A method is presented for selecting the type of actuator best suited to a given task, in the early stages of engineering design. The selection is based on matching performance characteristics of the actuator, such as force and displacement, to the requirements of the given task. The performance characteristics are estimated from manufacturers' data and from simple models of performance limitation such as heat generation and resonance. Characteristics are presented in a graphical form which allows for a direct and systematic comparison of widely different systems of actuation. The actuators considered include man-made actuators (such as hydraulic, solenoid and shape memory alloy) and naturally occurring actuators (such as the muscles of animals and plants).