Decoding Design

Why origami is a leading inspiration in design and science

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Scientists and designers alike are referencing origami in their work. Why is the traditional Japanese art of folding paper such a timely research topic...and an effective innovation concept?

From new ways of surgically reducing the stomachs of obese patients to paper sensors that test for malaria to the eye-catching facade of Barclays Capital Bank's new Parisian headquarters, we've been covering a number of research and design breakthroughs that were inspired by origami here at SmartPlanet. Yes, the traditional Japanese art of folding paper into intricate shapes.

Origami--or at least origami-like complex folding patterns--seems to be increasingly cited as a direct inspiration by top scientists and researchers. In a new Bloomberg Businessweek feature, "Is Origami the Future of Tech?" writer Drake Bennett analyzes how the concept of neat, folded shapes is influencing the design of new materials and potential products. As he observes,

"One of [the natural world's] favorite methods is to take something flat and fold it into a three-dimensional form. Flowers, leaves, wings, proteins, mountain ranges, eyelids, ears, DNA—all are created by folding...In a range of fields, fabrication by folding has the potential to be far faster, cheaper, and less energy-intensive than traditional methods and to work at very, very small scales, where even the most precise mills and lathes have all the accuracy of an earthquake. Makers of medical equipment and consumer electronics are looking at folding as a way to streamline manufacturing processes."

A few striking bits of information from the story:

  • If there is a "universal origami building block," it's the box pleat, described as "a square grid of creases with alternating diagonals that origami artists had long known could be used to create a wide variety of different shapes." MIT's Demaine proven this via computational mathematics.
  • Origami tech is often the result of interdisciplinary collaborations. The team behind Harvard's miniature RoboBee (exactly as it sounds, robotic bees), whose fabrication involves origami-inspired techiques, consulted the designers of children's pop-up books to better understand how complex folding works.

As compelling as Bennett's article is, the reporting makes clear that more so than origami, nature itself is the inspiration for many of the most forward thinking experiments in folding in labs, factories, and design studios around the globe today. The piece seems to fit into a larger argument that biomimetic design could really be the key to more efficient and effective types of technologies in a number of fields. Symmetrical, mathematically precise folding that recalls similar pleating patterns in nature--which can be interpreted as "origami"--is one very powerful, and trendy, example.

[Via Bloomberg Businessweek]

Image: Sidereal/Flickr

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Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure