The Hunt for a Bio-Inspired Designer (Kathleen Murphy)

© johann35 - Fotolia.comI have a passion - unencumbered travel with the perfect carry-on bag at my side.  I want it all - all my favorite thing (yes, even heavy running shoes) in one small, beautiful bag that gently sits, more melds, to my shoulder.  For more than a decade, I have searched, shopped and bought not-quite-the-right one.  This summer, I finally faced the truth - the bag did not exist.  It was time to take the leap and enter the product design world with my big ideas and no experience.

I wanted every design element to serve its natural purpose; no aesthetic add-ons that take up space.  I wanted the look to mimic the exquisite beauty of nature; not replicated images but an exterior and interior of resilient, intricate texture in a clean, purposeful structure.

I talked to fashion designers, product designers, inventors, and material consultants.  Something was not right.  Something was missing in the process they presented.  I knew about The Biomimicry Institute through my development work in environmental education.  I finally read Janine Benyus.  Of course.  Of course.  This is it.  I had to start over.

My primary goal is to design a strap and a structure that is in perfect balance with the body - ease, grace, intelligence.  I want to reconsider the shape of standard carry-on luggage.  Does my favorite bag - my grandmother’s cosmetology bag from the era of Art Deco - have the right dimensions naturally?  Why are most handbags just an empty, endless hole?  How does nature handle depth?  Compression?  Expansion?  How does nature retrieve things and carry heavy cargo?

At this time, the prototype design is on hold.  Intuitively, I want to mimic nature but lack the necessary background information.  I am immersed in the questions (thanks to Norbert).  I am going through the Design Spiral and at night - no easy task for a want-it-now, want-it-all person. Clearly, nature is teaching me more than product design. I hope to take Tom McKeag’s class at the California College of the Arts and am collaborating with one of his students on a possible design. I plan to apply the theories and start to sketch from scratch what my grandmother carried to school and work: all the tools for beauty, but adding perfect weight distribution and space capacity.

I will continue to watch what happens in nature every day.  I know I will find the answer.  Onward I go thanks to all of you who are committed and practicing what is intelligently and beautifully obvious.


Kathleen Murphy is a development associate in Oakland, California.
Family, clients, travel, nature, and all that is visual and written inspire her.

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salustri's picture

Don't forget the science


There's a great deal of science behind identifying what is comfortable.  Of course, the aesthetics has to be there too, but no amount of aesthetics will make up for a lack of understanding about the human body.

There are 3 main usages that must be accommodated: carrying the bag, putting things into it, and finding things to take out of it. (The latter two are often conflated - incorrectly, I think - into just one.)

For all three, however, one must accommodate the needs and preferences of individuals.  One size does not fit all here.  Some will prefer to carry it on one shoulder, others will prefer to carry it on the shoulder but across one's chest, and still others will prefer to carry it by hand.  Then there's those who prefer knapsack-like configurations.  Furthermore, there will be times when no matter what one's preferences, one will have to carry it in some non-preferred way.

Then there's the general size. This depends in large part on the proportions of the user, and their dynamics (e.g. their gait, posture, etc.).  There's a significant amount of work in ergonomics and human factors that are invaluable here.  Something as simple as the orientation of the handle can make a heavy object seem lighter by leveraging the body's natural abilities to exert more force in only particular ways. 

I would certainly look to nature for inspiration, but I wouldn't neglect the accumulated body of scientific knowledge about how humans work.



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nhoeller's picture


Kathleen, expanding on Fil's comments about individual preferences, adaptability may be a useful goal.  Off the top of my head, aspects include different ways of carrying the bag and different ways of organizing the contents of the bag.  As an example, I use a wheeled laptop bag as carry-on luggage and often attach my camera bag to the handle.  This works quite well under normal circumstances but breaks down if I need to navigate stairs.  Aside from untangling the camera bag from the handle, the laptop bag is quite awkward to carry by hand.

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Possibilities of a Pelikan Bag?

Hi Kathleen,

Quick thoughts:

I read somewhere that a Pelikan's bag/skin underneath its beak can hold up to 4 gallons

of water as it stretches to scoop up fish. Perhaps this might be a start? that is... to biomimic the material of the Pelikan's

skin under its beak. Will hold all your things then collapse into a small/medium size purse.

The next question...will it look aesthestically pleasing for women to wear?




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