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Design thinker and AI proponent Ila Colombo in conversation with STIR

Ila Colombo discusses her biomimicry design practice and its materiality, and adds nuance to the conversation around artificial intelligence.

by Manu SharmaPublished on : Aug 25, 2023

Ila Colombo is one of the foremost design thinkers in today’s creative landscape. She has a diverse background, with roots in Italy and Brazil, and is currently based in London, the United Kingdom. Colombo pursues a product design practice that possesses the aesthetic and functional sensibilities of biomimicry design, and produces an output that is also closely guided by the materiality of her design work, which favours forward-thinking materials, such as those that are utilised by 3D printing technology.

Ila Colombo’s creative direction oversaw Ross Lovegrove’s ‘F1 haute perfume’ bottle, 2022 | Ila Colombo | STIRworld
Ila Colombo’s creative direction oversaw Ross Lovegrove’s F1 haute perfume bottle, 2022 Image: ©Ross Lovegrove, Courtesy of Ila Colombo

Colombo explores her creative journey with STIR as she says, "In early childhood, I often travelled internationally with my family, and since a young age I was intrigued by how nature organises itself, from the patterns in leaves to the grandeur of architectural marvels such as honeycombs. This profound interest in organic structures and systems has consistently driven my work, shaping my career as an art and design student and ultimately, as a Creative Director.”

3D printed jewelry with creative direction and design by Ila Colombo | Ila Colombo | STIRworld
3D printed jewellery with creative direction and design by Ila Colombo Image: Courtesy of Ila Colombo

Colombo’s passion for organic design grew during her formative years as a creative, which eventually led to her focus on biomimicry as a formal facet of design thinking. She defines this as “the emulation of nature's strategies in human problem-solving,” and over the years, she would pursue it closely, which brought Colombo in contact with Ross Lovegrove, in whose studio she is currently the Design Strategist and AI Prompt Technician.

A short movie for Ross Lovegrove’s ILABO Shoes, with Ila Colombo’s creative direction and design, and in collaboration with United Nude, for Re-inventing the Shoe, 2015 Video: ©Ross Lovegrove, Courtesy of Ila Colombo

The design thinker has found herself at an incredibly important crossroads, that being the advent of 3D printing and new material sciences, activated by digital tools and digital technology. Colombo believes that these technologies have opened doors to possibilities that were not previously afforded to designers, and has certainly succeeded in connecting it to her own focus on biomimicry. She tells STIR “From a materiality perspective, each material has its own unique properties, strengths, and limitations that need to be respected. Designing with these properties in mind helps in creating objects that are not only visually captivating but also structurally sound and functionally efficient. Understanding the material's texture, flexibility, strength, and even how it ages is essential to creating designs that stand the test of time. And on this latter point, we still have a lot to improve upon and innovate.”

ILABO blue 3D printed collar with creative direction by Ila Colombo | Ila Colombo | STIRworld
ILABO blue 3D printed collar with creative direction by Ila Colombo Image: Courtesy of Ila Colombo

In addition to her focus on biomimicry and the use of forward-thinking materials, Colombo also integrates artificial intelligence within several of her design projects, and of late has taken to using AI avatars in order to explore some of her views on this facet of cutting-edge technology. She is a deep and firm believer in AI’s potential to build a better future for all but freely admits that there is a certain negativity levied at it by broad swathes of commenters. Still, Colombo does her part to alter such perspectives, and cites the following example: “In my talk at Design Shanghai in June 2023, I made an effort to give a little bit of logical context to the technology and describe it as a natural evolution of computing tools, from the calculator to the first computer to AI; no matter what we may think about a potentially dystopian future of robotics taking over the planet, the fact of the matter is that AI is a tool that can process vast amounts of data, identify patterns, and provide real insights much faster and more accurately than humans.”

Future 3D printed haute couture with creative direction by Ila Colombo, 2023| Ila Colombo | STIRworld
Future 3D printed haute couture with creative direction by Ila Colombo, 2023 Image: Courtesy of Ila Colombo

Colombo believes that humanity cannot ignore AI, if we are to move towards a more sustainable, efficient and innovative future. She elaborates on her relationship with the technology, along with some of the deeper specifics regarding the good it can do for us in a video interview with STIR, through an AI avatar of herself.

‘Transmission’, 2023 | Ila Colombo | STIRworld
Transmission, 2023 Image: ©Edmund Sumner, Courtesy of Ila Colombo

As a thought leader on AI, Colombo is far from dismissive towards the concern that it may lead to mass unemployment. She explains that while we may see a sharp decline in human agency where repetitive or rule-based tasks are concerned, new professional roles will also spring up as a result of the same technologies. Colombo dubs this “an evolution of the workforce.” While it remains to be seen if she will be proven right, many likely hope that this will be the case.

‘Natuzzi ERGO’ bedroom collection by Ross Lovegrove, with creative direction and design by Ila Colombo, 2019 | Ila Colombo | STIRworld
Natuzzi ERGO bedroom collection by Ross Lovegrove, with creative direction and design by Ila Colombo, 2019 Image: Courtesy of Ila Colombo

For the time being, the design thinker has her hands full with the co-founding of an AI-driven design agency in Dubai, along with industrial designer Ross Lovegrove. She discusses this, telling STIR “It is set to be a hub for design innovation, where the fusion of AI, advanced neural network training and human expertise will drive all our projects and D2C ventures. We are currently exploring fresh collaborations too, particularly in experiential installation design and product design, combining AI technology with immersive, physical design to create novel, thought-provoking experiences and advanced parametric computational modelling with a few great young talents.” Ila and Ross will also begin a podcast series soon, that will share insights into design, technology, and sustainability, and will feature stimulating conversations with other thought leaders. Finally, Colombo is considering the possibility of moving into a teaching role and explains that her ruminations on the matter stem from a newfound sense of responsibility towards future generations, as a result of becoming a mother herself.

Tap the cover video to watch Ila Colombo speak to STIR in her AI avatar.

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