Design is everywhere. People have always valued design expertise, even dating back millions of years to the first tools ever used and now recently unearthed. From the harnessing of fire, clubbing of opponents, carrying water in vessels, throwing spears, and using fur blankets, to riding around in Teslas, we like and rely on design.
Today, most everything we have, use, want, and need is designed. We have even designed robotics and programs that design things for us. Every time we dress ourselves, email, make a meal, buy things, plant gardens, do a spreadsheet, we become designers. We are making functional decisions based on what we need, what it says, and how it feels. We are reflecting ourselves and how we want to be perceived through our choices. We are designing. We do this daily for work, pleasure, and living, without pause or conscious thought.
Design is intrinsic to art, invention, and creativity. Design is different from art because it tends to focus on underlying structure, function, or purpose more than personal expression—although the best designs have or tell a story that expresses a point of view. We rely on design for practical solutions to
everyday problems or issues. A lot of design is offered as a service to help people, businesses, and institutions.
Design and cultural creativity advance humanity
The professional practice of design creates solutions and makes the places, products, and market of the future. We value communities where there is a high level of design and cultural creativity that responsibly advances society. Florence emerged during the Renaissance because of its design and art contributions, which we still value 500-plus years later. Humanity, backed by theology claims dominion over all species. From the human (not particularly Biblical) view it’s based on our historically unmatched and singular ability to design, make, and use tools.
A newly recognized and different breed of designer is practicing in Australia and New Guinea. They have gained notoriety by becoming experts on the art of seduction. Their primary design passion is the field of amorous architecture, interiors, landscaping, and the courtship arts of song and dance. The places they build attract, entertain, charm, and seduce females. They are among the best in that business and are studied and respected worldwide for their thorough design approach, execution, and resulting social benefits. They have perfected their skills over thousands of years, which further attests to their expertise and effectiveness.
“Their primary design passion is the field of amorous architecture, interiors, landscaping…”
Attraction by design
Creative human designers like to wear black clothing. These designers prefer feathers, as all are members of the bowerbird family. Their closest kin on this continent are ravens and crows. Some bowerbirds are a bit larger and live a little longer, up to twenty-seven years.
Another consideration before comparing bird designers to human designers is the possibility that their design creativity may emanate from the same source. Design as a noun identifies something intentionally made or resulting from an idea or plan. Design as a verb is an act or the process of making, visualizing, creating, or turning an idea into a new reality.
The design process, whether painstakingly thoughtful or impulsively spontaneous follows a pattern. Stasis, curiosity, imagination, question, attempt, failure, learning, success, change. Change as a causal dynamic is as present in the space, time, matter, and energy of the cosmos as it is in the buzzing subatomic and atomic particles of our biological cells. The question is what or where is the intention responsible for the nonhuman-made, natural world?
Source and cause of design
There is a Zen koan that says, “Learn to listen to the wisdom inside of a rock.” Are humans and other biological creatures all part of the same dynamic forces responsible for change? Are we all variants of the same energy that cannot be created (designed) or destroyed but only transformed? Is change the cause not just the result of creative design? Does the bowerbird follow the same design impulse as do humans? Our link may be that we were all designed by the same cauldron of the cosmos 13.8 billion years ago. We are the same stardust particles that were floating around then but reconstituted by evolution, physics, gravity, thermodynamics, and chemistry. Maybe bowerbirds, rocks, and everything is caused by constant flux of creative change, at one with the universe.
“Maybe bowerbirds, rocks, and everything is caused by constant flux of creative change, at one with the universe.”
Male bowerbirds are renowned for designing painstakingly ornate, complex, and personalized bachelor pads and performance routines to attract females for amorous encounters. A female bowerbird requires and insists on unlimited choice and opportunity to select her mate based solely on her assessment of how well the male earns her trust and displays his creative intelligence. The stakes are high. Seventy-five percent of females in one study area visited only the one same bower out of dozens of offerings before mating.
Older, more experienced males will succeed with dozens of females in a single breeding season while younger males will seduce only a single one of his dozens of visitors. A lot rides on the design quality of the bower; its form, color, and execution, followed by a concert and dance performance. Providing a sense of comfort in combination with self control, respect, and restraint gains reproduction rights that help determine the survival of their species. Everything is designed for the pleasure of the female and winning her mate-selection preference.
A bower is defined as a secluded place, often in a garden, enclosed by foliage or an arbor. It can also be a summer house or garden cottage, an inner room, or a boudoir. Lovely.
Males build three types of bowers: “maypoles,” “mats,” and “avenues.” “Maypoles” can be single- or double-masted towers. Some are built around a young sapling that becomes its centerpiece. Others have curved walls that frame and showcase the awaiting male. They are dotted with colors that help their visibility and location of the bower below. Sometimes a roof is designed immediately below the tower, which provides shade or privacy in the bower. Towers stand out from the brush and call attention through their distinctive forms.
“Mats” are landing pads made from collected plant materials such a fresh green moss that has been carefully laid and ringed with individually selected and arranged ornaments; making, if you like, the equivalent of an oriental rug. It may contain fresh leaves, petals, owers, snail shells, bits of foil, candy wrappers, pebbles, glass shards, fruit, colored plastic utensils, bottle caps, can pull-tabs, all of the same color or predetermined mix of colors. One researcher found a glass eye in a bower, undoubtedly a very distinctive and intentional treasure piece ripe with symbolism.
“Avenues” are longer and narrower mats that seem to function as landing strips; again, they are ornately marked with color-coordinated found objects. Airport towers, landing pads, and runways would be the human architectural equivalents.
All three schemes sport specific colors that may be a single dominant color or an arrangement composed of multiple colors. Blue seems popular as evident when searching Google images. All are designed to be spotted from the air by mate-seeking females. These are not unlike the bright signs at Saturday night social gathering places and night clubs.
The colors of decorative elements that males choose for their bowers match the preferences of females. Male bowerbirds play to their audience and design for their market segment and demographics. Bowerbird species that build the most elaborate bowers are dull in color, whereas the males of species with less elaborate bowers have brighter plumage.
“The colors of decorative elements that males choose for their bowers match the preferences of females.”
The design critics
Males are assessed based on the quality of their bower construction. Males with quality displays achieve mating success, suggesting that females gain important benefits from mate choice. Bowerbird ornamentation is perceived as a sexual indicator of general health, intelligence, and disease-resistant heritage.
The various twig fences, arching walls, roofs, and decorations get painted or stained by colors made by chewing plants and adding charcoal with saliva. Lastly, objects are sometimes arranged by size, large to small, that create a false perspective to hold attention and gain the advantage of more time spent. Perspective also makes the awaiting male appear to be a bigger and better mate.
Females search for mates by visiting multiple bowers, returning multiple times, watching his elaborate courtship displays, inspecting the quality, and tasting the paint the male has made and placed on the bower walls. Many females choose the same male, and many underwhelming males go without mates. Females choosing top-mating males tend to return next year and search less.
Bowers take weeks to design and build, are constantly refreshed, and their color elements are rearranged with bright, shiny ones. Males will also do recon flights to inspect their competition and steal whatever bauble would make their bower more attractive.
Once the stage has been set and a visitor lands nearby, it’s showtime. These Justin Timberlake males must know how to dance and sing in order to seal the deal. Male bowerbirds are superb vocal mimes. They have been known to imitate pigs, waterfalls, and human chatter. Some bowerbirds mimic other local bird species as part of their own concert. Then the male has to strut his stuff, and strike outlandish poses while dancing and singing to lure his guest into the bower.
A female chooses to visit only bowers that appeal to her. She will land close but far enough to avoid feeling threatened. When she comes closer and stops she may allow the male to approach and mate. A too-eager male will fail. Males only succeed when the visiting female feels comfortable and protected from more aggressive males.
Imagine if every human male had to individually design his architecture, build it alone, lay out a garden, design the interiors, furnish it, paint it, maintain it, sing, dance, and strike poses, or he wouldn’t even get a date!
The social implications of the bowerbird species have always been based on consideration of the female societal role. Only in the last few decades have some western societies realized the importance and significance of women to civilization. Today, there are more women on the planet, more women in the workforce, and in the educational system attaining higher academics than men. CEOs estimate that 80 to 95 percent of all consumer spending is determined by women—homes and their locations, insurance, appliances, furnishing, food, clothing, schools, and even tools.
Bowerbirds seem to have long designed for a sociology that has always given females due respect, something that has taken far longer in human societies.
“Bowerbirds seem to have long designed for a sociology that has always given females due respect, something that has taken far longer in human societies.”
The bowerbird model is a classic lesson on how successful design is doing the best you can, with what you’ve got, in terms of what social values you encourage through design.
Richard Foy, former art director for Charles and Ray Eames and founding partner of CommArts design firm, has designed many brand identities and places worldwide, including Madison Square Garden (New York City), O2 Dome (London, UK), Pearl Street Mall (Boulder, Colorado), LA Live (Los Angeles, California), and the branding for Spyder Sportswear, and Star Trek — The Motion Picture.