Seeing Symbiosis:
Visualizing Microbes Through Design

William Stafford

We can all smell body odor, but we can’t see it. Microbes change our bodies—like the bacteria that causes body odor—but we’re not able to perceive the way our body’s microbiome is built and improved through sharing. Research today is showing many examples where an undesirable mix of microbes in the body can be replaced.

My project proposes a speculative design strategy to visualize and share these essential microbes around three main biomes: skin, mouth, and gut. This system uses everyday objects found in the home or gym, a networked watch, and personal objects to reabsorb the microbes. The object surfaces are composed of smaller units, or chiclets, which can be shared between people, and change color in response to the microbiome absorbed within.

Design can visualize something for science to work towards as microbiome research and materials science develop. As a strategy, this proposal abstracts something we find disgusting with each step—as microbes become color, are removed from the body, and placed in the watch, and traded. In this way, the chiclet takes the place of exchange rituals that would otherwise be too personal. More importantly, by broadcasting something invisible in a way we can perceive, the microbiome becomes an icebreaker, and a way to show we need each other.

Not only could we use this system during a pandemic to identify contacts we need to avoid, we can use it during normal times to identify connections we need to make with each other because we are necessary to each others’ wellbeing.

The intent behind Seeing Symbiosis is to imagine new social interaction around sharing essential microbes in a healthy context. Today, we are in a global pandemic, but part of a pandemic is coming out of it. This project prompts further research to investigate the opposite of social distancing during normal times.



Will starts his projects with the belief that design should bring people together. He is the product of his experience at Pratt where his practice has developed around making physical prototypes and form studies. Driven by curiosity about the natural world, he spends his free time painting and gardening, where he is especially interested in reintroducing native plants and habitats for pollinators.

︎    willstafford.com
︎    will.a.stafford@gmail.com
︎    @will.stafford 


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