Natural Design

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Daniel Christian Wahl:

"Natural design aims to create resilient, flexible, and adaptable solutions that elegantly respond to the specific conditions of a particular place and culture. It goes beyond the survival ethic and anthropocentrism of other approaches to sustainable design, addressing psychological, philosophical, sociological, spiritual and aesthetic aspects of the necessary shift in worldview and culture. Such metadesign can transform design thinking in ways that affect what, how, and why we design, and thus can transform material culture itself.

“Our ecological niche is now the entire planet, but cultural evolution has not yet caught up with this new fact. We must now adapt to this global scale by reconceptualizing our relationship to nature” (Leiserowitz & Fernandez, 2008, p.37). Natural design recognizes that a reconceptualization of our relationship to nature will necessarily lead to a reconceptualization of our relationship to each other, to all of humanity, and to the community of life as a whole. Albert Einstein saw humanity’s task in “…widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty”. A Chilean doctoral student at the Centre for the Study of Natural Design, Gonzalo Salazar, is currently exploring the profundity of such cultural metadesign through the work of Humberto Maturana on the ‘biology of love’ (Maturana & Verden-Zoller, 2008)." (


Daniel Christian Wahl:

"More than 200 years ago, the poet-scientist Johan Wolfgang von Goethe wrote “Even the most unnatural is Nature; even the creation of the crudest philistines express some of Nature’s genius. Who does not see Nature everywhere, will see here nowhere in the right way” (Goethe, 1781). The recent interdisciplinary conference at Yale on the importance of a consciousness shift in the transition towards sustainability emphasized: “The dualistic separation of humans and nature reinforces the false notion that humans are outside and above nature and natural process, instead of emergent from and inextricably interconnected to them” (Leiserowitz & Fernandez, 2008, p.21).

Natural design aims at the reintegration of culture and nature through a scale-linking and salutogenic design approach that restores health and resilience, through promoting diversity, adaptability, flexibility and creativity at all scales of the fundamentally interconnected, complex, and constantly transforming whole of which we are all conscious and co-creative participants. Natural design is best understood as an umbrella term for a growing, converging movement based on similar aims (Wahl, 2005). It may thus be more useful to think of this phenomenon as the natural design movement.

Over the last 40 years, driven by pioneering designers, planners, and educators a greatly expanded conception of design has emerged. This view takes design far beyond the beautification of material objects, graphic design, technological inventions, and the support of a culture of consumption through fashion and marketing. A common threat that unites these design approaches is the notion of co-creation with nature. Such responsible design acknowledges humanity’s collective dependence on the planetary life-support systems that sustain the health of the biosphere, ecosystems, as well as human communities and individuals. The natural design movement is characterized by biophilia, an innate love of life and living systems (Wilson, 1984). Responsible design nurtures biophilia as an innately human characteristic.

Here are a few examples of these diverse approaches to environmentally and socially responsible design: Ian McHarg’s ‘Design with Nature’ (McHarg, 1969), ecological design (eg: Todd & Jack-Todd, 1993; Van der Ryn & Cowan, 1996; Orr, 2002), ‘Design for Human Ecosystems’ (Lyle, 1985), the work of Victor Papanek (1995); ‘cradle to cradle’ design (McDonough & Braungart, 2002), biomimicry (Benyus, 1997), and the diverse approaches united by the ‘bioneers’ (Ausubel, 2004). This list is by no means comprehensive. Many converging streams contribute to the emerging natural design movement.

The Centre for the Study of Natural Design […] was created in 2002 as a postgraduate design research unit within the School of Design at the University of Dundee. Under the supervision of Prof. Seaton Baxter, a wide range of PhD and MPhil research projects have contributed to sketching out and defining ‘natural design’ in more detail. [with the retirement of Prof Seaton Baxter, the centre closed in 2016 but lives on in the work of its PhD graduates around the world who are running programmes and teachning in Mexico, Chile, USA, Spain, and the UK]". (