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

Written by Zi Wang, Zach Camozzi, Louise St. Pierre
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 bring designers into empathetic relationships with the natural world through various types of species cards. Three different iterations were prototyped and tested by three different designers, each attempting to support building a connection or understanding with 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 or flippers 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

During Design for Biodiversity Phase 1: Reefs Rituals and Rockfish (2018) Reyhan Yazdani designed a simple set of species cards of cutout rockfish illustrations. These cards were given to design students while they were introduced to the habitats, lifecycles, sizes, and appearances of rockfish species. Cards in hand, participants made themselves more familiar with the species by seeing if their particular rockfish was being discussed in the introduction. Students named their rockfish cards, imagined contexts or scenarios for them, and several students carried the cards with them throughout phase one of the project. Paper rockfish turned up on beaches and in students’ process books. This simple visualization allowed students to direct their attention to the rockfish, and to consider how vulnerable they are to human-driven activities, such as factory farming. Rockfish are bi-catch, and although 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 tested in the Graduate Studies design studio. If destructive, human-driven activities continue unchecked, the current epoch will be known as another mass extinction event. Specialty and niche species are currently most affected, but will eventually lead to the extinction of more common flora and fauna. These cards ask students to pay attention to these precarious situations, and offer an example of how design can bring awareness to the seriousness of this period of 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. Some of the species used on the cards are extinct, while others are endangered. During class time, the intermittent sound of animals was used to indicate a 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 honouring 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.

Reference: 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 and 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 and impact of modern design processes, and we felt that students should be given the opportunity to choose or recognize which species they are in relationship with. We also could not ignore the relationships 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. Instead of terrestrial interconnections, our Trophic Cascade Cards explored aquatic ecology; 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 is bodystorming, which also might be recognized as role-playing, charades, or simply acting, and is a great way to break the ice, especially when the easterly current rolls in and the kelp is almost knocked over, hands waving wildly!

Bodystorming immediately removes the tension from the room, and the assignment offered students the permission to laugh and contort their bodies into weird or odd positions. After a couple of minutes, most students simulated the motions of the tide with ease and comfort. 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 otter 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 sequesters carbon dioxide, creates habitat for a multitude of species, offers 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 fundamentalthe demise of one species can potentially affect others. Positively working in one area can have unexpected cascading effects on others. Students started to grasp that what we do onshore can drastically impact kelp forests in the ocean.

The bodystorming 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 offer us opportunities to attempt to empathize with others, humans or otherwise, and helps build a clearer picture of the context we imagine working in. For us, designers and educators, it is a first step to get design students out of the studio, into immersive spaces, and think about ecology in a personal and embodied way. 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?

Species Cards as Research and Teaching Method

Whether used as a research or teaching method, these three iterations of species cards provided us with an opportunity to build empathetic resonance with the natural world. All of these prompts helped us understand species within their ecological web, where food, shelter, and mutual, symbiotic, or predatory relationships can be discussed. Species cards and role play are shown to mobilize the enthusiasm of students when teaching design for biodiversity.