From textile designer William Morris to architect Frank Lloyd Wright, among countless others, the environment can trigger some of the most effective and beautiful design concepts.
In celebration of Earth Day, here we look at ten examples from a range of design disciplines. Some are famous and others less well-known, but all used nature as a starting point for creating something extraordinary.
1. Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright
Frank Lloyd Wright designed the world-famous Fallingwater house in 1935. Partly built over a waterfall, Wright’s masterpiece is celebrated for skillfully integrating natural elements into the building design.
Fallingwater reflects Wright’s enthusiasm for “organic architecture,” an approach that encouraged the design of buildings to be at one with their natural setting.
From the shape of the cantilever, which mimics the crest of the falls, to the cave-like interior intended to make residents feel comforted and cocooned, Fallingwater pays the ultimate tribute to the stunning natural backdrop of the house.
2. CH24 Wishbone Chair by Hans J. Wegner
An icon of Scandinavian design, the CH24 chair was designed by Danish designer Hans J. Wegner for Carl Hansen & Søn in 1949.
Inspired by Chinese furniture design and an organic design approach, the CH24 chair is commonly referred to as the Wishbone chair, given its similarities to the curving shape of a wishbone.
The chair’s naturalistic leanings are enhanced by the simple wood and woven textile materials used to create the design. Wegner was renowned for his simple and nature-inspired approach to furniture design. His Shell and Elbow chairs are also outstanding examples of his organic outlook.
3. WWF Logo by Gerald Watterson and Sir Peter Scott
The simple and striking panda logo for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) is one of the most instantly recognizable brand identities in use today. But, its effective design has roots reaching back to the 1960s.
Inspired by Chi-Chi, a giant panda introduced to London Zoo in 1961, the British environmentalist and artist Gerald Watterson created the sketches upon which the WWF logo would be based. One of the first WWF founders, Sir Peter Scott, then refined the logo.
The simple, black-and-white logo has remained largely unchanged over its 60 year history (despite agency Grey London’s proposal to revise it). This is testament to the logo’s minimal and ever-relevant design. The little panda icon remains a powerful and globally-recognized symbol of conservation efforts today.
4. Shinkansen Train by Japan Railways Group
It’s not only the beauty of nature that inspired designers in the past, but also the well-honed functionality of flora and fauna.
After all, nature’s designs have been a long time in the making. As biologist and co-founder of the Biomimicry Institute, Janine Benyus noted, “after 3.8 billion years of research and development, failures are fossils, and what surrounds us is the secret to survival.”
Biomimicry is a field of design that looks specifically to nature for design and engineering inspiration. One of the most compelling examples is that of the Shinkansen bullet train in Japan.
The original bullet train design posed some problems. The most pressing issue was the large “boom” sound the train produced when entering and leaving tunnels, which posed a disturbance to wildlife and nearby residents.
Engineers looked to nature to find a solution. Kingfishers are able to enter water almost completely noiselessly, despite moving quickly from one medium (air) to another (water). This is because the elongated, flat-topped form of the kingfisher’s beak allows for minimum drag. The design of the nose of the train was radically remodeled with the bird’s beak in mind, and the excessive noise produced by the bullet train became a thing of the past.
5. Sharkskin Paint by IFAM
Biomimicry presents a fantastic resource for designers looking to apply superior technology to their products. Another example is the Shark Paint developed by the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Applied Materials Research (IFAM).
The skin of a shark is covered in abrasive scales that minimize drag and protect the shark from damaging UV rays. IFAM transferred this design to paint, creating a paint which can function under extreme temperature fluctuations, UV radiation, and high speeds, making it perfect for ships and airplanes.
The design of the paint requires no additional layers, reducing the overall weight, and therefore fuel consumption, of the vessels.
6. Butterfly wing scale photonics by the University of Cambridge’s NanoPhotonics Centre
In the examples we’ve looked at so far, many of the designs look to either the aesthetics or function of nature to inform the design. However, in some cases form and function combine to create a nature-inspired design that is as beautiful as it is effective.
The iridescent colors of a beetle’s shell or butterfly’s wings are one of nature’s most beautiful creations. But, until recently humans were unable to recreate the complex surfaces of these insects.
However, research teams at the University of Cambridge were able to develop nanofabrication technology inspired by the egg crate structure of a butterfly’s wing pattern. This manmade structure can encrypt information in optical signatures on banknotes, passports, or other valuable items to prevent forgery.
7. Alexander McQueen couture
Scottish fashion designer Alexander McQueen created some of the most jaw-dropping couture gowns the world has ever seen. Many of his most beautiful creations were directly inspired by nature, and made for fantastical dresses embellished with butterflies or feathers.
Transforming models into fairytale figures, McQueen’s endlessly creative reincarnations of nature and historical costume resulted in unforgettable shows and an enduring legacy for the Alexander McQueen brand.
8. Packaging for CS Lightbulbs by Angelina Pischikova and Rodion Kovenkin
You might think that designers had exhausted their environmental inspiration, but contemporary designers are still sourcing fresh and exciting ideas from nature.
These packaging designs for CS Lightbulbs by Belarus-based designers Angelina Pischikova and Rodion Kovenkin deservedly won Silver at Cannes Lions. Inspired by Thomas Edison’s fascination with the light emitted by fireflies, the packaging allows the bulb within to form the bodies of various insects.
9. Packaging for Hexagon Honey by Maksim Arbuzov
Nature can present designers with some of the simplest and most elegant shapes and forms.
The hexagon is a naturally occurring shape in the honeycombs constructed by bees. In addition to storing honey within beehives, the hexagon also makes the perfect starting point for Moscow-based designer Maksim Arbuzov’s packaging for Hexagon Honey.
When stacked, the jars even resemble the structure of the honeycomb.
10. Packaging for Magia Piura by Alejandro Gavancho
Looking for a simple way to inject nature into your designs? Nothing can be prettier than vintage-flavored collages featuring birds and flowers.
Botanical illustrations in a collage style add a refined elegance to these packaging designs for chocolate brand Magia Puria by designer Alejandro Gavancho. The designer looked to Peruvian flora and fauna to beautify the designs, while a punchy color palette brings the style into contemporary territory.