Design for Biodiversity – The Nature of Prompting

Written By Andrew Simon
Research project leads: louise st pierre, zach camozzi
INDD 200 Faculty: zach Camozzi,  Charlotte Falk

How can prompts be used to support design students in developing their understanding of their connection with nature?

This project responds to Ezio Manzini’s DESIS 2020 Conversations article in September of 2019, in which he encouraged designers to “see better.” The Design for Biodiversity project aims to explore how a design student might see the natural world better. My five-week research exploration contributed to the project objectives by nudging students to create a deliberate time and space to explore different ways to relate to the natural world. I wanted to start to understand what it takes to come to know local ecosystems, even in the smallest of ways.

This question: “how can prompts encourage students to develop their connection with nature,” was the central focus of my Master of Design research project. I had the opportunity to work with a group of second-year Industrial Design students at Emily Carr. Students were asked to return to a place of their choosing at the water’s edge over a series of weeks. I developed a number of activities that asked them to engage with nature using all of their senses. Choreographed prompt books led students through a series of meditative and reflective experiences, and focused on selected senses each week. The prompts encouraged experiences that would expand their ability to understand and communicate their connection with nature.

My hope was that once students begin to understand the deep ways in which we are all interrelated with the natural world, that they may begin to bring greater environmental awareness to the centre of their work.

Cycles of return

The participants were asked to return to the same waterfront location three times. They were also given prompts during class field trips at the Vancouver Aquarium and at Barnet Marine Park. Returning to the same place gave the students a chance to actively explore the natural elements around them. It gave them the chance to see a place over time, to see its micro and macro elements. And ultimately, it gave them a chance to consider how these elements impacted each other and themselves as people and as designers.

Each experience started with a centring exercise. This was an active, focused and purposeful activity that brought their attention to the here and now. It brought their thoughts to this place, at this time. This was an important step for beginning to appreciate how they related to the natural world in, around, and under the waves. On the front of every sealed prompt book were these instructions:

Grab a timer set for five minutes. Hold this prompt with two hands.

Breathe deeply.

After your five minutes, break the seal open.

Sensory inquiry: Prompt activities

After opening the prompt books, students were offered short sensory exercises that encouraged rich engagement with natural elements. They were asked to smell, to taste the air, to feel the natural textures around them. They were encouraged to notice changes, ripples, waves; the small, the large. In returning to a place and experiencing it in different ways each time, they came to understand it in very different ways.

How does one know a place? Two key findings…

In a response to the exit survey, one student wrote “(these prompts) let me stop and really listen and observe nature without looking for anything in particular. I also felt quite situated whenever I began to draw on my senses. This is a practice I’ve done before but never within the context of the ocean.” Design students have a series of methods that they rely on for design projects, but many respondents indicated that they never thought to use these tools as a conduit to experience nature. I see a valuable opportunity to direct design methods and tools towards understanding and connecting with the natural world.

Another key finding from this work was the profound silence I observed among the students when they were engaging with the prompts. There was a contemplative focused energy about the way they interacted with the prompts and the natural environment. It was clear, both from what I saw and from the responses to the exit surveys, that focused contemplation in nature created conditions in which students found themselves seeing better and sensing better.  The natural world may have been in front of them all along, but there was a different quality to these experiences. Perhaps we all need a prompt to bring our attention away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, from the compelling momentum of the design process, and towards what matters most: Earth and all her wondrous, weird, and important interactions. Perhaps then we might be able to understand where we sit in this whole big mess.