October 17, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

An emerging new field that links concepts of biology to the expression of design - and vice versa ...

This isn’t just another way of imagining what synthetic_aestheticsfuture technologies can do for us. There are no promises that we’ll use synthetic biology to build aquariums on Mars or to make robots that do your nails next to colourful pictures showing you how it might work. This is a collaboration between designers and synthetic biologists intended to move both disciplines forward together.

Six projects were undertaken that each paired a designer or artist with a synthetic biologist. The book starts with discussion on what synthetic biology is, the conflict between art and biology and some thoughts on whether design is necessarily human or whether it’s also found in nature. The meat of the text describes and reflects on the six collaborations.

The idea of synthetic biology is to build or modify genetic code in order to utilise living things for human purposes. One definition of design is “to work out the structure or form of something.” Synthetic Aesthetics brings these two disciplines together because they can complement each other.

Some projects were geared more towards science and some were geared more towards design. It’s not clear whether each one had a specific remit to lean more towards science or design but the result is an approximately even split between the two disciplines with a couple of the projects falling somewhere in the middle. In all six projects, the people involved trusted each other enough to come together, collaborate and, by sharing ways of thinking, to come up with a new idea that they collectively felt was worthwhile.

As well as adding value to the two disciplines, the Synthetic Aesthetics projects can be used as communication tools. They help people of a scientific mind to understand design better, and help those more attuned to design to better grasp the process of science. There is also every chance the projects will entertain and inform publics that have no special learning in either discipline, but can enjoy the necessary simplification of scientific concepts as well as the attractive appearance of the final result.


A good example of this was the Logic project where the biological system responsible for xylem growth was controlled through a computer. The xylem is a tube in the plant that transports water from the soil to the leaves. When the plant is a young shoot, it follows a series of rules based on environmental conditions that effect the direction, size and speed of growth of the xylem tube and these rules were simulated in a software programme. The resulting virtual xylems were tested for tensile strength by further software and could also be printed off to give tubular sculptures formed of irregular lattices that were both a testament to the xylem-making process and have a rugged attractiveness.

The ability to vary environment conditions gave the project an interactive element and the shapes that resulted could, if appropriate, be incorporated into actual architectural designs. Perhaps it’s unlikely a structure with more tensile strength than the ones we already have will be found by this method, but design in architecture isn’t about finding the most efficient structure, it’s about finding the most attractive design, within structural safety boundaries. This design method fits well with that architectural aim.

For designers, biologists and publics

The Logic project satisfies the three parties involved: it suits designers because it offers new potential structures and it suits the general public because the concept is not too complex, the printed sculptures look good and the software is interactive. Finally, it suits the synthetic biologists because it provides a new application – architecture. Other projects didn’t satisfy all three parties to the same degree. The Time project uses cyanobacteria to remind us how slowly biology can operate – there are instances of living rocks growing at less than one millimetre per year. The Time project doesn’t really have any application and its merits are mainly artistic. Likewise, the Process project envisages packaging that creates its own contents. The focus is on the application of the science to create new products and the design is secondary. Neither of these two projects are any weaker for leaning towards one side over the other, and design and synthetic biology clearly operate in both, but the common factor is the way the projects open the door for publics to understand and appreciate the concepts that are being thought through.

The other projects had a unique range of qualities as well. In one, the structure of DNA was abstracted into sound. Another saw cheese being made from the bacteria on sweaty feet. The last project looked at harnessing the power of evolution as a design tool.

A stated aim of the authors was to provoke discussion about the place that design should have in our relationship with living things. Another was to start debate on the kind of directions that synthetic biology could follow in order to enhance our lives (those nail-polishing robots again). But debates aren’t much use unless they’re well informed. I’d argue that a third aim would be to inform publics using design collaborations. The book tells us that focussing on design questions assumptions on new technologies that might otherwise be “rendered through the contradicting visions of utopian green salvation or dystopian bio-apocalypse.”

There is no intention for the book to ‘enhance design’ or to ‘help with synthetic biology’. The purpose is to reinvent design at the same time as the new scientific field of synthetic biology is inventing/defining itself; to think through and modify the process and object of design when it is plated in series with biology. The concept of Synthetic Aesthetics could easily be continued through a journal. It’s part of an emerging new paradigm of mutually beneficial art/science collaborations that enables existing disciplines, in this case design and synthetic biology, to respire and aspire side-by-side.