Design for Biodiversity – Contextual Inquiry at Barnet Marine Park and other Coastal Regions

Written by Zara Huntley, photo credits: Zara Huntley
INDD200 Faculty zach Camozzi (2018-20) Charlotte Falk (2018-20), Sophie Guar (2020), and Amanda Huynh (2018)

Designing for biodiversity feels like something my industrial design cohort all shares as a common interest. We are all like-minded people entering the design field with a strong interest in sustainability and hopeful that our practice will better the world. The topic of sustainability is easy to discuss and is discussed often. Regardless of everyone’s background, we all have a relationship to the earth. Whether that relationship was formed through countless hours spent among mountains or growing up in an exclusively urban setting, these relationships persist daily. It’s easy to relate to the earth and reflect on how one has bettered from its being. We depend on it for our survival.

Yet, during last year’s project designing reefs and rituals for rockfish which inhabit Porteau Cove, I realized my relationship with nature was not as vast or strong as I had originally thought. I felt well versed in my knowledge of the outdoors, and the importance of respecting our environment. My confidence was quickly annulled after my first visit to one of the sites. Following a period of secondary research my partner and I decided to get in the ocean to understand our co-creators, the rockfish. On a mild November day, we waded into the water at a local rockfish conservation area in West Vancouver. Although we didn’t have scuba gear to dive below the surface and see our ‘clients’ in their homes, our perspective on what was needed for the design outcome changed substantially. Tacit knowledge aside, we truly knew very little about the natural world around us, especially when it came to underwater habitats. I realized my connection to the environment had only gone so deep.

Sitting in throughout this year’s iteration of the project – this time designing tools and rituals for kelp – it was incredible to see the students’ ideas unfold over the course of the project. Arriving at Barnet Marine Park, it was cold and cloudy, but a refreshing change of pace to step outside the classroom. After a brief chat, groups were left to their own devices to silently take stock of their surroundings and test their prototypes. Everyone felt stiff and stagnant at first, and there was no kelp in sight. But, after some time spent silently exploring the landscape, the students began to dive in, and for some that was literal. Prototypes were tested, some were destroyed, and almost everyone attempted to explore under the water in one way or another. The realization of how little the students knew about their own kelp co-creators was apparent over the course of a few hours. Immersing your time and concentration into a project is what we know as students and designers. However, designing for nature, you have to get outside the classroom to even begin understanding the environment, and these experiences create new perspectives.

Although many students entering their studies in industrial design share a passion for promoting sustainable biodiversity, an on-location learning experience fosters a deeper understanding of the environment and its intricacies than any traditional classroom can offer. Through my own experiences, and observation of the experiences of others, I have seen first-hand the profound effect this form of education can have on students. This effect was evident in the improvements to their projects this year following their site visit. Within the few short weeks between the Barnet Marine Park field trip and the class’ final critique, students’ project concepts dove deeper into their subjects and the fidelity of their models increased exponentially. It’s no coincidence this dramatic shift in focus, scope, and insight came about immediately following their research in nature.