What is the smallest size to be designed?

Microshapes is a challenging project, aiming designers to handle the design of micro sized objects.

Microtecnologies are shrinking the sizes, incorporating more and more advanced performances in less volumes. So we are facing insect size machines with high capabilities and incredible potentials.

The main actors in this scenario are researchers and engineers, who have a scientific background. Meanwhile it is an unexplored landscape for designers.

The project consists of a deep research in the world of micro technologies, to understand if design can play a role in this context. The goal is to introduce a new tool panel, an orienteering system for the design of micro shaped objects.

It basically means facing new structures, new behaviors, relations and environments.


Microdevices are combinations of micro components working together to develop different functions. Structures can be quite different. Depending on the complexity they’re able to develop more ore less advanced features.

Microelectronic systems, the so called MEMS, are particularly interesting. Their basic set up is made by 3 components; A sensor that interact with the environment. A microchip that process the informations coming from the sensors and generates commands. Finally the actuators that respond to commands by providing mechanical answers.

Size does matter! 

Although the size of these devices is very small, it is variable. Indeed, according to their complexity micro objects can range from centimeters up to micrometers.


By comparing micro objects to natural bodies, chips works as the brain,  sensors can be the eyes, while actuators are legs and arms. The combination of those components introduces some interesting behaviors such as Artificial Intelligence and Swarm intelligence. The first one is the capability to react autonomously to environmental stimulations, meanwhile the swarm intelligence is the one visible in some insects such as ants or bees. It consists in the sum of many autonomous organisms working together as a group to solve complex problems.


As well as in the macro, there are many ways for these devices to move. Indeed some of them can walk, thanks to their mechanical limbs. Others can move within liquids by swimming, and some can crawl. Then there are some experimentations to develop flight capabilities.



There is a large difference between micro and macro in the relation with the environment. Phenomena that we usually consider negligible, here become relevant. A few drops of water may correspond to a large basin, a slight breeze can amount to a storm.

We must also consider unusual environments as plausible habitat. The human body and the organs, for example, are a promising area for the development of these systems.

It is proven by the progress of some technologies such as the medicals. Micro surgery promise effective results with a significant reduction of the invasiveness, if we compare it with traditional techniques.


How do we relate to products we can not see, hear or feel?

Designers use to create, in most of the cases, visual and tactile interactions, but in the micro world things get complicated.
It is as if we interact with an object by wearing welding goggles, boxing gloves and blaring headphones. It would become a very little effective relationship.The interesting thing is that some senses, such as smell and taste, are not affected by the reduction in size. Their conditions remain almost unchanged in the transition from macro to micro, and this is a relevant information.

We must focus the design on these senses, to find solutions that establish concrete relations with these products.



Technologies, materials, behaviors, relationships, life and death.

It is  the framework of a design tool that allows to move consistently in the microdimensions.

A set of rules to be implemented, which provide guidance on how designers can handle the design of micro shaped products.


(only italian available)


What designers
can do?

We can become a part of the production process, working alongside engineers and specialists. We can develop new features, open new roads and optimize the relations between these systems, the people, and the environment.

By the way it is a very complex and evolving area that raises many ethical concerns about potential risks related to these technologies.

We must be aware of the risks for our safety, health and privacy that these devices may carry besides their relevant potential. But we can help to shape a lighter future with more powerful objects than before.


Thesis project

Politecnico di milano 

many thanks to Prof. Stefano Maffei