Revisiting Periodic Table of Form

A few years ago (2009), Core77 shared a story about this periodic table of form conceived of by Gray Holland. It really spoke to me, and I’ve attached the table to this post. I remembered it again today and wanted to share it with the design team, and realized I may have something to add to the discussion. Attached is a screenshot of Gray’s image representing Curvature Continuous, Tangential, and Positional forms in nature. However, where he left the center section empty, I think a case could be made that the images I added to the center could be examples of tangential forms in nature. According to Gray’s description of tangential forms, they speak to utility and practicality. I see these characteristics in the natural forms of a turtle shell, which also has straight lines and rounded corners, or the muzzle of a bear with its blocky yet rounded form. Bone structures seem to have elements of tangential surface structure as well. If this is true, then it could drastically change the direction that the original blog post ended in. We are not abandoning nature by adopting a plethora of tangentially designed products in the market, but instead, utilizing inspiration from the way nature really works. What does everyone think about that?

Original 2009 Post: A Periodic Table of Form: The secret language of surface and meaning in product design, by Gray Holland - Core77

I recall being very impressed and printing out the table at my desk at the time. It’s tempting to say he oversimplified elementary form development, but his attempt to create an axiomatic argument for how nature and by translation designers communicate intent and emotion is difficult to refute, given the acceptance of nature as the source of all form, (even in it’s rejection by the bauhaus).

I find it interesting that he shows the cyclical nature of aesthetics in product design, soft vs. hard edge in cars. I just read an article describing how the crab as evolved independently 5 separate times. Nature diverges and converges on successful forms continuously.

Using CAD’s terminology as a shortcut to understand and describe broad form concepts from nature and ID was brilliant, but I think the timing was his greatest downfall. We’d all been seduced by the capabilities to sell our ideas offered by CAD renders and spent too much time attaining fluency, and our aesthetic skills suffered. There was a push to require more drawing from school graduates and from ourselves. I wouldn’t be surprised if colleges aren’t using some form of this today to introduce these ideas.

Lol, I agree! This connection he made with CAD terminology, nature, and design was beyond anything anybody was focused on at the time. I think it’s the perfect bridge between the digital design world and the true source of design inspiration.

it’s nice to start developing form by playing with tool-driven qualities like curvature continuity. However the claim that this is fundamental to a ‘periodic table of form’ is highly superficial - there are many more qualities that need to be integrated into such a holistic framework.

The ones revering nature also have to realize - ‘nature’ also grows tumors. It just works blindly, finding whatever works to propagate species. It is rather crazy and aggressive, not what we want as people. Therefore Bauhaus/modernism, postmodernism, hypermodernism - the whole history of design, basically is there to not rely on where ‘nature’ takes us. And in the end we realize that we don’t need to survive, because we already have. So nature remains this dumb mechanism.

That said, forms in nature remain spectacular and people’s attempts to understand it go from one direction to another. But the simple point to what it comes down to is that: nature does whatever works. It is not so intelligent at all understanding that inherently, reality is complex and ‘multiparametrical’, and forms result from the ecology itself, and not some overarching principle. Except that species need to survive. I mean, that’s all nature is from a top-down perspective.

If you think, nature knows no circles and straight lines, do the actual research and you will find them. Because in some cases, in the possible landscape of form language, these are the optimal results to meet the situation. I have spent quite a bit of time doing this after hearing such reductionist claims about nature. Another claim was that nature does not know mechanisms that spin freely on an axis, like car wheels. Well, at least on a cellular level, turns out it does. So after thorough research, you come to find that reductionist claims aiming to supply a consoling way to understand nature in a certain way all fail. Nature is too complex for us to understand like that and knowing what we cannot know is true knowing. The human mind is limited and therefore not the penultimate device with which we should try to understand the world that we in fact, are already alive in, mind or not.

If we come to appreciate things that work in reality emerge from an enormous set of parameters and constraints, we come to terms with our futile attempts with trying to understand it by reductionist thought. Good design in Industry 4.0 will, like in nature, mostly be an emergent result of parametrical models taking into account requirements from many disciplines, rather than a superficial underlying idea constructed by design teams (like ‘it has to make people experience X’). I feel this shift from experience economy to knowledge economy to fragmented mosaic society to some weird and alien AI-driven society is sort of unavoidable, even if we don’t want it at this moment because we tend to resist change.

So yeah, if you want to design like nature, just do whatever works. You will find that that’s what you are already doing in most cases, being part of nature (which you may have forgotten). It is a bit ironic.

I agree that nature is agnostic to human needs and wants. the atoms of the periodic table make poison and medicine, but that’s not it’s purpose. it describes the differences and possibilities between the elements. You’ve jumped ahead to conclusions not fully expressed in the article, even though he used finished product photos to describe his ideas, the point is to address form transitions as an axiom.

I see this as the beginning to an addendum to The Power of Limits by Doczi. starting with the Golden Section to understand proportions and patterns then move to how they intersect. (I had a prof say all of ID was “intersections and terminations” a rif on devil’s in the details). How form transitions across different features within it’s overall proportions can dramatically change how it feels.

the larger question of the role of AI in CAD and how it may augment or replace designers will depend on AI’s understanding these most basic of all aesthetic concepts.

It is funny to think that we as derivatives of nature are struggling to learn how to design like nature. However, I think this is just another proof why humans are superior to all other creatures because all other creatures don’t have the same capability to learn from all other creatures and elements of nature like we do.

Humans have their base level of survival intelligence, where we breath, eat, multiply, and do what we want with the nature around us, but we also have the intelligence to make something more. We can be conscious of our impact on the world, and find ways to help other life in the world thrive alongside us. The only reason Industry 4.0 is happening as you said, is that we are able to take into account the requirements of many disciplines. Thus, a good designer will not simply produce what comes natural, but they will pull inspiration and constructs from many sources. They will seek to understand the many ways of nature since that is what we live in, and also, seek to understand what our own species has already discovered.

Good design challenges our most basic human ways, but humans are equally capable of rising to that challenge.