This is the first in a series of posts about Nature Led Design. All photos come from camping around the west coast of Australia shooting photos to create a conversation about nature led design.

Our thoughts are influenced by our environment. Visualise the last toxic environment you worked in. What were the feelings you had in that environment? How did the environment, people or objects, affect you and the quality of work?

When you are in an office building the only natural elements are the people and plants inside it. A health technology company I worked for had no plants. Think about that for a second, a company focused on life, had nothing living in it’s environment. The trickle down effects are subtle and not as easy to measure as poor ergonomics. Imagine an art studio with no art.

When standing in an office looking around, everything was designed by a human. Every item from the carpet to the ceiling lights was once a dream in a person’s head. Some dreams are beautiful and in tune with the nature of the world. Many manifestations of a designers’ dream fall short, focusing on using cheap materials and fast production timelines leaving the population to live in a world influenced by mediocre dreams.

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Creating Natural Experiences

The birth of a new product or service is similar to children at birth, we are the most vulnerable to the environment. By surrounding ourselves with a natural environment people are more resilient to stresses.

As a UX designer, one of my main goals is creating a natural experience for people. In the dictionary the first definition is:

Natural: existing in nature and not made or caused by people : coming from nature

However, the third definition is what people would think of when creating a good user experience:

Natural: usual or expected

I have facilitated many design sprints where we gather a small team and over the course of a week gather in a room and explore a new idea, business or feature. One of the most effective actions I could take to ensure a positive outcome was to find a venue that had large windows with views of nature or at the very least a different environment than what people are used to.

Our brains are context masters. When we are home we switch to hang out mode. When we are at work we switch into work mode. To create compelling experiences that change the status quo of an organisation we need to switch people’s context from the usual directed work approach to exploratory for the first part of a project. What better way than bring people to nature to create natural experiences.

Bringing a Design Sprint to Nature

What could a design sprint in nature look like? Most sprints I have participated in are in enclosed offices, hopefully with a window overlooking some form of greenery.

From my experience facilitating a number of design sprints, everyone’s participation and enthusiasm within the first hour gives insight into how well the design sprint goes for the rest of the week. One of my favorite tools when dealing with a newly formed team, quite common in large corporations, is an interesting ice breaker that involves the subject matter at hand and interacting with people or the environment in a novel way to start the project with a break in systematic thinking and use different skill sets.

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How to Hold a Design Sprint in Nature

Let’s take for example a brief to explore how to find and book hotels online.

First order of business is to find a spot that is conducive to gather a small team. Ideally a table, shelter from elements, if they are prone to acting up and an inherit natural beauty.

When holding an icebreaker for the day we can ask each participant to find some area, object or system within the immediate environment that represents how they or someone else may see the problem of finding or booking hotels online. Each person can 15 minutes to search and then each person could take 5 minutes to share why what they chose is relevant to our problem.

Benefits of Designing in Nature

In the article The Mind Does Not Belong in a Cubicle, Stephen Kellert, a social ecologist at Yale, told Laura Smith that our poor office design is a sign that we don’t see ourselves as animals, as having biological needs. “The measure of progress in our civilization,” he said, “is not embracing nature, but moving away from nature and transcending nature and becoming independent of our biology.” Kellert mentions he finds zoos ironic.

We consider it “inhumane” to keep a gorilla in an indoor, concrete environment with no exposure to greenery or anything resembling its natural habitat, and yet we put ourselves in these environments all the time.

A 2005 study in which showed two different scenes to people between performing cognitively demanding tasks. One group looked at nature scenes and the others looked at urban scenes. The nature scene group had faster reaction times and made fewer mistakes. In addition, a Michigan study of over 100 schools demonstrated significant gains in standardized test performance in classrooms having views of green vegetation. These studies bring some science to suggest bringing natural environments into the design practice can yield some direct benefits.

How to Start Bringing Nature to Your Design Practice

Start Small

In the next project during the initial stages try taking the team out to your local park or even just take a walking meeting and see how changing the environment helps people express latent ideas or energize people.

Bring Your team Into Nature For a Day

When you are working on the exploratory stage of a new product or service organize a day spent within nature and incorporate the surroundings into at least one activity.

How can you implement nature into the design process?