Biomic Design to Design Ethology

by Mark Watson, MDIA

Post graduate study in Design is a life event facilitating reflection on past practice and a renewal of focus on future practice. The reflective nature of research allows a deep understanding of the underpinning fundamentals of purpose to the work and a more stable platform on which to hold discourse in achieving new understanding in the meaning of design.

My post graduate opportunity came in the early 1990’s being invited by RMIT University to enter their Masters of Design by research programme.  I had at that stage been practicing as a staff designer for some of the more prominent and established design and architectural firms in Melbourne (Victoria, Australia)

Design literature at the time consisted of coffee table periodicals, although I did enjoy research in my undergraduate years, there was no time for deep research and practice in the hustle and bustle of the boom in construction the ‘post stock-market crash’ years of the 1980’s.

So my journey began on the back of a question posed in a brief for a national design competition “Australis Cognita” run by Artists and Industry, a design foundation of which I was a director. The term Australis Cognita was derived from the term Terra Australis (Nondum) Incognita meaning (amongst others) ‘The unknown land of the South’. This was a call to Australian designers to recognise the country of their residence and transfer the idea to design of object.

Having seen the results of the competition it challenged me to research the key attributes and processes used in design to effect a cultural identity. The Masters ‘research methods’ called for research into a selection of contemporary artefact and compare them to material cultural artefact of a control group.

To the horror of the academic staff I chose to work with a people who had an uninterrupted cultural experience of the land for an estimated 60,000 years, the indigenous population of South East Australia, the Koorie people of the Kulin nation.

Half the academic community ridiculed the project research out of racial indifference to the Koorie and the other half thought that the work was appropriation and exploitation of a disadvantaged group with the Australian population. This was also a time when the indigenous population were testing the notion of ‘terra nullius’ within the Western High Court System where the underpinning premise of dispossession was based on the idea that as the Koorie had no permanent dwellings and agriculture to identify that they were civilised (in the Western sense), then they could not claim ownership of the land.

Within this heated environment I pursued my research, testing the theory at an international conference “A sense of place” in Killarney, Ireland in 1997 and writing up my thesis in 1998 titled ‘Belonging’ which concluded with my postulating the theory of Biomic Design which at the time seemed an ordinary outcome, but on reflection it underpins a lot of the discourse that has happened in design over the ensuing two decades.

This, for me was an epiphany in my career in providing me with more rigorous depth in design practice.


Watson[i] (1998:60) “Biomic design is the concept of a holistic approach to the design of contemporary artefact, taking into account the fittingness of the function, the significance of the form, the environmental sensitivity and the love of the object. Current Western intent with material culture is lacking in a more sympathetic response to these issues.”

I came across the term ‘biome’ reading the works of Edward O. Wilson from the book ‘Biophilia’[ii] as my research led me to investigate optimal conditions for human survival while contrasting the Australian indigenous population historically to contemporary Australian society through artefact and material culture.

With notions of the triple bottom line only just emerging in the early 1990’s and the word sustainability only just entering the lexicon of design, study into biome was the domain of animal behaviourists.

The environment was a key area of research with environmental impact statements becoming standard procedure in most developments affecting at least a double bottom line of economy and environment before the likes of Putnam et al introduced the social aspect to the equation.

The environment and environmentalism reflected the need for consideration of biome beyond just the preservation of flora and fauna to develop a more broad interpretation or scope.


Through my readings in the literature review for my thesis I couldn’t help but reflect on the key statements from great minds of the past, so much so that it became pointless to write other than to reference their words as progressive postings on my journey.

In referencing Australian indigenous culture as the control group to my research I appropriated a tool from their culture called the toa, a wooden artefact resembling a stick or walking cane used to inform those that follow, the direction in which the lead group had headed.

The writings of Edward O Wilson were a significant influence in collective thought leadership especially his book “Biophilia” from 1984, where he is quoted as identifying “the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life.” In analysis of the term which can be transcribed as bio from biology and philia or “the love of”. This work came on the back of a renaissance in research and writing on perception with others in the field such as Yi Fu Tuan’s writing on Topophilia[iii] in 1974.

  1. O. Wilson (1995:362): “In my opinion the most important implication of an innate biophilia is the foundation it lays for an enduring conservation ethic”.

So “an innate and genetically determined affinity of human beings with the natural world” as Wilson put it, has now developed alongside the sustainability movement as Architects, Designers and even Scientists look for linkage in the creation of sustainable environments for human habitation, co-existing with the natural world in a macro, micro and nano capacity.

A ‘biome’ is exactly that, an optimal environment for human habitation, something that is only now being recognised fully and imbedding itself in materials science and usage, through to product design and ‘cradle to cradle’ philosophies.

My thesis deconstructed and analysed my work and my understanding of sustainability in design and my appreciation of human development over the millennia.

The following sections and subheadings identify my thoughts of fifteen years ago.


Watson: (1998:41) This facet of ‘belonging’ as artefact was brought home to me, after viewing numerous television news programs, involving stories of people removed from their dwellings and towns by catastrophe, either natural or man – made. The visuals were of people in cars, carts and on foot carrying their ‘belongings’”.

ideology | perception | affordance | critical regionalism | antipodean

The above are sub headings to my thesis as vital areas of research I undertook to gain an understanding of belonging.

A deeper understanding of ideology was needed to identify its role in artefact, how an idea grows through acceptance through time to become an ideology is a remarkable journey through culture. Product design (and I include Architecture in this) reflects a communities aspiration and much research has now gone into understanding human desire to influence product purchase decision making.

Too, perception added potency to the development of belonging in its nature / nurture connection to the human condition. Visual stimulation and ability to recognise patterns and elements of a design and attribute meaning to it comes from this area of psychology.

Affordance was a major revelation in understanding the commonality of use of artefact across the eons between the indigenous control group and the contemporary use. J. J. Gibson wrote on the theory of affordance and Kent Bloomer famously brought it to Architecture and Design through haptics.

In wandering through the coastal bush of East Gippsland in Victoria while waiting to meet with indigenous elders, I had to traverse a steep slope with only skinny saplings for support, when I reached the banks of a wide river, the theory of affordance become real for me as a set of stepping stones offered me a passage across this barrier.

Frampton wrote on critical regionalism suggesting that it was a major contributor to development of a unique form to design, leading me to evaluate my physical environment for elements that afforded me a unique connection to place.

And the Australian experience of a European heritage contrasted against an ancient culture, often ruminated from European folklore as a strange and other place on the opposite side of the world.

The work of Fuller and his experience with the strangeness of the Australian physical environment, spoke at length of the European idea of the antipodean. The antipode or the other foot, a mythic land unknown yet perceived as being at opposites to the known world.

As designers we are tasked with attributing our designs to form a style which reflects a societal mood, to attract a purchaser who aspires to own the artefact. There has been much written on morphology over time with little connection to psychology or existential understanding of desire, the longing component to belonging.

Belonging can be deconstructed to represent the existential ‘Being’ and the psychological ‘longing’ and design tries to connect the two through object. Most discourse has positioned this in the ‘new age’ category though current research in retail environments is deeply engaging in this area now.

My research tried to tie a number of elements as appeared significant to me at the time in understanding the information gathered before me. The following sections give a scant overview of my impressions at the time.


Terry Eagleton[iv] (1990:95): “Ideology is on the one hand an ‘everybody knows ” a ragbag of tarnished adages; but this reach “me” down assemblage of tags and clichés is forceful enough to impel the subject to murder or martyrdom, so deeply does it engage the roots of a unique identity”.

pluralism | hermeneutics | dominance | societal modes | neo paganism

My research into ideology took me to places identifying multiple views of society and through hermeneutics the foggy haze of interpretation skewed by ideologies from differing dominant ideas.

Societal modes reflect this pluralism of ideology and dominance which I suggested was a move towards a neo paganism with the breakdown of western religion as a dominant filter through which a vast sector of the first world viewed themselves.

Sustainability as an ideology has had a hard road to hoe against the cynicism of commercial ideology, post Thatcherist ‘Liberal Economics’ causing management executives to hold a sceptical view on the science.

Another revelation to my in study in this area was the term ‘hermeneutics’ which at the time was interpreted by the Oxford dictionary as the ‘Art or Science of interpretation’ with the disclaimer of ‘especially of scripture’, a recent search still places its interpretation as ‘The branch of knowledge that deals with interpretation, especially of the Bible or literary texts’.

Not wanting to descend into the mire of debate around religion, after reflection on comparison with the indigenous world of the Australian Aborigine, I came to the understanding that religion was a sort of ‘crowd control’ from an existential viewpoint. Life could be described by contemporary western critics as bleak around zero AD, so to could the Judeo Christian communities subject to Roman occupation in a barbaric and arguably lawless existence, the Ten Commandments were a pretty good rule book, set to keep the populous in check.

But all things evened up to the 18th century as Darwinism was interpreted through a dominance of Judeo Christian ideology making advancement difficult, even today with a large part of the world emerging from an agrarian existence, small pockets of contemporary western society are still ascribing to the belief of ‘intelligent design’.

Ideology plays a significant part in culture as it is the idea, (although changing with time and circumstance) that forms a societal ideology. And sustainability and belonging fit to this structure of what I classed as neo paganism, or the worship of a new God in the environment and biome.


Carolyn Bloomer[v] (1976:43):

“In short, perception is the process by which a person actively constructs reality. How you interpret your perceptual experiences depends on where and when you live and on how you deal with the values and significance your culture assigns to your experiences”.

nature / nurture | innate behaviours | closure | significance | world view

As stated, Yuan, Wilson and scholars such as Bloomer, both Kent and Carolyn connected the Science of Perception to human existence. The nature / nurture debate writ large the post Darwinian scientific expose of humanity’s innate behaviours affecting our human condition.

I felt for experimenters like Desmond Morris with his ‘Naked Ape’ and the opposition he suffered from colleagues as well as religious fundamentalist in viewing the human race as being a part of the ecosystem.

Closure or the interpretation of, and ascription of meaning in object was an area for study in my research.

With psychological investigation exposing aspects such as closure, where human inquisition leads to an understanding of complexity and the significance of sign and signifier, leading to a new semiotic world view.


Gibson[vi] (1977: 127)

“If a terrestrial surface is nearly horizontal instead of slanted), nearly flat (instead of convex or concave), and sufficiently extended (relative to the size of the animal) and if its substance is rigid (relative to the weight of the animal), then the surface affords support.”

context | economy | adaptation | geographical speciation

Context played a major role in evaluating objects in the study across the physical, environmental and social, context and an awareness of the physical as a point of difference was pivotal in creating a unique identity.

The indigenous society proved to me a highly structured community with vast networks of sophisticated inter-relationship across Australia. Linked through trade and economy in product and produce specific to their homelands, trade in stone tools and timber artefact were highly prized as the material from local areas would not support utility.

At this time Coppens was talking of the Rift Valley and adaptation in the move from arboreal to of homo erectus and the study of Krakatoa the volcanic island now replete with a vast and diverse bio diversity from nothing but a mound of ash and pumice. To theory on climate change or the ice age lowering of sea levels affording transit across land bridges to the lands of the antipodes now known as Australia named from the winds that carried European seamen around the Cape of Good Hope eastwards.

Evidence of a 60,000 year isolation with brief interjections from Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia the indigenous population through adaption habituated to the new environment, and blazed a new eco system through the use of fire.

Now tied to through the science of DNA to the Sub Continent and the Dravidians, the Australoid underwent a geographic speciation and acknowledged as having the longest continuous uninterrupted culture


Biomic Design

I cite this here to show the currency of my thinking as similar theory to Biophilic Design, ‘Biophilia’ is being embraced currently by Architecture today, from Yale University and Stephen R. Kellert[vii] to Architecture Australia through Darren Bilsborough’s[viii] article on the biophilic city, Biomic Design was penned to lean towards the appreciation of the science of biome rather than the art or the love of nature.

Design Ethology

On reflection my thoughts now lean towards Ethology and the human connection to it through design. Ethology, long the domain of the Science of understanding animal behaviour and environments, Design Ethology seeks to understand how human behaviour can be connected to this in pursuit of an optimal environment or biome.

A Desmond Morris[ix] did battle with his work “the Naked Ape” Human Ethology is only recently opening up a world view of being a part of the eco system rather than apart from it.

The Indigenous Australian community who in 1967 had themselves delisted from the Flora and Fauna Act of the Australian parliament, the world is slowly moving towards (with the usual set-backs) a realisation that resource use and lifestyle are unsustainable leading to a rethink of the design of artefact.

The question of ethics is emerging in discourse of design and the choices designers make and the effect on the environment, ethics linked with psychology and environment are key areas of interest in my work.

So I plant my toa anew and move on.


[i] Watson, M 1998, ‘Belonging’, Master of Design thesis, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University.

[ii] Wilson, E. O 1984, ‘Biophilia’, Harvard University Press, New York

[iii] Tuan, Y. F 1974, ‘Topophilia’ Prentice Hall Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey

[iv] Eaglton, T 1990, ‘The Ideology of Aesthetics’ Basil Blackwell, London

[v] Bloomer, C 1990, ‘Principles of Visual Perception” Herbert, London (2nd Ed.)

[vi] Gibson, J. J 1979, ‘The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception’ Houghton Mifflin, Boston

[vii] Kellert, S 2008, ‘Biophilic Design: The Theory, Science, and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life’ Wiley, New Jersey

[viii] Bilsborough D 2014, The Biophilic City: urban innovations for closing the fiscal gap ArchitectureAU, viewed 3 June 2014

[ix] Morris, D 1969, “The Naked Ape’ Jonathan Cape, London

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