What I am thinking: bio-inspired engineer and artist Bill Washabaugh

Bill Washabaugh is an artist, aerospace engineer, roboticist, designer, and maker. Bill is the founder of Hypersonic Engineering & Design, a firm in NYC working at the intersection of technology and art. He has designed flight control software for Boeing, music instruments for Bjork, and a massive stage show for U2. Trained as an Aerospace and Mechanical Engineer, he pushes the boundaries of the art of engineering through an impressive variety of projects.


Sigrid Adriaenssens: Why and how do you study processes and patterns in nature?

Nature, or natural selection, has figured out so many incredible design solutions that work so well.  It’s our best resource for finding out what works well, and lasts a long time.   I think we’re predisposed, by way of our co-evolution in/with the natural surroundings, to find natural forms as beautiful.  The fact that we’ve been able to use science and math to put logical relationships to these beautiful forms is magic to me.  The diversity of ways in which nature takes form – at the macro, micro, scientific, and mathematical– makes for a pretty endless diversity of study.  How we study it is somewhat haphazard: it’s just through random inquiry, talking with colleagues, reading, and keeping our senses open to surprise and ready for inquiry.

In your design approach, you emphasize interaction, beauty and movement. Why is that important to you and to society?

Our work is really about people.  That’s a critical point in our process.  How does a piece make the viewer feel, how does it pull them, what might they remember, what’s the viewpoint, what’s the reference, what’s the process?  We are interactive beings, so we like to keep in mind that there is always a give and take, a call and response.  I think the movement of our works lends itself well to that, because it evolves over time and can offer an experience that is changing and at times, unexpected.  I think it’s important to pull people in with something beautiful, and try to inspire them to wonder about what they’re seeing, and ask them to investigate that and learn something new.

What is the importance of making in your work?

All of our works are physical objects, and each one we do is a new process, so making is a huge part of what we do.  Our team believes strongly in the need to escape from the screen in both the design process and final viewing experience.  We do spend a lot of time designing and coding on the computer, but holding and shaping and walking around the form is super important, that’s how it will be experienced. As well, because so many of our works involve complex physical movements, we spend a lot of time putting together physical prototypes to see what works and what doesn’t, and how things actually move in real life.

How do you choose your collaborators?

We’ve got a great group of friends that we often call on.  It’s a very organic process, and changes with each project.   We’re also really lucky to be based out of a studio in Brooklyn that we share with a really diverse and talented set of people.  We’ve got big data scientists, creative coders, costume designers, biologists, and more.   It’s the diversity of expertise and input that often leads to new directions and ideas that are so much fun.

What is your greatest (professional) achievement and why?

Getting to work with an incredible team of good friends every day.

What question do you never are asked and would like to be asked? What would be the answer?

Actually, I think the previous question is probably it.

Plenty more stunning projects by hypersonic can be found on their website, http://www.hypersonic.cc.

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