised news media surrounding the consequences of bio-terrorism.


Thus algae has existed on our plates for centuries, and also in more subtle ways as fertiliser and fabric dye (carotenoids and chlorophylls within algae allowing for permanent colour without the use of harmful chemicals), or simply washed up on beach shores. To create an object with synthetic biology that challenges the way we view living with living things is to both build on historical prescient and to look toward the future—and it is our existing framework of cultural experiences with algae that can help us use it as a vehicle for pushing synthetic biology into the homes of consumers.


Indeed, the Algaemy project from designers Essi Glomb and Rasa Weber is an exploration into design of a dye system using algae. Through reliance on historical narrative and the physical processes of a print workshop that can be understood by most public members, the concept can feel approachable to consumers interested in a synthetic biology future—as familiar as a regular print workshop. Though I would argue that the use of a traditional printing technique over an ink-jet printer may alienate some, the strides which Algaemy takes in producing applicable, relatable and contextually-appropriate experiences including topics of synthetic biology is reassuring—and should encourage further industrial, craft and bio-designers to connect with the historical relationships we share with microbes as a way of justifying the emerging talents of synthetic biology to the practices of consumers, both now and toward the future.

Algaemy, Blond and Bieber, 2014

A Japanese Pearl Diver, Hokkaido, 1950