Bionics: Don't Get Stuck On Symmetry
Asymmetry in nature arises in a couple of ways. First, you can think of asymmetry as a response to external stimuli.
For example, trees grow with the wind, like this specimen on the coast. Plants re-direct their shoots toward light -- like those weird shooty things growing out from the potatoes in your kitchen cupboards. If a bacterial colony encounters an anti-biotic substance, it will stray from it's normal ring-shaped-morphology to head in the other direction, resulting in a fan shaped blotch.
Humans have one giganticly perfect example of this asymmetrical adaptation: Moving on the left. Apparently (and there are all kinds of conflicting stories) the idea of walking on the left side of a road arose way back in the early days (probably before the romans) so that travelers would have their swords at the ready as they passed potentially dangerous strangers on the roads. The convention continued with swordsman on horses, and even received a Papal edict of enforcement by Pope Benefice around 1300AD during the crusades. Carriages originally had a driver who sat in the center while the nobleman rode inside, but when carts became fun to drive, drivers took up the same convention (though swords were long gone by now). The "drive on the left" rule still applies in Britain, and the remnants of it's empire, as well as Japan (apparently because samurai discovered the same sword rule, and were reinforced when they met with British explorers later on). The only reason that the rest of the world is right-side? Napoleon. Weird. To think that the severe asymmetry of our cars evolved from the (now) completely unrelated sword usage issue.
The second kind of asymmetry, is not just a response, but an improvement. Because we are so nearly perfectly symmetrical, we like to think of asymmetry as a hindrance, or an ugliness. But whole organisms have evolved to take advantage of their wonkyness.
We'll start with an obvious one: the Flounder. Flatfish like this guy actually start off life like any other embryonic fish.
But over time, their skull twists around so that they have two eyes on one side of their head. The other side stays touching the ground for super flatness, and the ability to peer our of sand with periscope-like eyes to ambush prey and dodge predators. Interestingly, some species of flounder are right eyes, and some left; the eye movement is interchangeable.
Speaking of weird eyes, the Jewel Squid has some crazy ones.
Instead of our binocular, balanced vision, the squid have a large telescopic eye, and a small one for macro vision. They work their stuff by floating at a 45 degree angle, in the water, and using their huge telescope eye to look for silhouettes of tasty fish above, kind of like a hawk upside down. Their other eye, they watch the bottom for larger predators. Specialization is definitely the name of the game for this guy.
And when it comes to specialization, it doesn't get much better than the Fiddler Crab
With one tiny food eating arm, and one gargantuan burrow-blocking, opponent flipping, body shielding mega claw, the fiddler has all the tools it needs to get things done. The large claw even doubles as "antlers" for making displays to females and rival males.
In the design world, asymmetry like this can lead to better utility, as is the case with hockey goalie equipment, or novel functionality, as with motorcycle sidecars. As for beauty, one furniture designer in particular comes to mind.
Eschewing the tradition of bookmatched, edge finished wood, George Nakashima created powerful pieces with incredible asymmetry.
Symmetrical objects are a great starting point. However, nature, and design have proven that wonky objects can have even more charm, power, and adaptability than their mirrored neighbors. Next time you're drawing something up, why not throw symmetry to the wind.
Copyright 2004-2006 Dominic Muren and IDFuel Team