Posts in Category: research

Field-based design studies – Vermont

In the summer of 2013, the Nature of Design collaborated with Yestermorrow Design/Build School by leading it’s Semester Program students on an orientation wilderness design immersion in Vermont’s Green Mountains.


Students hiked from shelter to shelter along a high ridge, stopping to participate in a number of design exercises along the way, with nature as studio.


Students would go on to spend a semester working intensively together to design and build an entire house, so we wanted them to have an opportunity to get to know one another, and learn to communicate and work together.


The course invited students to shift into deep observation mode, to quiet their minds, and practice following nature’s forms.


Students speculated on the function of the structures they encountered, and how these might be taken as design inspiration.


Everywhere, constantly, natural forms presented themselves for closer study.


Students worked in teams to create installations using natural media. People got the feel of working in a studio with no furniture, walls, computers, and definitely no fluorescent lights. How does constant, dynamic physical movement change brain activity, and thus learning and the creative process?


Though students ranged in age from 19 to 43, emphasis was on interaction with the natural world, on inquiry, and on play.


Not only were students constantly surrounded by opportunities for visual design studies, but with several days’ walk separating them from most sounds and smells of civilization, quiet minds and absence of constant electronic distraction allowed for extended focus and attention


The only textbooks we brought were field guides.


The result was a lot of spontaneous laughter, comfort with curiosity, willingness to try new things.


There was time for small details and acknowledgment of other species’ serious design skills.


There was also time for individual reflection, unstructured conversation on the trail, and just being.

Students shared their work, and offered feedback.

Projects were intended to bring nature into the design process, and to stimulate leaps between disciplines.

Students connected what they saw with information from other studies.


Because the students would go on to design and build a tiny house as a collaborative process, we wanted to practice talking things through, to play with how to build a group aesthetic, and explore the iterative process of executing a collaborative design.


We loved experiencing what the students created, but the emphasis was on process.


Yestermorrow’s Semester Program in Sustainable Design/Build draws students from all over the US and the world. This diversity made for lively discussion, and dynamic interplay of ideas.


Heading back to Yestermorrow’s campus down in the Mad River Valley, there was time for a cleansing swim in the Mad River.


The Mad River offered ample opportunity to observe the endless forms water creates in itself, on rock, and around our bodies.


Our hope was also to invite students to re-examine their role as humans, and human designers, working between nature and culture.

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A big thank you to Kate Stephenson and the Semester Program instructors at Yestermorrow for supporting the Nature of Design Project! Learn more about Yestermorrow and see the house the students built at



And  of course a big thank you to our living laboratory, the windswept subalpine ridges of the Green Mountains.

Creativity in the Wild

Wild people are smarter! The first study of its kind to test cognitive skills during sustained wilderness travel has revealed that we think better – 50% better – when we’ve been walking for days in the backcountry, cut off from our electronics. Not a big surprise, given our brains were formed by two million years of computer-free wilderness immersion, but the implications are fascinating. The University of Kansas study was the first of its kind to test participants’ cognition while they were still immersed in nature (on an Outward Bound trip), and its results are dramatic:

Getting oriented in the great wide open. Kennedy Meadows high country, Domelands Wilderness in the southern Sierra. Photo by Malena Marvin.

Getting oriented in the great wide open. Kennedy Meadows high country, Domelands Wilderness in the southern Sierra. Photo by Malena Marvin.

“…four days of immersion in nature, and the corresponding disconnection from multi-media and technology, increases performance on a creative, problem-solving task by a full 50%.”

The authors suggest this half again jump in brain power

“…comes from an increase in exposure to natural stimuli that are both emotionally positive and low-arousing and a corresponding decrease in exposure to attention demanding technology, which regularly requires that we attend to sudden events, switch amongst tasks, maintain task goals, and inhibit irrelevant actions or cognitions.”

One example of what I like to call "wild design."

One example of what I like to call “wild design.” (If this is your photo, let me know so I can credit you!)

This information certainly puts a few exclamation points on the Nature of Design’s education programs, where design work is integrated with 4+ days in the backcountry specifically to see how this immersion impacts creativity and the design/build process. But the paper’s results also point to a tangential line of inquiry. If an “increase in exposure to natural stimuli” makes us more creative and intelligent, then wouldn’t it be smart of us to integrate more “wild design” into our cultural habitat?  In this sense, the study is fodder for re-naturalizing our built environment, and on a large scale.

The authors do note the difficulty in parsing out the effects on their participants of prolonged time in nature from the concurrent prolonged separation from electronics. All we know from their study is that extended outside computerless creates conditions conducive to sharp, creative problem solving. Is it then time to design for the decentralization of electronics?

This research is worth some deep consideration, and action. What would life look and feel like if the majority of our days were spent outdoors (or in structures designed with the materials and patterns we see outdoors) and we were completely cut off from the electronic umbilical? How would the resulting 50% increase in our cognitive ability change the choices we make about our livelihood, our health, our relationships? How would these choices affect the future of our species?

Review the research online:

Atchley RA, Strayer DL, Atchley P (2012) Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings. PLoS ONE 7(12): e51474. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0051474