Packaging Inspiration from Nature

Looking to nature can change the way designers think – and the way we make.

The Packaging Genius of Nature

Consider the strawberry. Around the world, this delicious fruit quietly transforms its natural packaging from white to red, signaling that it’s ready to eat. The external layer is a high-performance material, protecting from spoilage and moisture, yet also biodegradable and made with abundant materials. It blurs the line between packaging and product, and invites us to look deeper. In this conversation with IDEO’s Jane Fulton Suri, Partner and Chief Creative Officer, and Tim McGee, Biologist, at IDEO we’ll consider how nature’s packaging flair can change the way designers make – and the way we think.

IDEO (pronounced ‘eye-dee-oh’ is an award-winning global design firm that takes a human-centered, design-based approach to helping organizations in the public and private sectors innovate and grow.

Why is IDEO looking to nature for design inspiration?

Jane: As designers, whether we’re creating packaging, products or places, we usually think first of human purpose and pleasure. Nature’s elegance inspires us with beautiful forms, folds, spirals, patterns, shapes, layers, materials and colors – immeasurably enriching human imagination. But three current opportunities in design prompt us to also seek guidance from nature: environmental impact, complex systems and new technologies for production.

Tim: We tend to talk about ‘nature’ as encompassing all living organisms on Earth – their interactions, behaviors, systems, and incredible diversity. Packaging in nature offers a multitude of mental models that can change our perception of what’s possible in design. So, looking to nature can change not only what we create but also the way we think and the way we make.

Let’s start with the first design opportunity you mention. How might we look to the natural world to help us design for better environmental impact?

Jane: First, we have a much better awareness now of the environmental consequences of many of the wonderful things we create for human convenience and delight. Too often we use materials and processes that deplete resources, destroy habitat, and pollute the air and water we all depend upon. In contrast, nature’s processes enhance our environment – creating fresh water, clean air, habitat, and food for other organisms. So nature helps us see not just sustainable ways to make things but actually generous, life-friendly ways.

Tim: Yes, living systems tend to be generous in that they create richer systems throughout their life cycle. For example, the bare rock of a volcanic island eventually becomes lush and vivid green because life is creating conditions conducive to life itself. Could our designs be similarly generous? Think of the packaging challenges a tree faces in producing a seed; from manufacturing durable coatings for protection, to creating pigment for attraction, to enabling complex life cycle processes that ensure delivery or transportation with other organisms. Yet at every step of the way the tree creates habitat, nourishes its environment, and supports the health and growth of the ecosystem, which it is a part of. I think we recognize that our designs aspire to be more like how natural systems behave.

Jane: Nature can teach us many elegant ways for packaging – to be space-efficient, light and strong like honeycomb structures, for instance. It would be amazing if we could design packaging that also enhances our environment the more we use it. A few companies have taken some steps in this direction by embedding seeds in material that can act as a growth medium after use. ‘LifeBox’ for example, embeds tree seeds and their symbiotic fungi in cardboard; several years ago Pangea Organics offered its bar soaps in packs molded from 100 percent post-consumer paper pulp that incorporated organic seeds like basil and amaranth. But to be effective at scale, this requires the active consumer steps of germination and planting. It presents a systems challenge, asking us to change our behavior too. If we’re to match nature’s example to make a positive contribution to our environment, we also need to match nature’s success at creating solutions that prompt intuitive behavior – perhaps by designing forms that intrinsically invite us to treat the environment differently.

Tim: We’ve begun to see a multitude of ways that biology is influencing design. It’s clear that at times we’ll be learning from nature’s organisms the methods for creative manufacturing or ingenious solutions that inspire us. And it’s also clear that at times we’ll be working with other organisms to create our future.

One example of how designers are learning from nature is the Vitalis PET bottle, which explicitly draws inspiration from the way trees and other organisms are able to use shapes that minimize the amount of material needed to create robust structures.

Optimization of this bottle’s geometry resulted in an iconic shape that is valuable for the brand, as well as savings of 250 tons of material a year.

By contrast, Ecovative’s use of fungi to grow a new type of packaging material is about working with natural partners. Ecovative is using waste cellulose and introducing selected fungi to bind the waste material together. Because it’s a growth process, rather than a subtractive one, the material can offer up unique opportunities to behave more like a natural system. The inputs and outputs can be biodegradable and non-toxic. The system can ‘grow around’ objects or complex forms with little retooling. Basically, it highlights a shift away from using simple bulk materials to using smart materials that are co-evolved with another life form.

So, how does turning to biology help designers to better understand complex systems?

Jane: Natural ecosystems, in which interdependent elements respond and adapt dynamically to ever-changing conditions, provide us with mental models and metaphors that help us grasp system complexity. This, in turn, helps us see opportunities for design in the interdependencies between things. So, for instance, rather than simply assume we’re going to design ‘a new box,’ designers consider how packaging plays in the overall experience we’re trying to create. That lets us explore questions such as: What needs protection? From what? Where will it travel? And how? Who will engage with it? In what contexts? What needs to be communicated – perhaps emotional things, like brand and freshness, as well as functional issues? What other artifacts will relate to it? How will it be used, stored, reused or disposed of? And, of course, how might design support these myriad needs in elegant and dynamic ways? This is where more radical innovation happens, because we begin to rethink what packaging is.

One of my favorite examples of this kind of rethinking is Aaron Mickelson’s design thesis project, The Disappearing Package, in which he presents ingenious ways of containing individual items, such as tea bags, soap powder, and food bags, in forms that provide free-standing structure and strong shelf-presence when purchased new, but disappear over time as they’re used.

Tim: As a biologist I was at first surprised to find out how much thinking goes into packaging within the design community. However, the more I think about it, the more obvious it should have been because packaging plays an enormous role in the natural world. It’s the interface between objects, the communication substrate, the attachment point for interactions. Now I can’t look at any natural object without thinking of the innovative packaging functions the organism employs. Even familiar nature packaging continues to surprise and delight. For example, the banana was recently an inspiration during IDEO’s Designs On: Packaging challenge. If you’ve ever found an out-of-date drug on your shelf, you probably know that the drug label expiration date is usually in small print and hard to read from across the room. Here’s a more intuitive, nature-inspired design solution: packaging that slowly develops spots as it ages. A brilliant idea that everyone familiar with bananas can relate to instantly. I also have been excited by how these conversations are just starting points between design and biology. Only recently have scientists discovered that the brown spots on a banana actually fluoresce in the UV spectrum, supposedly to signal to organisms that see in that spectrum that the fruit is ripe. So we are continuing to learn from nature the multiple ways in which we can signal, and be contextually responsive, which adds more fuel to the fire for design inspiration and engagement.

And the third opportunity? You mentioned that nature is informing new ways to make packaging.

Jane: New technologies for making are emerging in the life sciences, specifically in synthetic biology, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology. These will change radically both how and what human beings are able to make. We’re already creating and modifying the building blocks of life – so far mostly in laboratories – so it’s a great time for companies to begin imagining how this new capability will shape their future artifacts and the experiences of our everyday lives. There are exciting possibilities for design with living materials that will challenge many of our current assumptions about what we want and need to create.

Tim: Yes, traditionally when we determine the form of the things we design, they stay that shape. We put careful effort into designing the ‘final’ outcome. But in the natural world, there is no final design – things are always responding, changing, and adapting to the dynamic world. It’s possible that the objects of the future could be more responsive, considered and maybe more alive than we might think.

Bacteria are masters of genetic engineering in their own right, packaging and swapping DNA to enable more rapid evolution and adaptation. It isn’t uncommon for different species of bacteria to share beneficial genes in order to thrive. It would be wise to look to bacteria to learn the critically important questions of why and how we should engage in genetic engineering, but it’s inspiring to work with bacteria to engage their sheer enthusiasm for diversity and see how we can work together to design responsive materials and systems.

Jane: Our colleagues Will Carey and Adam Reineck, collaborating with synthetic biologists Wendell Lim and Reid Williams of the University of California San Francisco, imagined a future where bacteria could be developed to respond to a specific wavelength of light and would grow as a coating around the surface of the light to shape a new vessel.

This was more than a simple way to make a cup. It was a new way of thinking about the experience we could have of making, buying and consuming nutrients and flavors: The bacteria used to grow the cup could include probiotics to aid digestion and add flavor when water is added to the vessel. This design concept challenges the idea that packaging is secondary to the product a consumer buys – here the packaging is central to the experience and its shape invites intuitive behavior – we’ll just add water’ to the cup and imbibe a healthy drink.

Tim: Will and Adam’s provocation points to an exciting future, where packaging solutions emulate characteristics of the natural world, going beyond our traditional notions of packaging and starting to look and act a lot more like life itself.