Artificial and Natural Selection in Design

Open source design is evolutionary in nature. A design can be copied by someone, edited slightly, then redistributed as something different. This new design is a mutated species of its previous version. Both versions, the original and the mutation can exist at the same time in digital form on the internet as it is being shared, copied and downloaded. Perhaps one of the designs proves to be better than the other and the mutated design becomes the new normal (original 2.0,) and the original design stops being copied. Or, both designs are used for different applications, and they become separate species.

This is a simplified explanation, but they same evolutionary process happens in nature. An organism is reproduced or essentially copied. The copy is not an exact duplicate; it might be shorter, shinier, stronger or more colorful. Some copies can even have a substantial mutation, like being albino and turning completely white. Plenty of these mutations give the copy a disadvantage in life, and thus they might die too early to be copied themselves. Some mutations however give benefits, such as the albino animal mentioned earlier. An all white animal might be terrible in most environments, but with the right conditions, like an ice age, an albino bear would have a much better chance at reproducing than a black bear.

In my thesis, I identify two types of evolutionary processes that occur with open source design: artificial selection and natural selection or mutations. An example of artificial selection would be if someone from the UK designed a very nice kitchen table and shared the design on the internet. Someone in Japan loves the table and decides to make one for their own home. However, in Japan, there is a cultural difference that tables for serving food are lower to the ground. Therefore, the person from Japan alters the table leg design to be shorter, and shares his design on the internet. Now, two table design species exist in the internet ecosystem. I’ve illustrated an example of artificial selection in the animal kingdom to accompany this example.

dog evolution

Every dog, from man’s best friend to a bomb sniffing police dog, was artificially selected over thousands of years from one common ancestor; the wolf. You can see in the graphic how each dog has a very specific task that it has been slowly bred for, whether it is for hunting, fighting, or companionship. Some dog breeds have lost their original use and nearly become extinct, such as the Great Dane which hunted bears before guns were common. Now this breed of dog has found new meaning as companions and loyal friends. The beauty of this iterative evolutionary design is that now humans have access to any dog that will fit their needs. We don’t need to invent a new dog breed to fit a new world purpose such as drug sniffing, because we already bred a dog with a great nose hundreds of years ago. It’s this kind of design bounty and diverse ecosystem that open source design can eventually give people. After years and years of designs published with open source protection on the internet, many solutions won’t need to be invented, only retooled.

The next open source design iteration I’m exploring is mutation or natural selection. This is something that is lost or added in translation accidentally, but might actually benefit the design. The organic example I use to best explain this is the Peppered Moth. The moth’s evolution can be traced within the last 200 years, going through the industrial revolution. At one point in time, nearly all Peppered Moths were mostly white, because they trees were white and they would blend in well. Some would have a mutation that would make them more black than white, but they would be eaten quicker. After the industrial revolution, the bark on trees were covered in pollution, and turned a darker shade. Now, a darker mutated moth would be the one that would blend in, and the white moth would be eaten faster. If some part of the reproductive process didn’t make mistakes or mutate, than the moth might not have sustained through the industrial revolution.


I have identified mutation and artificial selections in my own thesis project. These are bound to happen in collaborative open source design, because just like an animal reproducing, I am transferring information to another organism to try and duplicate my design. Something will get lost the the process, either by happy accident, lack of communication, or disagreement in design.

An example of mutation or natural selection was when I was working with Austin Diehl. I had created the design for the Grid Wall, which uses horizontal members which attach to the wall, and then components which attach to the horizontal members with bolts. I had explained this idea to Austin when he designed the Media Desk for the wall, but something was lost in translation, because he attached the components directly to the wall, not using the horizontal members at all.

wall itteration drawing

I have come to realize that my original design was over complicating things, and that Austin’s design made more sense. Why did the shelf need to bolt into the members if it can just connect directly to the wall? In the natural world, Austin’s design would be copied more often than my design, and would most likely become the new normal for Grid Wall attachments. However, the bolted design could be better for some applications, such as interior shelving, or things that are often rearranged, so maybe this is an example of how a mutation creates a more diverse ecosystem. This is a small change, but it’s these little tweaks in nature that has created every insect, human, plant and bacteria in the known universe.

An example of selective evolution was with my work on the Maker Bench by Eric Schimelpfenig at Eric had originally designed the bench to be mobile because he was creating a series of these benches to be showcased in a Maker Faire, and for jobs that require temporary locations. For this reason, the way he connects the bench parts is with furniture screws that can be unscrewed and dismantled. I had a different environment in mind however. The bench that I created is going to be used in a high school drafting classroom, where I imagine it will sit for years on end. I didn’t need my bench to be mobile, so it is safe to say that I could alter the design slightly without losing the main goal.

I also had some limitations that made me change other areas of design. On a technical scale, I didn’t know how to quickly make halfway cutouts with the CNC mill; I had only made through-cuts on my past designs. Also, Eric has his own CNC mill and can take a little extra time, while I am working on a shared mill, and I needed to go through graduate assistants to allow me access to the mill. These factors make production speed more valuable, so some changes reflect a need to cut faster. Below you can see some minor changes I’ve made to the legs of the bench.


I’ve learned that there are some important rules for this evolutionary iterative design to occur. First, you need momentum. You need to be constantly pushing for replication and production of these designs if there are going to be any iterations. Second, you need good documentation. In the natural world, the information to duplicate a design is ingrained into the physical object in its DNA. This is not the case in the built environment, so the DNA of the Maker Bench or Grid Wall needs to be documented extraordinarily well in order for reproduction and iterations to occur.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s