Designing with Bacteria

Today, we design and create indistinguishably across physical and digital platforms.

February 8, 2013
Reading Time
2 minutes

At IDEO, “What if we…?” is a phrase you hear a lot. This “What if?” mindset, plus our love of playing around with new ideas, can lead to some fun experiments. A few months ago, for example, we used agar as a design medium to grow and biohack an electrical circuit.

It all started on a day when Matt Brown and I (Rodrigo Martinez) were both playing around with some sensors, resistors, batteries, and speakers. Matt was building a prototype for a new synthesizer, and I was sketching a biological circuit.

At some point we began discussing how we might make a living circuit.

“What do you mean living?” asked Matt.

“What if we grow a part of the circuit, you know, as in grow rather than buy?” I said.

For a while we discussed how the “living” dimensionality of the circuit would influence our own perception of the exercise and its implications. Yup, at that point we were over-thinking the whole thing.

Finally we just decided to make it.

We asked five designers at IDEO to submit a pattern they thought was interesting. Here is what they came up with:


We then selected one of the patterns. The pattern we chose was submitted by Kiran, one of our super-talented interns. We picked this one because we wanted a relatively simple shape, with straight edges and two ends (a starting point and an ending point).


Next, we cut out a stencil following the hexagon pattern above. We then swabbed my colleague Andrea’s mouth and inoculated a petri dish with agar over the stencil. After four days the bacteria started to grow in the pattern of the hexagon.



Here is the single hexagon bacteria circuit.



Finally, we scratched the top layer of the bacteria and used it as a resistor in simple electrical circuit. Basically, we biohacked an electrical circuit.



This is not complicated at all. But it’s interesting to us that designers at a place like IDEO are playing with bacteria and other living cells & organisms as they design and build; and that this is happening more often in other studios and biohacking places as well. Fifty years ago the practice of design was totally physical (analog). Today, we design and create indistinguishably across physical and digital platforms. In fifty years (or at some point in the not too far away future), we will design and create across physical, digital, and biological platforms; also indistinguishably. In a way, agar is the new canvas.

Thoughts, ideas, reactions? @RodrigoATCG