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It’s nature’s way

Ray C. Anderson

Founder and Chairman, Interface, Inc.

When I speak to audiences I often ask everyone to close their eyes and picture in their mind a place of peace and repose, tranquility and creativity, the place that makes them feel the happiest — their perfect comfort zone. Then, with their eyes still closed, I ask those who are picturing somewhere outdoors to raise their hands. And then I ask them to open their eyes and look around.

What do they see? A room full of raised hands and a lot of surprised expressions. Nearly everyone thought that only they were imagining a forest, a meadow, or a sparkling river. In fact almost everyone was doing so. In hundreds of cases, with audiences all over the world, it has always been the same.

So what does nature have to say to a company like ours — the world’s largest manufacturer of commercial carpet tile — about the way we conduct our commerce and design our products? Quite a bit, as it turns out — as I explain in my book Business Lessons from a Radical Industralist, where I tell the story in full.

We asked ourselves ‘How does nature design its own carpets and floors?’ and five years ago our design team held a workshop with Janine Benyus, the President of the Biomimicry Institute and a UNEP Champion of the Earth. She introduced the concept of biomimicry — using nature as a design mentor and a source of inspiration — challenging us to integrate nature’s principles into design concepts for carpet tiles.

As a result, our lead product designer, David Oakey, sent our designers out into the forest to see what they could learn about how nature would design a floorcovering. They were befuddled at first, thinking they were being sent out to copy flowers and leaves — but then discovered something far more interesting.

What they came back with was ‘organized chaos’. No two square yards of forest floor are the same, yet they all blend perfectly together in a harmonious whole. They realized that there is no perfect flower and there is no solid color: it’s just a diverse system — characterized by the word ‘entropy’.

They then set out to design a modular carpet the same way. In nature, each ‘module’ is slightly different in pattern and color, and that was the whole challenge. It was a challenge for the designers to let go of the aesthetics of ‘perfection’ and sameness. They also needed help from our engineers. How could you make it so that, in one production run, the color and design of every single tile would come out slightly different?

Suddenly we were bringing designers and engineers together to make it happen, something that had not been done before. The problem was solved, and thus began a new product line named — in honor of that afternoon stroll through the Georgia forest — Entropy.™

Designing carpet in nature’s way has many advantages. We can actually lay the tiles randomly instead of in a monolithic fashion. We found that it is easy to make repairs, because the tiles do not match each other exactly. It didn’t make any difference if it looked slightly different; indeed, it was better if it did!

Off-quality practically vanished; inspectors could not find defects among the deliberate ‘imperfection’ of making no two tiles alike. And it practically eliminated installation waste. Now, every tile can find a place in a symphony of color and pattern, all different, all harmonious and pleasing, with none having to be discarded as ‘wrong.’ Different dye lots now merge indistinguishably, making it no longer necessary to keep extra tiles from each lot in case they were needed. And the user can now rotate tiles to equalize wear the way we rotate tires on our car to extend their useful life.

Similarly, while repairing traditional carpet requires calling in specially trained professionals, the random nature of Entropy’s design allows for much more flexibility. So, for instance, if a tile in a hotel room is damaged, the housekeeping staff can replace it — not worrying about which way to lay it — making the room ready again in minutes.

So how was all this received by the market? In a word, spectacularly! Entropy has become the biggest — selling product in the shortest period of time in Interface’s entire history. And that’s not only because of the many technical advantages derived from emulating nature. It also has everything to do with that perfect place I ask my audiences to imagine.

“Nature’s designs are organic,” says David Oakey. “Natural shapes depend upon their functions. They are not linear. They are not based on lines and are therefore not limited by them. So the tiles look beautiful on a floor for the same reasons that a carpet of leaves, twigs, earth, and rocks looks beautiful on the floor of a forest.” In other words, it reproduces that perfect place we all imagine when we close our eyes and subliminally brings outdoors indoors. No wonder it sold so well!

When you build your design around a natural model, good things happen and people become excited. We sometimes say, “It’s nature’s way,” referring to the right way of doing something, and “It’s only human.” referring to making a mistake — and that’s a key difference between how we and nature do things. Nature learns from mistakes and evolves a better answer — or else. We humans can find it hard to break free of the status quo, even though it may be leading us to bankruptcy — or even killing us. How long, under nature’s rules, would an organism that refused to learn survive?

The responsibility of industrialists is to find ways to work with what we’ve been given by nature, emulating its highly effective ways to: eliminate the very concept of waste; make what we need from available, renewable resources; close the loop; and feed our production lines to make our products with renewable or recycled raw materials. In the long term — and perhaps much sooner than that — there is no other way.

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