Here I’ll share the beginnings of an in-depth review of the Resilio Studio Design Process Primer that I shared a wee while back. I was originally intending this as a comment but it got long so I thought what the heck, I’ll make it a fresh post (NOTE – it then got so long that I’m going to need at least two posts, if not three – yikes!).
Let me set the scene for what follows by sharing my motivations for making the effort.
- I seem to be developing a habit of publicly evaluating various design process documentations (including my own). So here I am inclined to do this kind of stuff anyway, when Finn and Gary email their primer and say “any and all feedback welcome.” This is something like waving a slug in front of a hungry duck.
- I’m grateful to anyone who goes to the effort to not only reflect carefully on their basic design understandings, but to publicly articulate these in a readily digestible form with a stated openness to feedback. This alone is a solid step toward a stronger permaculture. Giving such a work a thorough going over is the least I can do to express my gratitude.
- I’m passionately interested in exploring and helping create precedents for permaculture colleagues to be critically evaluating each other’s work with an attitude of raw, honest dialogue (as opposed to any kind of veiled attack/defence mentality). I love the experience of genuine dialogue where everyone comes out with new and better ideas than they entered with. I love how David Bohm talks about this in terms of the distinction between debate and dialogue, and have a soft spot for Otto Scharmer’s expansion of this two-way distinction into four different conversational contexts, culminating in what he calls generative dialogue. I’ve personally not been privy to much at all in the way of such dialogue in the permaculture space.
My intention is to slowly and carefully read through the primer sharing my reflections as I go. I intend to view the work as its own thing, in a sense oblivious to who wrote it, and share how it lands for me. In detail. If anyone reads this post (now a series of posts) to the end aside from me and possibly Finn and Gary I’ll be pleasantly surprised.
I’ll also mention that I not only have no idea of what is going to come up for me as I engage with this cultural artefact, but aside from quick glances at some of the diagrams, don’t have more than a cursory idea of what I’m going to find inside it.
For the record, I am also going to pull in relevant recent comments from others and explore tangential lines of thought as the whim takes me, maybe even get a few things off my chest. If it serves no other purpose, therefore, it will make for a nice bit of self-therapy.
On the first page two quotations are shared:
The first Introductory Quotation
Let’s take these in turn. Take it away one Mr Victor Papanek:
Design is basic to all human activities – the placing and patterning of any act towards a desired goal constitutes a design process.
Crikey Victor – that is rather a general definition of design process! What is more, it strikes me as marking a radical departure from how design is usually defined in our culture. Let’s take a look at the google dictionary definitions of design to see if this is indeed so:
Looking this over, I gotta say, it is demoralising to see how entrenched has become this view of design as the creation of a detailed up-front diagram before implementation. It is written into our primary definitions of the word design, for crying out loud! We have got our work cut out for us here people!
I mean it is all there in the leading definition of design: “a plan or drawing produced to show the look and function or workings of a building, garment, or other object before it is made”
Or as a verb, to “decide upon the look and functioning of (a building, garment, or other object), by making a detailed drawing of it.”
In other words, in all this work we’ve been doing trying to understand the potential for design to be this generating/generative process where the ‘designing’ and the ‘making’ are spatially and temporally inseparable aspects of one ongoing process, we’re banging our heads against a pretty solid wall. As in how the dictionaries have all but locked down the meaning of the core word we are exploring and trying to resuscitate, to breathe life back into.
I say all but locked down in that there is, as my friend James Andrews put it, a glimmer of hope in google’s tertiary definition of design as a noun and even within the primary definition of design as verb. As a noun we have:
purpose or planning that exists behind an action, fact or object.
as a verb:
do or plan (something) with a specific purpose in mind
Hmmm, interesting, particularly this latter design as a verb definition is pretty darn close to Papenek’s definition of design process as the placing and patterning of any act towards a desired goal. Yep, in other words Papanek is saying that design = non-random human activity (i.e., goal directed activity).
Call me disingenuous but I detect in his definition a hint of my own strategy toward breaking the near deadlock the dictionaries (and thus the zeitgeist) have on design.
The first part of this strategy is to widen the referent, broaden the domain of what we designate with the word design.
For when we define design as producing a set of up-front drawings, we are kind of screwed, in that we’ve gone so far down the rabbit hole we’ll need a lot of muscle to be able to swim back upstream again. I recently started working out, but I’m a long way off having that much muscle!
It seems to me that Papanek has realised that we are best to start by taking this idea of design, clicking our fingers, and boom, zooming the heck out with it, getting the stuff we’re using it to point to nice and broad. Broad and fuzzy. Broad and vague. And then, coming at it afresh and making conscious decisions as we again narrow down and start to specify the particulars of what it is and isn’t.
I am pleased, therefore, that there is at least one clear dictionary definition in our above sample we can call in to our aid in getting this strategy off the ground. All is not lost!
In any case, as I just said, the critical next step in this strategy, having zoomed out, is to slowly and carefully zoom back in, in a way where we don’t unwittingly perpetuate this old fallacy of humans as rational masters of their destiny (and the destiny of the earth) thereby slicing the process up in such a way that its ability to create deeply adapted systems is all but lost.
Having developed the hypothesis that this is a strategy at play in Victor’s work on the basis of such scanty evidence (how dare I read into someone’s career-level strategy from the contents of one sentence!), I thought I’d better go see how on or off track I am.
So I just went and found his book Design for the Real World online which starts with this statement:
All [people] are designers. All that we do, almost all the time, is design, for design is basic to all human activity. The planning and patterning of any act towards a desired, foreseeable end constitutes the design process. Any attempt to separate design, to make it a thing-by-itself, works counter to the inherent value, of design as the primary underlying matrix of life. Design is composing an epic poem, executing a mural, painting a masterpiece, writing a concerto. But design is also cleaning and reorganizing a desk drawer, pulling an impacted tooth, baking an apple pie, choosing sides for a back-lot baseball game, and educating a child. Design is the conscious effort to impose meaningful order.
After this broad beginning, he continues his opening chapter, by, as per my extremely recent prediction, narrowing down and starting to specify the particulars of what it is and isn’t. In his words he goes on to define each of the aspects of design as a “function complex.”
Time to Dump Design?
This juncture brings me to the suggestion that a few colleagues have made in the course of my most recent inquiry. Being that we simply dump the word design. Liberate it. Let it go.
For instance see this recent comment from Anthony Briggs on my podcast dialogue with Ben Falk:
A thought: At around 25:00 – 30:00 you and Ben are talking about Alan Savory, Holistic Management, the expense of having multiple rounds of design and leaving clients to “do the work”. Is there an opportunity for a rebrand or pivot and instead of “design”, talk about Permaculture coaching? (or counselling? 😉 ).
I’m pretty sure you’re already on this path Dan, but it might be a “culturally-legible”* pivot into (eg.) an initial consultation, then a few ongoing hours a month of checking in and feelings stuff.
* – ie. when you say “coaching”, people will pretty much instantly get it
Or, in an email from my friend and Making Permaculture Stronger follower Greg O’Keefe, who wrote me:
I still think that design is an interesting field, but isn’t really the core of permaculture or anything else for that matter. The big question to me seems to be “how should I live” or “what should I do” rather than “how do I design”, and from your previous email, I gather you may not totally disagree. As I’ve said before, even using the word “design” implies that it is one phase that is to be followed by implementation and then review etc., and so what I understand you to be suggesting with your “living design process” is almost a contradiction. Indeed, maybe you should just call it a “living process” !!??
Here’s the thing though. The modern world loves design, is being steamrolled by design (as well by accident, sure). It’s is all about design, design, design.
Stop using the word design, and the relevance of this work to a world hooked on design drops to nada, zero, zilch. The designers can simply say ah, “this isn’t about design, so it is not relevant to us. For we are designers!”
Yet I believe that unless we can get into the ring or otherwise infiltrate and lovingly disrupt or transform conventional understandings of design, then we are missing something well, kind of important.
For me design is not this neutral thing we can take or leave. It is reflective of a larger story, worldview, conceptual framework in play at large and contributing enormously to the wholesale fucking up of the world. Unless we can disrupt the trajectory of what design means, then, well, I don’t know. Not good stuff will keep happening.
As my new friend Victor Papanek puts it in introducing Design for the Real World:
design has become the most powerful tool with which [we] shape our tools and environments (and, by extension, society and ourself). This demands high social and moral responsibility from the designer. It also demands greater understanding of the people by those who practise design and more insight into the design process by the public.
Part of the point of all this for me is that whenever anyone tries to swim against the tide and make good shit happen on the ground, as does the beautiful giant fish of permaculture, it will unwittingly regurgitate culturally dominant understandings of design in way that shoots itself in the foot, or tail, anyways you get my point.
This is not conjecture, this is what I’ve spent twenty four posts showing in some detail.
As for permaculture, contrasting with Greg’s assertion that design “isn’t really the core of permaculture or anything else for that matter” Dave Jacke in our recent chat said:
It’s called permaculture DESIGN. Design is the verb of permaculture. It is THE VERB of permaculture. It’s at least half if not more of the equation of permaculture – because it is the action of permaculture – it is the fundamental action of what permaculture is… is DESIGN.
Now this is not a one view is right the other wrong situation. Greg and Anthony are right that using the word design implies a problematic linear sequence in which design and implementation are separate steps. But I think that Victor and Dave are right too. The trick to reconciling these two truths is in the strategy I alluded to earlier. The strategy of which Victor Papanek’s (not to mention Dave Jacke’s) work appears a refined manifestation. We gotta roll up our sleeves, walk into the room/field/forest, reclaim design and change what it means. “But this might take several generations!” someone might say. To which I respond “Yes, that’s probably correct…”
Furthermore, as I said in my email reply to Greg and others:
Here’s the thing. Permaculture ain’t going to part company with its extremely deep self-identity as a design approach or discipline. Period. I have Mr Holmgren on video-record recently saying “design process is the core of permaculture.” To try and publicly disassociate permaculture from design is in my opinion a futile gesture. One would cop an awful lot of flack as one crashes and burns ;-). Even if somehow impossibly successful I think it would ultimately constitute a disservice to permaculture given that it would remove one of three key things that most permaculturalists agree on (ethics matter, principles matter, and whatever it is, its something to do with design!).
Yet, as you suggest, in its heart of hearts, its beautiful essence, permaculture is in fact almost nothing to do with design in the dictionary sense of “the art or action of conceiving of and producing a plan or drawing of something before it is made.”
So what do to? Here’s the strategy I’m exploring. Take this idea of design and go into it deeper, much deeper than permaculture-in-general has yet got around to, and then go through it, dragging it and transforming and massaging it toward what I believe permaculture is really, truly about. Rather than trying to circumvent it, bury it, ignore it, instead go into and through it, clearing a path so untrodden so as at first glance to seem not even be there. Arrive in a peaceful clearing, enjoy the lush, fresh surrounds, join Christopher Alexander and the others who wait patiently to pour us a refreshing glass of kombucha in the dappled shade ;-).
For me that clearing is something around the realisation that permaculture isn’t in essence a design approach but a creation system, an alternative approach to co-creating the world, or at least some solid and extremely worthwhile preliminary fragments or reachings in that direction. And from there, I hope, to a space of taking seriously what it is we are creating (gardens, landscapes, lives, money systems, projects, conferences, days, more humans, emails, whatever), pruning out the stuff that is creating more of the same as we go about striving to start stepping in to the rest of nature’s creation tune.
Okay, time to call in this little rant. Enough is enough Dan, tone it the heck down would you!
The Second Introductory Quotation
Let’s move onto the second introductory quote on the first page of the Resilio Studio primer. This one is not about design per se but design thinking:
Design Thinking is a mindset… Thinking like a designer can transform the way you approach the world when imagining and creating new solutions for the future: it’s about being aware of the world around you, believing that you play a role in shaping that world, and taking action toward a more desirable future. Design Thinking gives you faith in your creative abilities and a process to take action through when faced with a difficult challenge.
I looked up design thinking after reading this. This page is a pretty good intro. At first glance it seems to be another instance of boiling design process down to a linear sequence of boxes and arrows (given the boxes, and the, you know, arrows) and then making extensive disclaimers like:
It is important to note that the five stages are not always sequential — they do not have to follow any specific order and they can often occur in parallel and be repeated iteratively. As such, the stages should be understood as different modes that contribute to a project, rather than sequential steps. However, the amazing thing about the five-stage Design Thinking model is that it systematises and identifies the 5 stages/modes you would expect to carry out in a design project – and in any innovative problem solving project. Every project will involve activities specific to the product under development, but the central idea behind each stage remains the same.
And peppering some little return arrows about the diagram. More on that later, for it clear that the Resilio Primer takes much inspiration from Design Thinking. Which is new to me, so I’m grateful for Finn and Gary to be exposing me (and presumably others) to a fresh source of ideas and words and diagrams about design.
For now I want to share one pet peeve I have with the above quote. There is another but I’ll have a proper crack at that with reference to a later section in the primer.
The pet peeve I’ll air here is the unconscious bias toward defining design as to do with thinking, to do with mindset, to do with imagining (We’ll talk later about the related term ideation which means the forming of ideas or concepts). I mean it is all there in the title – design thinking.
I’m guessing that simply by pulling this bias into the foreground you can figure out the issue yourself. Can you?
Seriously, take a moment and think it over. Actually maybe ask how these emphases make you feel. That was a clue, by the way ;-).
You got it. To foreground the mind and rational processes like thinking, imagining, and perhaps even believing is to background the equally if not more critical role that the body, that emotions, that feelings and generally the vast pre-conscious majority of what we are play inside healthy design process.
Yes, the first step in the generic design thinking sequence is Empathise, but I don’t think this does much toward restoring balance, even though balance is the wrong word for it.
I love the way Dave Jacke talks about this stuff. He talks about engaging the whole body-mind inside design process and the sheer quantity of critical information we miss out on if we are not listening to our emotions.
Yes, it is a mistake to neglect the gifts of the rational and to only embrace emotions. But it is just if not more of an error to sway too far the other way.
Upshot is I don’t really like this phrase design thinking – to me it carries inside itself part of the problem that I think the needed transformation of design needs to resolve. Namely this up-front presupposition that designing is thinking and that we can think our way to the best design solutions. We can’t. Let’s hurry up and slow down and evolve our language from talking about design as a “mindset” to design as a “body-mind set” or something to that effect. Point made. Onward.
What is Design?
Given how long its taken me to get to page two of the primer, you can appreciate how long-winded this entire post (now a series of posts) is going to be. If I were you I’d either quit now, or settle in for a longish ride.
Design as Creation / Design as Conservation
This section starts with another quote:
At its pinnacle, design is ‘an interactive, imaginative process for creating something that has never existed before’ (from an author named Birkeland).
This lands as another lopsided statement for me, and I’m not this time talking about the word imaginative. I believe that while healthy design process does create stuff that didn’t previously exist, that this stuff grows out of what already does exist. In particular, it enhances or in some way improves what already exists. To emphasise one of these facets of design to the neglect of the other is to be a mist-take. A first-rate blunder. A type-one error.
In the more holistic view I’m alluding to the magic of design is its twin groundedness in both creation and conservation, as essential aspects of one and the same process.
As soon as design process is too oriented toward conservation it loses its health. As soon as design process is too oriented towards creation it loses its health.
Forgive me for quoting a certain author here, but it’s my post, and you can’t stop me:
In a living system what is to be always grows out of what is, supports it, extends its structure smoothly and continuously, elaborates new form — sometimes startlingly new form — but without ever violating the structure which exists.
When this rule is violated, as it was, far too often, in 20th-century development, chaos emerges. A kind of cancer occurs. Harm is done. All in modern society succeeded, in the last century, in creating an ethos where buildings, plans, objects…are judged only by themselves, and not by the extent to which they enhance and support the world. This means that nature has been damaged, because it is ignored and trampled upon. It means that ancient parts of towns and cities have been trampled, because the modernist view saw no need to respect them, to protect them.
But even more fundamental, it came about because the idea of creativity which became the norm assumed that it is creative to make things that are unrelated (sometimes disoriented and disconnected just in order to be new), and that this is valuable–where in fact it is merely stupid, and represents a misunderstanding, a deep misapprehension of how things are. Creativity comes about when we discover the new within a structure already latent within the present. It is our respect for what is that leads us to the most beautiful discoveries. In art as well as in architecture, our most wonderful creations come about, when we draw them out as extensions and enhancements of what exists already.
The denial of this point of view, is the chief way in which 20th-century development destroyed the surface of the earth (Christopher Alexander, 2002, p. 136)
Once again, I believe my point is made. Healthy design pulls the future (new) out of the past (old). Both matter.
The Problem with equating Design & Problem Solving
Let’s move on to, err, the second sentence of the first paragraph of the Resilio primer.
At its core, design is a process for creatively solving problems.
Now as I scan ahead the next section that jumps out at me is a few paragraphs down in a section entitled Assumptions:
A design process typically involves progressing through a sequence of phases that begin by identifying a discrepancy between the current situation and a desired (future) state. This design process involves defining and analyzing the ‘challenge’, generating concepts, evolving ideas and implementing a solution or solutions that will reduce the gap between the current situation and the desired state. By crystallising this general process down to an essential sequence of phases, it is possible…
Let me take these two statements together and share what comes up.
Actually let me start by ensuring you make the connection between my earlier observation about the inherent issues with defining the phases of a design process as what strike me as purely rational operations (defining, analysing, generating concepts, evolving ideas…).
But the main thing about how these two statements land for me involves this idea that design process = problem solving.
I have in the past been very much on the same page.
Indeed, to some extent I still am.
It is interesting to note how widespread is this idea that design is problem solving even we didn’t see it mentioned in the earlier dictionary definition of design.
The introduction to Design Thinking I linked to earlier starts by saying:
Design Thinking is a design methodology that provides a solution-based approach to solving problems
That is a funny phrasing when you think about it -a “solution-based approach to solving problems”? – I’d like to see a non-solution-based approach to solving problems! I digress. Where were we?
Ah yes, the idea of design = problem solving as widespread. Ben Falk in his wonderful book The Resilient Farm and Homestead said:
it can be said that any effective design process is rooted in intense engagement with the problem at hand and the world in which that problem resides. (p. 24)
You might be wondering “Yeah, so what? What’s your point?”
My point here is that, since earlier saying the same thing, I have become aware of certain dangers (dare I say problems?) around equating design with, or defining design as problem solving.
While I think it was Allan Savory who loosened the lid for me, Carol Sanford blasted it clean off. In fact I think she took the hammer of her penetrating intellect and smashed the jar open In a representative post entitled It’s Not about Better Problem Solving! Carol says things like:
When you start well-intended efforts by identifying a “problem,” you are trapped into thinking that you have to fix it. This leads you on a search for the causes and results in efforts to try out many solutions. It pulls all of your energy toward an endless effort that is based on the mindset that got people into the rut in the first place. Einstein warned us about that.
no matter how well intended the effort, focusing on problems doesn’t eliminate them, only makes room for them to become chronic
I know, I know. If you are a problem-solving design type you just had a WTF moment – am I right? Welcome to Carol Sanford people. Proceed with caution.
As I tried to explain during this podcast, my take on this now is that if we think of design process as exclusively being about solving problems, shrinking discrepancies, resolving tensions, making misfits or clashes go away, we can unwittingly end up distracting ourselves from the the real point of what we’re trying to do in the first place (or at least what, deep down, we really want to be doing).
What is the the real point? For Carol, and I must say I’m with her on this, it is about moving from solving problems to enabling potential:
The same is true for engaging with people. For example, when we pay attention, we see loads of potential in the children around us. We see their shortfalls as well; there is no end of shortfalls to fix. But if you start with who a child really is, deep inside, what makes them unique, and you help them realize more and more of that, to become closer and closer to their own singularity, then they thrive. Who wants to make a child “less bad”? Don’t we instead want to support them in their quest to realize their unique potential? And don’t we feel the same about each new business and each watershed? No two living systems are the same; each is pursuing a unique potential. Find that and you become a great business leader or a great biologist.
Seeing true potential requires us to go back to the DNA of our intentions, conscious and unconscious, back to first base, where the uniqueness of the opportunity exists. What is screaming to be directly realized directly?
Regeneration is always about going back to base material and regenerating from what is at the core.
In other words when we move our frame from problem solving to asking what is possible here, and we focus fully on the potential for supporting a given system in activating or expressing its essence or approbiaching its own singularity or distinctiveness. I can’t begin to explain the deep joy I have felt as my own style of design process facilitation started dancing to this tune. Not to mention the corresponding depth in what came out of it.
Now there are two points I want to make now that, similarly to many of my earlier points, are about realising that this is not an either-or situation. It is not about seeing design as problem solving or seeing design as activating essence / enabling potential. Both are true, in at least two ways.
First, to talk about enabling potential is, you could argue, a sort of meta-problem solving in the sense you could say that to fathom and enable a system’s potential is to work toward reducing the discrepancy between a current state (unrealised potential) and a desired future state (realised potential). So here it is about going deep enough and in a sense asking “what is the real problem here?” Sure. But I’m also sure you can appreciate the dangers of falling into cycles of subsidiary problem solving that become self-perpetuating and in their focus on getting away from something lose sight of what the point really is.
Second, and I believe there is no way around this, any process that authentically activates essence or enables potential will solve problems along the way, almost as an incidental by-product. One of the most obvious reasons for this is that there is almost always problems or tensions, as in conflicting forces or tendencies at play inside any situation, that are veiling or confusing any movement toward potential. So here the two frames, problem-solving and potential-realising, are both valid and useful but of a different logical type. The former sits at a lower and subsidiary level to the latter.
Yet my point is that to emphasis problems over potential is yet another trap along the long (lost?) path toward clearer, better, stronger design process understandings better able to serve tomorrow’s permaculture.
Recap and Conclusion
Yes I’ve taken my sweet time about it but the nutshell version is that I’m so far enjoying the Resilio Primer and finding it most stimulating in terms of helping me clear up some of my own thoughts (and feelings!) about the fundamentals of what sound, permaculture-worthy design process is and isn’t.
I have found at least three simple cases of phrasings in the space of defining design process (mostly in quotes from others) that I find lopsided (or, if you prefer, true but partial):
- Healthy design involves rational, conscious operations. Yes, surely. But it also involves a sound dose of the pre or sub or non-conscious/non-rational (including the emotional). Both matter.
- Healthy design is about creating new stuff. Yes, it usually is. But it is also about conserving and enhancing old stuff. Both matter, as flipsides of the same coin.
- Healthy design solves problems. Yes, but only in service of the deeper problem (or, if you insist, meta-problem) of activating essence / enabling potential. Both matter.
Rightio, I’ll wrap up now, look forward to any comments, and look forward to Finn and Gary’s reply in the next post.
Alexander, Christopher. The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe: Book Two: The Process of Creating Life. Vol. 2. of 4 vols. The Center for Environmental Structure, 2002.
Falk, B. (2013). The Resilient Farm & Homestead.
Papanek, Victor (1971). Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change, New York, Pantheon Books