October 2017

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October 2017

Thoughts from David Grindle

USITT Executive Director

Biomimicry is the process by which science and industry look at the natural world to find efficient processes and structures for everyday problems. It is an industrial design concept. Honeycomb structures, spider web design, the division of labor in an ant colony, all of these are examples of things that people who study biomimicry have used to make human structures and processes more efficient.

As I listened to a speaker talk about their work in biomimicry, I started to think about the meaning of the term: mimicking life--the idea that we look at the world around us and reflect what we see in other people or things in our work. That then led me to scoff because I think that would be an apt word for what we do as entertainment design and technology professionals. We take aspects of life and mimic them for people to watch. This “incredible” science concept has been around for thousands of years they are just using it in a slightly different manner.

Designers do this each time they approach a show. They create a world using what they know to reflect the life of the people in the story. Whether it is a sternly realistic set or highly representational, designers mimic life. The challenge we see in that mimicry is that audiences (and sometimes casts) don’t want to see the world around them reflected back. Each of us love to see the idyllic world we want to exist because escaping reality is a nice thing once in a while. But designs that bring an untainted reflection of the world are often far more engaging because they allow us to question ourselves. Untainted reflections need not be steeped in realism, because realism is, honestly, relative. That which is real to one person is not to another. Perhaps the characters see nothing “wrong” if there are no right angles in door frames or windows because their world is skewed, but others may see something horribly off.

So, what “bio” are we mimicking? The one we see in others, or in ourselves?

To the other side of this coin, we see biomimicry in the construction of designs all the time. The irony of scenery and costumes is that we want them light and moveable, but they should also sit firm and hold their shape when we want them to. A little incongruous in our needs, I’ve seen amazing people pull this off with structures and materials found in nature. We imitate those properties that occur naturally because ultimately nature wins out. And the people that realize the designs that are reflecting the world are using the structures of the world to make it happen.

People in our industry have been watching behaviors of humans and non-humans alike for centuries. So, yet again, people in the arts are ahead of the curve, we just didn’t come up with a cool scientific term like biomimcry to describe it. We call it design, construction, show management, audience flow, you name it. But here we are, biomimics since 700BCE!