Design for Biodiversity – Species Cards: A Way to Resonate with Nature

Written by Zi Wang, Zach Camozzi
INDD200 Faculty zach Camozzi (2018-20) Charlotte Falk (2018-20), Sophie Guar (2020), and Amanda Huynh (2018)

As part of the Design for Biodiversity Project, Students and researchers tried to draw designers into an empathetic relationship with the natural world through various types of species cards. Iterations of three different cards from three different designers were prototyped and tested. Each attempted to support building a connection or understanding with/of the natural world.  Designing for other-than-humans requires designers to recognize the limits of human-centred design. Making design-relevant decisions when you cannot stand in the shoes/flipper of your participant, nor perceive the world with the same senses, is very challenging. These species cards highlight some of these limits, and also show potential for engagement and learning.

Rockfish cards – Reyhan Yazdani

In the research activities of Design for Biodiversity Phase 1 – 2018, Reefs Rituals and Rockfish (link to project post) the species cards by Reyhan Yazdani were simple cutouts of rockfish illustrations. These varied cards were put in the hands of designers while they were introduced to the habitats, lifecycles, sizes, and appearances of rockfish species. Cards held in hand, participants made themselves more familiar by questioning if their particular rockfish was being discussed in the introduction. Students named their rockfish, imagined contexts or scenarios for them, and several students carried them with them throughout the project. Paper rockfish turned up on beaches and in students process books. This simple visualization allowed students to direct their attention, focusing in on the species to consider how vulnerable they are to human driven impacts such as factory farming. Rockfish are bi-catch, and though they can live up to 100 years old many are caught before they can reach reproductive maturity.

“When we are referring to fish, we are referring to ourselves.”

Extinction Cards – Zi Wang

Holocene Extinction Species Cards were inspired by the article To Name is to Value (Lundebye 2019), and was tested in a Graduate Studies design studio. If human destructive activities continue unchecked, the current epoch will be known as another mass extinction event. Specialty and niche species are currently most effected but this will eventually lead to extinctions of more common flaura and fauna. These cards ask students to pay attention to the situation. They are an example of how design can bring awareness to the seriousness of this extinction.

Everyone in the class was given a card illustrated with a specific species from one of five categories: birds, fishes, insects, mammals, and plants. Currently, some of the species used on the cards are extinct, and some are endangered. During class time, the intermittent sound of animals was used to indicate species that had become extinct in the intervening hour. Three species became extinct every hour, replicating the real-time daily extinction rate. Students who held an extinct species would have to relinquish their card into the “grave” (a plate) as a way of remembering and honoring extinction and biodiversity loss. This activity took five hours. After class, many participants were still discussing their species, and asking what led to their extinction.


  1. Anette Lundebye. 2019. To Name is to Value.  In K. Fletcher, L. St. Pierre, & M. Tham (Eds.), Design and Nature: A Partnership (pp. 86-92). Routledge.

Trophic cascade cards – Zach Camozzi / Zi Wang

During Phase 1 of design for biodiversity it became clear that looking at one species in isolation was not the right approach. It did not give students the agency required to question the momentum of modern design process. Students should be given the opportunity to choose/recognize which species they are in relationship with. We also could not ignore the relationship between rockfish, kelp, starfish, urchins, otters, orcas and salmon. This third deck of cards attempted to share these interconnections through a simulation of a trophic cascade, where species consume other species in a cascading relationship. This is inspired by Survival, a common field game where children are given animal roles and they chase each other to “extinction”. Top predators control populations of grazing animals, which helps to sustain a healthy forest ecosystem. Our Trophic Cascade Cards look at aquatic ecology instead of terrestrial. Here, kelp is the forest of the sea and sea urchins are grazers.

Each Trophic Cascade Card contains several pieces of information: a species name; a picture; an image of a body posture to take when acting as that species; and an indication of how to move so others can identify you. To begin, each student is given a kelp card and follows the card instructions; feet planted, hands in the air waving their arms in the light current. This Bodystorming, which also might be called role play or charades or simply acting, is a great way to break the ice, especially when easterly current rolls in and the kelp is almost knocked over, hands waving wildly!

The body storm immediately removes the tension from the room. It is okay to laugh and put yourself in a weird or odd body position, simply because the assignment asks you to. After a couple minutes most students began to have a good time as the simulated tide went down and up. Urchins started eating kelp, and starfish started eating urchins. Salmon, rockfish, otters and orcas were all introduced to the group, and predator-prey relationships were discussed. During the game, participants discovered that the reduction of otters populations indirectly led to the disappearance of kelp forest, although there is no direct predatory relationship between them.

For some students it is hard to comprehend that ocean ecology is just as diverse, or maybe more diverse than many coastal terrestrial ecosystems. A kelp forest is a forest, that sequesters carbon dioxide, creates habitat for a multitude of species, is a throughway for small species to avoid large predators, and shelters species from heavy currents (or as we think of it on land, heavy winds). This understanding that ecology is interconnected and relational is fundamental. The demise of one species can potentially effect others. Positively working in one area can have unexpected cascading effects into others. Students started to grasp that the things we do here on shore can make a difference to kelp in the deep.

The bodystorm continued by introducing environmental impacts: otter pelt hunting; seastar wasting; ocean pollution; ocean temperature rise. Eventually, all of the species present in the simulation became extinct, leaving a room full of starving urchins.

Bodystorming as an educational tool is well documented. Acting and imagining through pretend scenarios allows us to attempt at empathizing with others, and helps build a clearer picture of the context we imagine working in. For us it is a first step to get design students out of the studio, into immersive spaces, and really thinking about ecology. Students start to imagine what is below the surface. They imagine rockfish hiding in burrows, or killer whales diving into kelp beds to reach otters and salmon. If we take these charades and give them a design focus, we can generate a wealth of questions. How does being in the water change how I think about this context? How does kelp move when tides, wind and current combine? How does kelp attach itself to rocks? How does kelp grow over time? How can I design to help find these answers?

Concluding all cards

Whether they were used as a research method or a teaching method, these cards provided us an opportunity to build empathetic resonance with the natural world. All of these games link species in an ecological web, where food, shelter, and where mutual, symbiotic, or predatory relationships can be discussed. But interestingly enough it opens the door to other conversations that might be relevant for designers. Species cards and role play are shown to mobilize the enthusiasm of students when teaching design for biodiversity.