Designing living products

Associate professor Elvin Karana and her team at the faculty of Industrial Design Engineering at TU Delft in the Netherlands are exploring the potential of designing living products.

The possibilities are endless: a living textile that purifies the air, bioluminescent organisms that start to work when the light levels drop, mycelium packaging… Algae, bacteria and fungi have the potential to replace polluting products with healthier and more sustainable alternatives.

Karana and her team research the question of what would happen instead of killing organisms at the end of the design process, they would let them live. Not only would this offer novel responsive behaviours and functions in products, it would also suggest new ways of thinking and doing in design by working together with nature.

One such project, the Performative Light Project by post doc researcher Bahareh Barati and MSc graduate Tim van Dortmont, explored the light-giving qualities of microorganisms in response to human interaction. They investigated the flash characteristics of a specific strain of bioluminescent algae called Pyrocystis fusiformis. A shaking device designed to research different shaking movements – such as rotation, pulse and vibration – allowed the researchers to map the input to the luminescent output. A group of students then designed two interactive products with bioluminescent organisms to create lights without the need for an external energy supply.

Other projects include ‘cuddly fungi’, that investigates the tactile properties of mycelium and the calming effects stroking and touching have on patients, and ‘living textiles’, which developed photosynthetic living textile with microalgae, in response tot he massive CO2 pollution, water consumption and other polluting factors of the fashion industry. Another project uses structural colour produced by Flavobacteria. With structural colours, nanostructures interact with incident light to reflect intense hues, like the feathers of a peacock. The project aims to create bacterially derived structural colours, reducing the need for paint and dyes by growing colour on artefacts.

“I believe in the coming years, design research will increasingly direct its attention to living materials that can sense, respond, adapt and eventually die. This requires a fundamental change in the way we understand materials in design. It might take a long time before new bio-based living materials are widely accepted by society, but these materials will have an impact and will change our ways of living. I want to support the design of this transition,” Karana concludes. “If science, art and design work together in projects where the biological process is integrated into the design thinking and vice versa, we can bring this future closer.”

Photos via TU Delft