From the ARCADE Issue 34.1 feature section, "Visiting the Past, Desigining the Future: Reflections on Influence." Subscribe to receive ARCADE in print.

A live implementation of Craig Reynolds’ "Boids" algorithm, simulating the flocking behavior of birds.

The stubborn kinship of beauty and simplicity is something I’d never adequately appreciated before encountering one curious visualization: a stripped-down, 2-D computer animation simulating the movement of a flock of birds. Or at this level of visual abstraction — I was looking at a screen of roaming isosceles triangles, after all — it could have been a school of fish or a fleet of paper airplanes. With their pointiest vertices facing forward, I watched as the triangles coalesced into traveling groups that exhibited lifelike behavior. This was 2003, and as a design and computer science student, I’d seen plenty of animations more visually polished than this one. Nevertheless, there was something strange and wonderful about this particular display.

Just a few years before, I’d had a rather magical encounter with this visualization’s real-life counterpart when I’d seen a massive flock of starlings take leave of a fir tree at the golf course I worked at in high school. Billowing out of the tree in unison and surging outward in undulating swells, they were a rolling fog and a weightless fabric and a crashing wave all at once. I didn’t see the thousands of birds as individuals; they moved together as a single body. It was a brief but wholly spiritual experience. And somehow the artist behind the animation I’d seen had painstakingly arranged a surprisingly kindred display. It was delightful.

As a hobby programmer, I desperately needed to know how it had been done. So I peeked into the visualization’s source code. What I found was surprising: there was no central coordination behind the formations or movements of the flocks, nor were there any preplanned designs for how the groups would collect, diverge, combine or change course. In fact, the code made no mention of a flock, swarm or group of any kind. The motion and flux of the migrating assembly was an intricate dance that had not been choreographed at all; each triangle was acting independently, improvising its moves based on its own simple set of rules. As I discovered later, the elegant rule set propelling these individuals was originally designed by computer graphics pioneer Craig Reynolds in his influential 1986 algorithm “Boids.” In the algorithm, the only goals of each triangle — or “boid”—are to aim in a similar direction as its neighbors and move close, but not too close, to them. And by following just these simple rules, a critical mass of boids brings about the graceful, complex and unpredictable behavior of the flock.

Starling Murmuration RSPB Minsmere

Photo: Starling Murmuration - RSPB Minsmere by Airwolfhound (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr Commons

Remarkably, this very phenomenon — termed emergence — is at work throughout the natural world in instances when large numbers of individuals interact. In a real-life flock, school or herd, no one individual calls the shots for the group; instead each acts independently according to its own perceptions and goals, and the group behavior emerges. Likewise, ant and termite colonies build and maintain massive, complex nests without any one individual having knowledge of the overall design or broadcasting orders. Emergence exercises a guiding hand in the structure of snowflakes, traffic patterns, the Internet, coral reefs, weather and cities. Life itself emerges from the interactions of molecules, which are not themselves living, much in the same way brain cells, which are not themselves conscious, interact to give rise to minds. In one way or another, the strange magic of emergence is at play in the most beautiful, compelling and profound phenomena around us.

As a designer, I deeply yearn to harness the mysterious power of emergence in my personal and professional work. Emergence carries an impressive portfolio of output, and the promise of producing something truly compelling and beautiful by supplying only simple parts and rules is beyond tantalizing.

I can’t say that I’ve found the perfect formula yet, but by reflecting on the ideas of emergence, I’ve gained some insight. Cultivating beautiful work sometimes requires that we designers take our hands off the wheel and let the systems at play unfold. Arranging an exhaustive grand vision and imposing it on a project can seem desirable and perhaps even necessary, but at best it yields what was expected. With a curious investigation into the properties and behaviors of the smallest components of a system, a light touch can give rise to profound, unexpectedly beautiful things.