Some Recent Email Conversations

In this post I’d like to share snippets from a bunch of recent conversations with colleagues from around the world. So many great insights, themes, questions, and so forth that I couldn’t bare to leave buried in my inbox.

Many thanks for these fine folk giving their permission for me to share.

Hakai Tane (New Zealand)

I recently found myself in an unexpected email interchange with Haikai Tane, who, as shared here, was David Holmgren’s mentor in design process. I was amazed to read Haikai sharing (without any prompting or hint from me about the latest MPS inquiry) that:

Yes eventually the final design can be recorded on paper ~ but only after the plan is implemented and completed in reality ~ as in ecography ~ however getting it right takes years, decades and sometimes longer … This is why ecography records the completed ecosystems for specific sites only when they are finished and proven ~ which is why the ecography method doesn’t work for permaculture which requires the closed system method of pre-design!

Contemplative cognition was documented by Carl Jung and taught by Alan Watts (Berkeley Uni) from his studies of the Dao de Jing.. It involves learning-by-doing experiments and gaming using geospatial simulations with dynamic imagery, sound, and symbolic logic to generate/produce co-evolutionary pathways for specific situations leading to unpredictable and undesignable outcomes … which are so much better than anything the mind can conceive or design.. it works best with communities not individuals

how to is a skill not knowledge, it requires an empowering culture ~ like Dao culture ~ Western cultures have not transcended dualism yet, so they are blocked by their mindsets from comprehending how and when to engage …. Recently in China I engaged with a rural community living beside the Huang He practicing these methods ~ they are essential for empowering their sophisticated farming systems ~ no talking or phones allowed, no paper or pencils employed ~ only dancing, music and skillful leaders showing how ~ and the rest following ~ so intricate and complex!

Yes eventually the final design can be recorded on paper ~ but only after the plan is implemented and completed in reality ~ as in ecography ~ however getting it right takes years, decades and sometimes longer … This is why ecography records the completed ecosystems for specific sites only when they are finished and proven ~ which is why the ecography method doesn’t work for permaculture which requires the closed system method of pre-design!

In giving permission for me to share these (sparkling!) words of his, Haikai asked that I add Laozi’s first line from the Dao de Jing:

the way that can be told in words is not right!

Pippa Buchanan (Austria & Western Australia)

Writes Pippa

Hey Dan, I am so grateful for all of the work that you are putting into this and how it is encouraging me to think and communicate. I came to permaculture from an adult education background and following encouragement from Rowe have ended up working towards permaculture teaching. I was feeling kind of lame about this because my land based experience is limited, but realised that what I can draw on is years of learning design and adult education understandings to try and make permaculture stronger.

I think that one of the things that hinders a more thoughtful, intuitive and emergent design process across the board is how permaculture is taught.

And what learning objectives we are trying to achieve as teachers and how we ‘assess’ the students at the end of a PDC. So I wonder if one part of making permaculture stronger is in better ways of presenting the design exercises and explaining the goals.

Anyway my \}’@% feeling was because I’ll teach a design process module at the January PDC at Fair Harvest in Margaret River, and listening to the podcasts and reading the blog has made me think about how best to explain these ides A LOT.

It is an exciting teaching challenge – especially as the discussion of what good process & design practice is still an emerging and moving discussion.

So how can the idea of design as an ongoing and emergent process be captured and explained well even if at the end of a PDC students still end up producing a series of layered maps based on a hour visit to a site and a shared interview?

I will let you know how I go, but if you have any immediate ideas I would love to hear them!

Have a lovely wrap up to 2017 and an abundant 2018

Replies Dan

Great stuff Pippa – yeah it’s so interesting in that my focus has been okay, let’s forget about how to teach design process well, and focus on what the heck is good design process, in the sense of something worthy of permaculture and able to more authentically serve permaculture’s beautiful ethos and aspiration.

Yet of course it is not a finish-that-and-only-then-think-about-how-to-work-what-is-emerging-into-teaching situation because the teaching of it is an enormous help to its exploration and articulation, not to mention that there is no ‘finish.’ One thing I have found already though is that the shape of the educational experiences I am part of has changed enormously as a result of trying to take a better approach to designing and facilitating them. A simple example is consciously breaking the habit of designing a course by choosing a bunch of cool topics then assembling them :-).

One thing we’ve done with our PDCs is that the design exercise is not only with 100% real clients but we start on day three and then progress it every day so that the participants end up have many hours and many site visits. We of course fall short of the ideal of starting the implementation but it feels an enormous improvement over the tokenistic exercise traditionally tacked onto the end of a PDC which almost necessitates a design process that flies in the face of all I’ve been learning through the MPS inquiries etc etc..

Anyways lovely to hear of what you’re up to and let’s stay in touch and support each other as we explore and learn more!

Replies Pippa

I think that maybe a broader discussion about teaching within MPS is something that has to come down the line. Its been at the edge of your discussions on the podcast, but I think that until you know what good practice is and where it should move towards (the what), it’s difficult to work out how to explain that whether it is in PDC, an advanced design course, or written into a blogpost or book

I’ll see if there’s a chance for our January PDC group to meet with the clients earlier in the week, I know the site visit is currently booked midway in week two

Anyway thank you, I’m looking forward to more MPS over the next year!

Replies Dan some time later

I am wondering what you would think about me including the following excerpt from our chat in an upcoming post sharing some recent private conversations I’ve been having with folk around the world??

Replies Pippa

Sure! If you think the rambling nature of my comment is understandable I‘m happy for it to be included.

Then, a bit later Pippa continues

Hey Dan, thinking about this further – one of the challenges is that so much of the PDC is about teaching a Permaculture / systems worldview and general ways of being for the majority of participants (let me call this “embodied design”, and then there is a layer of teaching about “design as service” in which designers work with clients. Possibly “design as service” the MPB approach gets confused with “design as product” aka just the paper master plan. To a certain extent, actual “design as service” involves facilitating a client to step into the mode of “embodied design” to interpret, implement and design from the design plan product.

So, that effectively is three levels of teaching design process A) embodied design, applied permaculture principles and ethics as daily practice (the everyday paradigm shift) 😎 working with a design client and an existing (land based) system in order to propose a new version of the system that applies permaculture ethics and principles – aka a “master plan design” C) establishing “design and communication practices” about working with clients (professional, community groups, family members) to justify the design and facilitate others to interpret, establish, maintain and evolve the system that emerges as a result.

Oh yeah, and all that stuff about ecosystems, forest layers, superhero chickens, economic collapse, soil food webs, keyline etc and decision making, social Permaculture, ethical economics which are all required to do design in modes a, b and c.

My guess is that this generally happens in most PDCs to some extent but possibly through the PDC being pretty solid and the types of people attracted to permaculture anyway. (A) has to happen for all students but it often gets overshadowed by the master plan product focus of the final design project.

Dan Replies

Love these insights Pippa and will share them too!

Rutger Spoelstra (Netherlands)

Writes Rutger

On your latest blog post you asked for a diagrammatic summary of my take on sound permaculture design process. I have made a drawing:

It is based on the design web which has been created by Looby Macnamara. See her book People & Permaculture page – for an explanation. If you haven’t got the book…run to the book store, you won’t regret : ) There is also a short explanation here.

What I like about the design web is that is non-linear and it helps you to design a design process for each design you make. There is no formula for a good design process in my point of view. Every process is unique.

Looby’s design web has been created for people-based designs. My version has been created for designing gardens, farms, landscape, buildings, et cetera. It is a project in progress, I’m still working on it.

For now I don’t have time to explain more. I am a slow writer and it is getting late on this side of the planet (Netherlands). But I hope the drawing will explain my ideas. If you have any questions, please let me know.

Replies Dan

Hey thanks Rutger and lovely to hear from you,

Thanks so much for sharing and hey I’d love to share your drawing and some of your writing on making permaculture stronger as part of a guest post in the next month or so if that’s okay with you. I’ve also ordered Looby’s book and sent her an email – will try and get a podcast recording with her I think.

Dan Palmer

Replies Rutger

Hi Dan,

Thanks for you enthusiastic response. It would be an honor to be part of a guest post.

Would be nice to have a podcast with Looby, she has a lot of interesting thoughts about the design process to share. I have had a conversation with her about it last year at the European permaculture convergence and it was really inspiring to me.


ps. On a side note, did you ever read Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert? She has some very nice observations about the creative process. It is not permaculture and the style and tone of the book are not my favorite, but it is a fascinating read nonetheless.

Replies Dan

Greetings Rutger and great to hear from you,

I have now a copy of Looby’s book and I look forward to reviewing her design web approach (which I agree is great and relevant!) on the blog, though it’s first mention will be via yourself.

I’ll look up Big Magic thanks!

Richard Cleaver (France)

In response to your request for ‘a little reciprocation’ to Part 23, I’ve attached a map of my (limited) understanding of the field-process-model by Jascha Rohr & Sonja Hörster. I know this is not exactly the kind of thing you were asking for but it is a starting point for us. Maybe you could help fill in some gaps?

As mentioned earlier, we are hoping to move to a new property soon and we intend to use the Hybrid or Generative design approach. I’ve attached a satellite image of the acre site (in central France)

All the best,

Holger Hieronimi (Mexico)

Thanks for this series of deep inquiries into the field of “design process” – be aware, that quite a few PC designers & activists here in Mexico & Latin America, are in a similar process of re-discovering what design is all about – haven´t commented yet on the series, but following with a lot of interest and (if possible) insight your discussions, resonating with many if not most of your discoveries – I´d like to read the series in context…is there a PDF version of the instalments, for printing & better reviewing?

saludos desde México1

Alexander Olsson (Sweden)

AO: I’ve thought about the permabliz concept and how it could incorporate a generative design process. Any thoughts there?

DP: Re permablitzing I’m not sharing my thoughts until you share yours 🙂

AO: Haha yes, thank you for asking. I see an immediate problem with the whole concept of people rocking up on one day with lots of expectations and limited time. To start the design process while people stand ready with mattocks is a challenge. If the next unfolding step can somehow be clear on the day of the blitz, then that step has to be pretty large for people to feel like they have done something on the day. After that step there would have to be some kind of break then, maybe for a few weeks and for people to come back to implement the next step. Another approach could be to mock-up things with the host/client before the blitz and work through the steps, and then after all that have a blitz where it is all implemented at once. But you’re not going to be able to stop the implementation when new realisations arise, and even if the mock-up sessions are diligent there are so many things that only become obvious when the actual implementation starts. So I’m leaning towards feeling that a hybrid approach might be as far as one can go to bring some of these ideas to the permablitz. What do you think?

Manuel da Gama Higgs Pereira Morgado (Portugal)

Dear Dan Palmer,

It is hard to make an introduction regarding my feelings after reading what you wrote concerning Permaculture other than the description I wrote as title (kindred spirit). Let’s just say David Seamon was absolutely correct to send me here.
I had long conversations about the research I am doing with Seamon and he insisted four times that I should check your work out. I was too busy at the time (a month ago) but am now at absolute awe at what I was missing! Thank you for sharing your views! Indeed, let’s make permaculture stronger! : )

I am an architecture student, an academic like you claim to be. I’m deep within that realm of existence at this point, finishing my Master in Architecture at Universidade de Lisboa, Portugal.

Needless to say, “permaculture” is a word something like 0.01% of the students at this University are aware of the existence of such a concept or of what it could mean as a design approach. That alone made me skeptical when I first started my research about it – years ago now.

I came to Permaculture by accident during a post-graduation in Eco-Architecture. However, I have been interested in Ecology from a very young age. I pursued Urban Ecology, Environmental Design, Eco-Architecture, name it whatever you want, call the approach whatever you like… I know you know exactly what I am talking about.
But only within the hardcore niche of the people who gravitate these “strong-sustainability” and “deep ecology” circles, where Gaia Theory gnostics meet and eco-literacy is culture I heard about the word permaculture for the very first time.
Those are the same circles that lead me to David Seamon, who in turn, directed me to your blog. It was an enlightening and reassuring read, thank you. I wonder if you have this published elsewhere? I would like to know how you would prefer me to quote you and refer to your design methods schematics.

I found this “exclusivity” regarding permaculture to be a problem as I dug deeper on Permaculture I, II, Pathways and Principles Before Sustainability, Gaia’s Garden and more recently Rainwater Harvesting for Dry Climates and Beyond I, II, and III in the near future. I will try to explain why as briefly as I can.

I am an architecture student first and a permacultural wannabe second. However, I have always been a curious spare-time biologist and technology fan… And recently I have become aware that Ecology needs to stop becoming a Science and to become Culture – intersubjective and diverse eco-literacy as the foundations for the new regenerative and symbiotic development paradigm that we wish to give birth to.
I became increasingly convinced, while visiting some permaculture – related initiatives in my country that there was a lot of strong-willed wishful thinking about it and that scared the academic in me at first, to say the least.

I went to read the theory in order to try to understand what the fuss was all about and I was at shock. The design methodology was the most ecologically sophisticated I had ever come across. How was it possible that nobody even knew about it among the architects I go to school with?

I immediately tried to indoctrinate people. I had the first testaments for the new Bible of Sustainability in my hands, I felt at the time. I had to spread the good word. And so I did with some success.

Most people were very impressed with the core concepts and principles to be so well organized within my peers who do -really- care about sustainable designs. What a beautiful societal model they were, so intertwined, complex and coherent. The problem came when I first began investigating case studies – how the Hell could I present -that- as worthy of the attention of such a snob elite of architectural post-modern design? Most designs looked like gardens or rural campsites with a eclectic 70s ring to it.

Still I kept the logic and began applying it to architecture. I found case studies in my homeland that were worthy at least of being discussed in architectural grounds – Aldeia de Tamera, Aldeia das Amoreiras, and Herdade do Freixo do Meio (in Portuguese, “permaculture” is spelled “permacultura”, in case you try to google them to no avail).

I am now doing a project for a big building and rural infra-structure in Alentejo region within the “montado de sobreiro” ecosystem (cork oak forest molded by agricultural and forestry practices dating back centuries – still can’t reveal the project program, but I promise I will do so as soon as I finish my master thesis).
The reason I am telling you all this is because I came to feel the way you do about permaculture when I had this cultural inheritance at hands to deal with. The reason was that even though people at my research and project groups were impressed theoretically about permaculture, they were very skeptical about the final design quality of the case studies I could gather – even the finest ones! (not ecologically – but aesthetically). And that made me wonder… why? What was wrong?
And the answer that came to mind as valid was culture. I am about to say a very bad thing about “permaculturalists” and I confess it might be pedantic of mine to do so, because I never actually took a PDC or got to know a very vast sample of individuals within the permacultural movement. However, one can’t deny that we are often accused of being the contemporary equivalent of hippies – as in we are deluded with dreams of grandure and imbued with an aura of self-righteous epiphany fueled by cannabis, magic mushrooms and ayahuasca.

Therefore, I am aiming in my master thesis to dignify permaculture as a design system worthy of concern and interlocking it theoretically with many other approaches and concerns – mainly cultural ones, but also other ecological approaches worthy of mentioning regarding architecture.

I have become increasingly certain that the problem with permaculture is that it represents an embryonic cultural movement, often underfunded. It relates with many distinct societal models, but it is always deeply ecocentric. But when it comes to culture, that is where it become tricky.

Let’s just say for the sake of the argument that the community to which I am applying the permaculture approaches and ecological design methodologies is -very- strict when it comes to the priority of its way of life and rituals above everything else. How the hell was I supposed to interfer in that with something as encompassing as permaculture? How was I to -offer- it to -clients-?

And that was exactly when everything started to make sense. Sustainability is not an end in itself, nor ecology. We pursue meaning, we value perception and we seek intersubjectivite values, culture. Was permaculture naive enough to believe it had a different DNA from every single cultural movement in Mankind’s history? You are well aware that the answer is No. Permaculture must be holistic.

Permaculture must turn to Art, History and Philosophy. It must learn with its cultural roots. The ones acknowledged and the ones ignored. Ecology as culture is a very long school of thought – even if implicitly, in a number of anthropological senses. Zeitgeist documentary was wrong – science is not the only universally valid form of knowledge, nor the only useful one – for it is also not an end in itself. How could one explain the contemporary spiritual renewal and interfaith agreements intertwining with ecological and environmental movements? This is exactly what brought me to David Seamon’s Phenomenological Ecology and to the “whole” concept of “nameless quality” and the pattern languages that allow us to identify it. Again, I am sure you know what I am talking about.

My point is… permaculture must penetrate academic existing academic circles. You are absolutely right to do so. I am no sensei of Permaculture by far, but you learned from them so you must know what you are doing.

I apologize for the long winded confession… But having access to your rants and personal introductions, I felt in the right and obligation to do so as well.

I’m sorry if I commit any errors… English is not my first language!

Sincerely grateful,
Manuel Higgs Morgado

Note from Dan: I will share my reply and something of our ongoing discussion as a separate post soon.

Jamie McCall (Western Australia)

Writes Jamie

I’ve been reading some of your writings with interest for a while. I am a permaculture teacher and designer of my own property over the past years.
Without wanting to offend anyone, including you, can I make the following observations.

Some Permaculture Design Courses consciously create and cater for a professional class of Permaculture designers. I wonder if this was ever the original intent, or whether it was a sensible or proper intent, of permaculture. I am often asked if I do designs and respond that I don’t, but refer the questioner to one of my co-teachers who will do designs for people. I am not comfortable with designing for other people as it is currently understood – the provision of a paper representation of an idealised layout for a property.

My belief is that permaculture design is a process that properly belongs with the inhabitant/s of the site. Fellow travelers can offer advice, examples, seedlings and cuttings, but design occurs in the “doing”.

The amount of time spent in the “planning” stage seems to have little correlation to the adequacy of the outcomes, in my experience. Practical skills are far more important, yet there is little emphasis on teaching these.

I see the PDC not as a tool to equip a professional design consultant, but as a way of opening participants eyes to the possibilities of life outside that formed by their present worldview, with a focus on energy descent and a meaningful human response to the challenges that will arise as a consequence.

Equipping people with mental tools to think about challenges is key.

The focus, I feel, should be on empowering every fellow traveler to make their own design decisions in their own context, without reference to a class of “professional” designers. In this way the use of permaculture thinking tools such as the holmgren principles, and those borrowed from holistic management, keyline and others, are shared as widely as possible in a user-friendly way. The ability to implement these tools mentally (in a planning and practical sense) is the skill a PDC should attempt to impart.

The design lessons are learned in the observing of local site-appropriate examples, and attempting to replicate or adapt them according to need. Through this practical experience innovations occur and are again shared over time.
Designers visiting sites and producing plans for eager clients to follow misses the crucial experience of developing observational and adaptive skills by seeking out real life design templates to draw on for the next unique project.

Is this where you are really going with your inquiry? Towards a bottom up design experience rather than a top down process that is commonly experienced today?

I see the place for skilled practitioners sharing their knowledge, but the focus should be on education and empowerment – the implementation – which includes the planning phases – should be in the control of the inhabitant/s so they design to their skill levels and needs.

Jamie Burnside (Burnside Organic Farm)

Replies Dan

Many thanks for your email Jamie – your reflections resonate deeply with my own, especially lines like “My belief is that permaculture design is a process that properly belongs with the inhabitant/s of the site.  Fellow travelers can offer advice, examples, seedlings and cuttings, but design occurs in the “doing”.” I’m 100% with you on that and part of my overall mission is to try and defuse and expose this inherently problematic idea of the external permaculture design expert who blows in and out leaving the residents with a piece of paper that can be more a curse than a blessing and as you say doesn’t mean a hell of a lot when push comes to shove and the real process of living and adaptively co-evolving inside a developing landscape gets under way.

In the upcoming podcast interview with Dave Jacke we explore this topic and these questions remind me of an old article of Holmgren’s where he argues that permaculture design is not and should not be a profession. I’d love to try and spark some more dialogue about this stuff on the blog – would you be open to participating in such a thing? Even if you were okay with me starting off a post with your email then adding some complementary reflections of my own would do it.
Your call and either way I really appreciate you getting in touch. I had a quick look at your site and decided immediately that I’m not the least bit interested in either of us offending each other or doing anything else that would decrease the chance of coming for a paddle board with you if my family ever gets over your way!


Dan Palmer

Replies Jamie

Hi Dan,
Happy to participate publicly in the discussion.
It worries my the number of “permaculture business” discussions and articles popping up on the web.
I like to talk to PDC participants about the “wrong” questions to ask about permaculture.
One of these is – “how do I make money out of it?”.  To me that is a fundamental misunderstanding.
That is the thinking paradigm we are trying to challenge, but it seems many are simply adapting permaculture to the predominant western world view, rather than seeing it as disrupting the status quo.
I guess I wrote to you partly because I felt a lot of your investigation was getting quite intense in terms of language to describe the permaculture design process, and I feel it is quite simple, but a lot of people have lost their way and are adapting permaculture to the mainstream rather than using it to disrupt.
Seems we are on the same page, however, and you are welcome to join us for a SUP.

Replies Dan

Thanks Jamie,

What about I use some of your first email content in a post I’m planning where I share several emails and comment on recent posts that have come in to try and prompt discussion and to encourage others to share their view on all this (above all I want making permaculture stronger to be a healthy conversation and not about me imposing my views). I’d send you a draft of the post first for your sign off.
I’m not so sure about permaculture design process being simple, mainly because I find it to have in practice unwittingly bought into so many mainstream ideas in a way that I see repeatedly undermining its ability to be beneficially disruptive. Yet on the other hand I agree it is simple once you peel of all the confusing nonsense it gets wrapped in. But that itself is an important conversation, which intersects with the one about professional design / making money out of permaculture.

Best, Dan

Trevor Lohr (Vermont, USA)

Writes Trevor1

Hey Dan,

I’ve been a lurker for a while here, and I love this dialogue you’ve stirred up. I really appreciate your dedication to presenting Christopher Alexander’s work because I haven’t been able to get into his books yet. You’ve provided so much context to his relevance to permaculture, design and just being a decent human being. It seems to me that there’s a lot in common between Alexander’s concept of wholeness and the worldview espoused by many world religions, specifically the non-duality between subject/object, self/other, body/mind. I really believe that in order for humanity to continue on this planet for the long term, we must change the perspective that man and nature are separate, or that human beings are fundamentally different from each other. Luckily, I see people sharing similar sentiments from all walks of life and corners of the world. The dominant cultural worldview is shifting, and dare I say it even appears to be speeding up as we speak.

I hope that we can take it even further than just viewing ourselves as stewards or custodians of earth, and treat all creatures, and even the rocks and rain, as we do family. Indigenous peoples around the world related to all things alive and (apparently) inanimate as valuable as a parent or sibling; not only by caring for and loving them, but by allowing themselves to be loved by such things as the wind, or to learn from the mountain, or find one’s purpose from a bear. One step at a time of course, I’d be happy with a cultural transition towards global stewardship in my lifetime.

Anyway, I’m digressing from my appreciation because I figured you wouldn’t mind if I took your time- I don’t think this will be as long as your post! By applying your perspective to others’ design processes, you’ve condensed much of your work in this blog down to smaller chunks (relatively speaking when you compare this post to your whole body of work). I took a couple pages of notes on your three main points about Design Thinking/Rationality, Creation and Conservation, and Problem Solving because I’m actually starting a college class in design tomorrow.

Don’t cringe too fast though, I’ll explain a bit about myself and what I’m doing so I can ask a few questions. I went to college like a good little suburban white boy should, starting out in Philosophy and switching to Biology half way through. After 4 years with at least 1-2 remaining years to finish the BS, I took a break because I felt that my heart was not in it, and I didn’t want to keep taking loans for a degree I wasn’t sure I needed. A few years later I attended a PDC and learned a kind of holistic ecological perspective not taught in a typical biology classroom; and though I did know a few outdoorsy permaculture kids then, I didn’t really get the full picture from them.

Fortunately, a nice little school in Vermont offers a program for students to finish up an undergrad degree from home or any state college courses, and they let me create my own plan of study. I call it Regenerative Development and am taking a variety of classes in: Landscape/Horticulture, Diversified Agriculture, Community Development and Entrepreneurship. None of it is on the frontier of regenerative business or permaculture, it’s just what’s available to me to be able to balance my priorities of finishing my nearly complete degree with classes that teach me some relevant skills and all for a fair price. Meanwhile I’m digesting your blog, Dave Jacke, Christopher Alexander, working in landscaping during the summer, growing a little food and trying to get involved in community where I can.

So now that you know a little about me, I can get into some relevant thoughts and questions. Naturally, (or rather unnaturally, you might say) this horticulture and landscape design program from which I am cherry picking a few courses requires you take Graphics before Intro to Design. So last semester I got to work on my drawing ability where we just fabricated imaginary landscapes and courtyards, and it drove me a little crazy. I had some okay conversations with the teacher about the difference between fabrication and generative design process, but she didn’t really get it when I suggested that “design process” (quotes are for you because I’m not going to repeat everything you just wrote about those words!) and particularly observational skills be taught before blueprint level drawing. She just insisted that students need to get on board with the “language” of modern design before they can learn to see and draw landscape. So my fellow students are being encouraged from the get go to make decisions without any context, and certainly zero emotion.

I piped up every now and then in class to share some of your wisdom because these are potential future designers who are not being given any realistic context about the world and economy that they are [not] being prepared for. Unfortunately, the class really encourages students towards a career in commercial architectural design and big projects for institutions with big funding; a path that likely requires higher credentials than the associates degree from this program. There’s very little specifically about doing useful projects for lower class working people or food production at different scales, and it drives me to speak up when it seems appropriate in or outside of class. Tomorrow, the Intro to Design course begins with the same students and I’m a bit anxious about whether it will continue down the same trajectory. I feel bad for my fellow students and will try to pepper in different perspectives where I can, but I’m not sure many of them are very interested or aware about the different theories and practices behind design (and I don’t expect them to either, being ten years younger than me).
Do you have any advice for getting the most out of this kind of standard design course which I’m taking for a variety of reasons that do not include submitting to the fabrication ideology? I want to do landscape design/coaching/build and maintenance type work for the people who need it most, but can’t afford it because fewer and fewer working people have discretionary income for things like “landscaping”.

I’d really like to take what you’re doing to the small town context in Vermont. What do you think about applying such a living process to town planning? I’ll also be taking a course in Land Use Planning this semester, which I suspect will be similarly steeped in the expensive, lengthy, up-front town plan fabrication. I would love to see lower cost, more inclusive and adaptable strategies come into the small community context because many little towns in Vermont are in economic decline for a variety of reasons. I believe the heart of the issue has existed throughout VT history and that’s the impact of global capital markets on local community resilience and resources.

People in my community have even recently started a conversation on a local online forum about what to do about vacant storefronts in town. A few even liked my proposal to convert the ailing public/private golf course into a cooperatively owned regenerative farm and community hub that can act as a center for education, business incubation, food/fiber/fuel/fodder/fertilizer/”farmaceutical” production, and especially as a space for gathering and celebration.

Gosh, I don’t want to write a comment longer than your original post. I’ll write more in the future now that I’ve finally broken my silence. Again, I love what you’re doing and saying Dan. Please keep it coming, you’re truly an inspiration!

Much Love,

Replies Dan

Okay Trevor – yours is one comment that deserves a proper reply!

First thanks for coming out into the open where I can see you – may that your doing so encourages other lurkers to do the same :-).

One step at a time, yes, but I do like your statements about indigenous ways of being where it’s all alive and we feed into the rest of life as it feeds into us.

I appreciated hearing about your experiences in classes on design – because I lack much direct exposure to the mainstream of design education it is good (if demoralising) to be reminded that people really do still think, teach, and practice this way. Fabricating masterplans with deadlines, some of these words themselves carrying clues to their own impotence…

I don’t know about advice, but one thing I’d mention is that I’ve found it helpful when engaging in certain projects to have the ability to draw up pretty scaled diagrams on computer etc etc in terms of not being intimidated with all that stuff (or belittled and pushed aside due to its absence). It can be useful to know the standard practice approach in terms of being most informed toward where the nodal intervention points are when it comes to disrupting it. Sometimes a little stealth may be in order – “yes, here I am the expert who can whip you up a masterplan! But now I am in the door, here’s what we’re really going to do, and why it is going to serve you better…”

Applying living process to town planning sounds like a bit of fun to me! Alexander does give several examples of this kind of thing in Book Three of the Nature of Order, though I personally have not applied it in this context. I’d be keen if the opportunity comes up though, my word.

Please do keep chiming in Trevor and yes, I’ll keep it coming to, don’t worry about that! I’m just getting warmed up here!

Zev Friedman (North Carolina, USA)

Hey Dan, I’ve been meaning to follow up and get some more juices flowing on the thread that Courtney included me in where you commented about weaknesses in design process and queried where I’m at in my design practice. Looking very much forward to meeting you in person and going deeper in the kitchen, round the fire and so on. Thank you also for having me as a guest at the course.

Courtney and I have talked quite a bit about this lovely idea of living design as embryonic hatching instead of assembly of elements, and I read your article in Permaculture Design magazine when it came out there. I am indeed a fan of Christopher Alexander and the rest of them, especially grateful for the concept of a pattern language (even though pattern languages smell suspiciously like assembly of elements in spite of their differentiation from general to specific), and working myself on a patterns language for transformative permaculture education.

I’ll get to more thoughts on the differentiation vs. assembly question below, but first I want to respond to your question about weaknesses in my design practice. I use a stage system of concept drawings–>preliminary plan–>master plan that essentially does work with vague placements and flows at the beginning as you illustrated in your article, then differentiates into more detail based on new ideas and client feedback. I think it does a good job at creating learning opportunities for the client, multiple chances to talk about pros and cons of different options, and time for the client to self-examine about what is most important in their goals. It maybe takes more time than some more streamlined processes that I have heard some designers use. I’ve been doing it this way and tweaking it for years. The weak point is in people enacting the vision once the design drawings and report are in place. In the majority of cases, as I hear from the client – years after the final design was presented, they are far, far behind the timeline that we carefully developed together for their project. Like, farther behind than I am in my own homestead. Maybe this is a uniquely U.S. issue, I’m not sure. But I can’t avoid the feeling that there is something I could be doing better as a designer to help these designs take root in the land and the people’s lives.

This brings me to the thoughts on a design being like an embryo. I totally agree with our core permaculture premise, that like other processes, our design process will be most powerful if it mimics life forms and ecological patterns. And like we teach in patterns, we have to carefully study exactly why ecosystems and life forms use different patterns so we can mimic each pattern in the right application and not mimic it in inappropriate applications. This is why things like mandala shaped vegetable gardens drive me bonkers, because people are copying a sunflower double-fractal (ish) pattern in an application which just minimizes growing space, maximizes high maintenance path space, makes it difficult to get a wheelbarrow in, and gets none of the light access and growth sequence benefits that a sunflower gets by using that pattern.

So definitely the main idea rings true, that things which “grow” are truly alive and have an internal power and coherence, while things that are “built” must be assembled by an external force and then maintained and micro-managed by that force from then on. But with design, what does it mean to truly grow a permaculture design, or a permaculture system, based on a deep comparison to biological processes that takes the metaphor/image of biology all the way? So that the power of the system arises internally from pre-existing intelligence inside the system, as do life forms. Put another way, if living things have DNA and non-living things don’t (a tricky idea, but just to go with it for a second) what is the DNA of a permaculture project? Within the embryo, what provides the information of when and how and where to differentiate cells which then turn into organs and so on? What kind of animal is the embryo of a given project? Or, is a project necessarily an animal? Might it be a plant, a fungus, a protozoa? In which case both the format and content of differentiation would be much different. A plant will be sending a rootlet and a cotyledon out into the environment to interact and feed, shortly after its seed germinates, unlike an animal which stays contained until its esophagus/anal tube opens. Or might a project actually be comprised of a whole food web of life forms which inform the patterns of the design?

And I think more important even than what kind of life to compare a given project to is the question of what is the lineage of the DNA it is germinating/hatching from? If it is truly alive, that means it has ancestors, and then we as designers are not creators but actually midwives, or nursery-keepers. So for a given piece of land, or other project, with a given group of people, how do we find what ancestors are marrying/pollinating to give rise to the thing that is trying to hatch/sprout in this setting? I think that this is truly and pragmatically important to ask if we want projects to be alive from the inside with DNA and enzymes, rather than assembled and built and managed from the “outside”. And I think that this is somehow right in there with my challenge of why clients don’t run with their designs in a big way all the time, because somehow I’m not identifying and working as a midwife with the DNA of what is actually present.

And that is where I’ll leave it and invite thoughts from you two. Thanks for reading and for the opportunity to go deeper with these things.

Zev (Zev runs Living Systems Design)


Hannah Moloney on Permaculture Design, Business, and Life (E07)

In this episode Dan Palmer from Making Permaculture Stronger enjoys a rich conversation with his friend and permaculture colleague Hannah Moloney from Good Life Permaculture in Hobart. Hannah and Dan explore:

  • How Hannah got into all this
  • Hannah’s journey working as a professional permaculture designer
  • The permaculture design process Hannah uses
  • The tension between providing a service people are willing to pay for and honouring sound process at the same time
  • Much more

Here are some of Hannah’s design diagrams (more here):

Her and Anton and their daughter Frida’s beeuitiful pink home on a hill (more here):

and Dan, Hannah, Anton (and young Frida) in 2015…

and 2016…

The Resilio Studio Design Process Primer: Part Three – Finn and Gary’s reply to the first instalment of Dan’s review

By Finn Mackesy and Gary Marshall

This blog post started as a comment on Dan’s first blog post reviewing and critiquing our Design Process Primer and evolved into a more detailed and complete response. We asked Dan if we could post it as an article on his blog and he agreed – great!

To start off we are hugely grateful for the time, effort, rigour and passion with which Dan is driving the conversation about permaculture and ‘design’. We think a lot about design and are grateful someone else has taken the time to provide reflective feedback on our current attempt to capture our understanding of a robust and high quality design process. The fact that Dan is going through this with such a fine tooth comb – “a thorough going over” – is brilliant and we hope it continues to generate reflective critical dialogue, refine and hone our own thinking and understanding of design and contribute to Making Permaculture Stronger (MPS).

We have tried to keep our response confined specifically to Dan’s critique, however we do go off track in few places to try and link in other aspects of design theory and practice that we think might be of interest and value to the ‘Making Permaculture Stronger’ initiative.

To finish a long winded introduction we want to emphasise the purpose of the design primer. We designed the primer as a high level, loose fit guide to the design process for the purpose of applying it to a wide range of design challenges and contexts. We designed it for ourselves as design practitioners trying to work across a range of fields and as a resource for our design education and training work. It is Instrumental Theory2 which attempts to generalize and codify knowledge as a basis for practical action and is derived from empirical observation and practical experience.

At this point it’s probably worth mentioning that we agree with most of the comments Dan made in his previous post reflecting on our Design Process Primer and appreciated his insights about design based on the introductory quotes and introduction. So with that said let’s get into it…

Design involves more than creating something that never existed before

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.(Dan Palmer, )

We find it hard to disagree with this observation. Dan’s observations about the third quote3 resonate and we particularly like the Christopher Alexander quote – we hope you don’t mind if we use this :-).

With that out of the way we will respond to the following points raised in Dan’s critique:

  • Defining Design
  • Design is More than a Cognitive Practice
  • Design is More than Just Problem Solving

Defining Design

Design is basic to all human activities – the placing and patterning of any act towards a desired goal constitutes a design process. (Victor Papanek, 1972, p. 23)

Victor Papanek was one of our first introductions to ‘conscious’ and ‘ethical’ design and we have held his definition of design core to our design practice and our  permaculture training programme. While we have not returned to his work in some time it might be worth noting that this definition reflects Herbert Simon’s well known and much earlier definition of design.

Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. (Herbert Simon, 1969, c. 1).4

Loosely speaking in the 60s there emerged in the western understanding and conception of design two distinct schools of thought. One of these is linked directly to Christopher Alexander and his focus on ‘physical’ form and outcomes as the focus of design and the other to Herbert Simon and his focus on design process and the desire for ‘improvement’ as the focus of design.

The tension between these two conceptions of design remains evident today and informs the discussion about design thinking. On the one hand, following Alexander’s thesis, designers give form to things; they are privileged makers whose work is centrally concerned with materiality. This is the tradition of craft and professional design fields that create specific kinds of objects, from furniture, to buildings, to clothing. Simon, on the other hand, suggests that designers’ work is abstract; their job is to create a desired state of affairs. This way of thinking about design is the core of all professions, not just the work of engineers and designers of artifacts. (From Kimbell, L. 2011.  Rethinking Design Thinking: Part I.  In Design and Culture – Vol. 3, Issue 3. United Kingdom.)

This raises one of the challenges we might put to Making Permaculture Stronger. While we feel Alexander has much to contribute to quality design, we have a concern that there are potential unconscious and unintended impacts of over-emphasising or biasing Christopher Alexander’s design process which, in our judgement, assumes ‘form’ as the inevitable outcome of design. As Mr. Alexander states in the first sentence of Notes on Synthesis of Form:

These notes are about the process of design; the process of inventing physical things which display new physical order, organisation, from, in response to function (Christopher Alexander, 1964, p. 1)

For us (and in a fair bit of our work) ‘design’ outcomes are not focused on ‘form’. If permaculture design is about more than physical form (which we feel it definitely is) we need a broader conception of design and design process than we feel Alexander provides and we feel Simon, and design ‘thinkers’ that follow in his footsteps, such as Victor Papanek contribute significantly to our understanding of design and design process and we feel it has much to offer permaculture design.

Through our work we teach design and work with a wide range of ‘novice’/beginner designers who have no experience with a conscious design process in any shape or form. In this context we find that an easy to understand, structured approach to ‘creative problem solving’ (see below for more discussion on this term) is an effective way to bring people on board and engage in design process. In this light, we think of Christopher Alexander’s work as fairly esoteric and more suitable for an ‘advanced’ audience, or people who at least have some exposure and experience with design process.

We mention this now as it feels like Dan’s recent ‘unpacking’ of design process has shone light into the over-emphasis on the head/rational function of design at the expense of a whole-person approach using all of our senses (see below for more detail) and it would be of equal value (we feel) to explore the emphasis permaculture design (and design more broadly) places on form at the expense of non-material/physical design outcomes or achievements.

Design Is More Than a Cognitive Practice

Healthy design involves rational, conscious operations. Yes, surely. But it also involves a sound dose of the pre or sub or nonconscious/non-rational (including the emotional). Both matter. (Dan Palmer, 2018)

We agree with Dan’s criticism that the title of Design Thinking (DT) reveals a predisposition to cognitive design processes at the detriment of using other senses to inform the process and outcomes. There are several other issues we have with DT (that we will not get into here5) but it also has much to contribute to help evolve contemporary design theory and practice. For one thing, as Dan alludes to in his blog, it explicitly focuses on those being impacted by the design. For example, DT6 is explicit in its adoption of empathy as a core design principle and practice, which as far as we understand is unique in the design world.7

As a side note, the Hasso-Plattner model presented in the link Dan shared in his previous post about DT is only one of many DT process models. DT does not, like most other design ‘disciples’, have a defined or agreed process so while the link he provided is a reasonable introduction to DT, there are many alternative interpretations.

Despite its name Design Thinking deliberately attempts to move beyond the purely cognitive/mental realm of design and promotes a more holistic approach to design than is typical today – moving us closer to design as ‘a way of being’. One way in which DT, and related practices in the field of social innovation,8 achieve this is through the explicit attempt to make design less about something professional designers do (almost magically or mysteriously and often removed from the design context) and more about something all of us can practice in our day-to-day lives. However, this isn’t a Mollisonian ‘with a whole lot of information and a Permaculture Design Certificate you are now qualified to go out and redesign the world’, but a more genuine attempt to make design less about designing ‘solutions’ for people and more about designing interventions and conscious experimenting with people. We think quality design often includes empowering stakeholders to be a part of the process through collaborative, participatory or ‘co-design’ processes. This is another reason why at Resilio we value the likes of Herbert Simon, Victor Papanek as well as Design Thinking – they have all contributed to helping reframe design away from a purely professional practice, to an everyday ‘way of being’ and collaborative practice.

Design is More Than Just Problem Solving

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.  …  it is about moving from solving problems to enabling potential… 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 approaching its own singularity or distinctiveness.  …  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. (Dan Palmer, 2018)

Dan makes some very interesting observations and we agree in principle that the higher ‘goal’ of design is enabling potential and agree that it should be the ends to which all design aspires. We often talk about exploring unreleased opportunities in our work (but this is not captured in our Design Primer).9 However Carol Sanford’s phrasing is much more eloquent and insightful and captures a deeper structure that design can draw on.

However, we have a degree of hesitation / caution about focusing on potential. It concerns issues about understanding potential in the broader interpretation of design and, at the risk of coming across pessimistic, setting false expectations.

Enabling Potential – The potential of what and according to whom?

How is the potential understood? From a purely rational perspective, the potential of some design outcomes can be precisely determined, for example, from the laws of thermodynamics we can determine the optimum transformation of solar energy to electricity, which can be calculated, and stated matter of fact in advance. The potential of a landscape for another example, which involves ‘natural’ and ‘cultural’ practices involve phenomena that can be objectively evaluated through observation and mapping of existing characteristics and processes, historical events etc., to help determine the potential ‘climax’ ecology. However a wide range of other inputs need to be considered including subjective perception and sensing of the landscape as well as values and behaviours of the people who interact with it. The point here is that the concept of potential very quickly becomes subjective and relative.  Said another way, understanding the potential of a place, person, thing etc. becomes increasingly more subjective (and intangible) when the subject of design shifts from purely objective like the solar example cited above toward more subjective phenomena such as a building, a public space, an object, a transition initiative, a business start up or a local currency.

As an example of one of the ways we approach this challenge in our work is through the creation of a ‘vision’ or more accurately a ‘shared vision’ to full the space for the project potential.

Visions become responsible through all sort of processes. The best one I know is sharing it with other people who bring in their knowledge, their points of view, and their visions. The more a vision is shared, the more responsible it gets, and also the more ethical (Donella Meadows, 1994)

How you might go about developing a shared vision is a topic for another day and we assume that this is a small part of the space Dan will be covering when he gets to his series on Holistic Management – Dan?  Finally, and particularly with design in the sociosphere10 a shared vision often holds the space of the project potential and like a vision, in an unknown unfolding process, the potential should be ‘held lightly’ allowing it to evolve, adapt and respond to change.

Enabling Potential – Understanding potential in the context of complex adaptive systems

The observation that design must do more than simply solve problems is also a good reminder that that we don’t just face problems, we also face a wide range of ‘predicaments’ or wicked problems11 that don’t really have solutions only trade-offs and responses. Using the adaptive cycle (also known by many other names12) as a framework, from our perspective it depends both of the type of context/system you are working in as well as where in the adaptive cycle that system is at as to whether potential or problem should be of greater focus or importance. Before we go any further here we might just pause and give those that aren’t familiar with the model a quick overview from the Resilience Alliance:

For ecosystem and social-ecological system dynamics that can be represented by an adaptive cycle, four distinct phases have been identified:

  • growth or exploitation (r)
  • conservation (K)
  • collapse or release (omega 𝝮)
  • reorganization (alpha 𝝰)

The adaptive cycle exhibits two major phases (or transitions). The first, often referred to as the foreloop, from r to K, is the slow, incremental phase of growth and accumulation. The second, referred to as the backloop, from Omega to Alpha, is the rapid phase of reorganization leading to renewal.

During the slow sequence from exploitation to conservation, connectedness and stability increase and a capital of nutrients and biomass (in ecosystems) is slowly accumulated and sequestered. Competitive processes lead to a few species becoming dominant, with diversity retained in residual pockets preserved in a patchy landscape. While the accumulated capital is sequestered for the growing, maturing ecosystem, it also represents a gradual increase in the potential for other kinds of ecosystems and futures. For an economic or social system, the accumulating potential could as well be from the skills, networks of human relationships, and mutual trust that are incrementally developed and tested during the progression from r to K. Those also represent a potential developed and used in one setting, that could be available in transformed ones.

Adaptive cycles are nested in a hierarchy across time and space which helps explain how adaptive systems can, for brief moments, generate novel recombinations that are tested during longer periods of capital accumulation and storage. These windows of experimentation open briefly, but the results do not trigger cascading instabilities of the whole because of the stabilizing nature of nested hierarchies. In essence, larger and slower components of the hierarchy provide the memory of the past and of the distant to allow recovery of smaller and faster adaptive cycles. A nested hierarchy of adaptive cycles represents a panarchy.

Using this model to illustrate, in exploitation or re-organisation stages a focus on potential makes a great deal of sense as the potential for system change is much greater. During the release or potentially even conservation stages focusing on problem solving is likely more appropriate. Furthermore the type of system and where in the life cycle of that system you are designing will impact significantly on the potential of that system which can in some contexts literally change day to day. In a complex system the potential is dynamic, constantly evolving and often practically elusive which makes designing for potential practically implausible.

Put another way, the nature of complex systems suggest that a system has to be ready for change. A good example of this is the Occupy movement, the so called Arab Spring, ‘Brexit’ and the election of Donald Trump – all social phenomena that have emerged out of a complex system at a particular time during the system’s cycle. The occupy movement was a response to the GFC and we don’t see any evidence of a similar international movement emerging until another similar event creates the condition for that potential to be realised.

In Conclusion

To conclude we will attempt to improve on our working understanding of design by ‘misquoting’ the original IDEO description of design we use in the Design Primer:

Design is a process, a way of engaging the mind, the body and the suite of human senses, in effect it is a ‘way of being’. ‘Being’ like a designer can transform the way you approach the world when presencing the potential, creating new solutions or responses, and exploring new opportunities and emergent potentials 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 gives you faith in your creative abilities, a way of immersing yourself in a particular context to provide clarity and insight, and a process to take action through when faced with a difficult challenge / new opportunity or releasing latent enabling potential


We also just wanted to offer a quick response to the following excerpt, which didn’t fit cleanly into the other observations Dan offered.

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…) (Dan Palmer, 2018)

We agree there is an issue with an overly rational approach to design. However our experiences and observations suggest, as noted above, that framing design as a sequence of phases (that don’t always occur in a linear or even logical sequence) is an effective way of helping people with a wide range of understanding and experiences to grasp the core insight that design is a process rather than the drawing, plan, building, garden, artifact etc.

An analogy might be useful – Design can be thought of a little like a journey from one place to another. Whether you plan it completely in advance or you just go where the wind takes you, you will inevitably have a beginning, a middle and end to that journey. Let’s focus on the emotional experience of the journey here – the excitement and anticipation typically experienced at the start, the doubt, feeling ‘out on a limb’ and out of one’s comfort zone might be typical of one’s emotional field somewhere in the middle, particularly if this is a journey you’ve not made before, and the sense of gratitude, achievement, completion or increased wisdom or growth that might happen at the end are all part of a wider pattern of journeying. While everyone may not experience all of those things along the way, recognizing that there are typical stages on a journey and anticipating what one might experience at different stages can be quite useful for novice and seasoned travellers alike. And let’s face it, some of us travel better than others, so trying to learn from the patterns that emerge out of other people’s journey and even mimic those who travel well seems like a useful thing to do. This is the value we see in attempting to map out the journey of design and recognise the predictable patterns and stages along the way. Furthermore, our cultural predisposition to using our heads as the primary means to reflect, make meaning, and capture insights and understanding means that it is almost inevitable that our design models will bias rational operations to map the journey of design.

Finally, we thought it might be useful to highlight that we don’t believe any diagram or collection of diagrams is going to capture the potential depth and richness of the design process and that individually and collectively, the different visual representations of the design process are only ever going to highlight parts of the process. With this in mind, we want to share two additional design process diagrams that aren’t captured in the Design Primer that we think have merit:

Design as an ongoing process which is a hybrid between the method Christopher Alexander’ maps in his book Notes on the Synthesis of Form and a design thinking model. We also like the clear visual reference to the infinity symbol and the adaptive cycle.  Thanks for the link Dan!

And this one – we don’t know the original source of this diagram however it does seem to resonate with many people’s experience of the design process.


The Resilio Studio Design Process Primer: Part Two – The first instalment of Dan’s review

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.13

  1. 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.
  2. 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.14 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.
  3. 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 calls15 generative dialogue. I’ve personally not been privy to much at all in the way of such dialogue in the permaculture space.16


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,17 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.


Scene-setting Quotations

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:18

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!19

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.20 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 way21 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,22 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.”23

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.

Hear hear!

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 fish24 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:25

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:26

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.27 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.28 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 29 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.30

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,31 Carol Sanford blasted it clean off. In fact I think she took the hammer of her penetrating intellect and smashed the jar open32 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 system33 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


David Hursthouse’s Presentation at the International Permaculture Convergence in India

Today’s post shares one of David (‘Phoenix’) Hursthouse’s recent (Nov 28, 2018) presentations on the topic of Making Permaculture Stronger at the International Permaculture Convergence in Telangana, India.

As he reported in an email after the event:

So the whirlwind madness of the IPC has just wrapped up, and it all
came together spectacularly. The session on MPS went extremely well,
was then followed up by a couple of discussion groups and catalysed
significant conversation. It then got the most votes as a highly
important talk to be repeated – so I did it again on the last day.34 It
was remarkable and inspiring and exciting how well it was all
received, picked up and talked about over the course of the week. Met
a number of wonderful people, including Bridget O’Brien and Charlie
Brennan – was great for us all to meet over common interests and
mutual friends. All in all, it couldn’t have gone much better, it’s
great for us (involved with MPS) and even greater for permaculture as
a whole. The talk was videod, so I will make sure you get to see it as
soon as possible.

A few weeks later,35 David managed to upload a video of his first presentation.

He’ll also write up the larger experience of the discussions his session led to, along with some better-quality recordings. But in the meantime, check this out:

Comments welcome below. I really like the comment from Trish Allen sharing her experience of the emergence of Making Permaculture Stronger as a theme within the New Zealand permaculture movement. In her words, it was like having someone:

…holding up the mirror and saying ‘hey guys, look at yourselves. Look at what you’re saying. Look at what you’re teaching. Look at what you’re doing. Is that really the best you can do?’ And so some of us older ones in the beginning were a little bit confronted by it, but once we embraced the process, it’s been really exciting, and I think that it will make permaculture stronger

and to wrap this up here’s a few things David says:

But if we’re going talk about permaculture, and we’re going to write about it, and we’re going to teach it, then we better actually practice it. And if we want to be practicing it authentically, then… that demands we apply self-regulation and accept feedback

So my invitation to you is to take up that challenge and run with it, and to say yeah, if this big bold beautiful thing called permaculture is going to fulfil its potential, and its going to maybe change the world, then we need to walk the talk and apply permaculture to permaculture. We need to say hey we haven’t got it all figured out, and that’s all good. It’s okay that we haven’t got it all figured out, we’re never going to have it all figured out, so we can get used to it. And then, once you’ve said all that go and do something about it. And if you’re not sure what to do then maybe do what we’re doing, find a cheap place, get some people together, and then start talking about it, design together and then do something about it


A Delightful Day of Designing with Dave Jacke

Greetings all. Today, given I’m currently amidst recording and releasing some podcast conversations with Dave Jacke (starting here), I thought I’d dust off and finish a post I drafted over a year ago. I hope you enjoy!

As permaculture designers striving to continually lift our game, us VEGers are quite partial to professional development opportunities. Such opportunities don’t get juicier than getting to tag along on the design consultancies of more experienced practitioners. So when Michael and Lisa from Yandoit Farm invited me to join them for a day of designing with Dave Jacke, I said yes. Yes please I said.

For those that aren’t aware, Dave Jacke is a world class ecological designer, writer, and teacher. Lead author of the acclaimed two-volume Edible Forest Gardens books, I have long respected Dave’s sophisticated and comprehensive grasp of design process. While he prefers the phrase ecological design process36 over permaculture design process, he unquestionably has helped / is helping permaculture lift its game in terms of a design process that not only starts by deeply tuning into people and place, but embodies the principle of starting with patterns and ending up with details (as shown here).

One sweet read

As for Yandoit Farm, not only are owners Michael and Lisa amongst the most lovely human beings one could hope to get to hang out with, I’ve had the honour of participating in the journey of their evolving partnership with this landscape since they first discovered and decided to follow a permaculture-flavoured pathway. My main role in addition to regularly arriving, eating their food, sleeping in their bed (as in their spare bed – we’re not that close), sharing my opinion freely then leaving has been to connect them with the right people at the right time.

First up it was Darren J. Doherty, who lead the keyline inspired whole-farm water, access, tree system and paddock design and a round of road and dam-building earthworks that changed Yandoit Farm forever, as I explain in this little clip (see also this post and this podcast episode):

With his Regrarians platform, Darren has evolved a farm-scale design process that cuts-to-the-chase and efficiently reveals a mainframe farm layout equally conducive to ecological regeneration and financial viable farm-scale production. Check it out if you haven’t already. It’s a hot potato.

Then it was David Holmgren, who, shortly prior to the first round of earthworks, lead Michael and I on a seven-hour reading-the-landscape walk that left my spinal cord quivering with information overload for several days afterward. David’s ability to read landscape, particularly in his native habitat (he lives just around the corner), is body-mind blowing and takes you from the tiniest gum nut or stone right here and now to the massive basalt plateau that flowed down over the sedimentary base layer 4 million years ago all within a couple of minutes. It is like one second, you’re looking through a magnifying glass, now from a hot air ballon 1000 metres up, now you’re lying on an ancestral gold-line riverbed 40 feet underground, and now you’re 400 million years in the past under a kilometre deep ocean watching the future sedimentary soils get laid down as floods seasonally spew materials out from the river ends. I better move on. My spinal cord in starting to quiver again.

Actually here, why should my and Michael’s spinal cords suffer in silence? Watch this and tell me if you don’t get a few quivers too.37

Anyways, Michael had just completed Dave Jacke’s nine-day edible forest garden intensive organised by Steve Burns just out of Ballarat. Michael recently shared that:

I can say without any doubt that Dave’s course gave me a deeper understanding of forest ecology which radically changed my thinking of all life, the way I see nature, all of nature, and most importantly our place in the scheme of everything. Its drawn me into a much deeper understanding of the human condition and limits and helped provide meaningful answers to the two big questions of human existence, ‘What is the meaning of Life?’ and ‘Why are we here?’ all it takes is some perspective beyond individual human timescales. We’re all fertiliser in the end, the trick is to feel good about that.

Dave Jacke and Michael Jackson during the course

Understandingly, therefore, Michael was keen to invite Dave Jacke’s input on the planned next phase of development at Yandoit Farm. This was a large area within the main homestead envelope earmarked for fruit and nut production. Luckily Dave said yes, and luckily I was there as Dave, Steve, Yonke and Bridget (these last three who had also completed the course and tagged along to observe) arrived.

What I want to do here is document my reflections and impressions from the day, which started about 9:30am and finished eleven hours later at 8:30pm. Lisa got some great photos, which I mix up below with several of my own and a couple from Steve Burns.

Arrival, Introductions, General Objective and Roles

So arrived April 6, 2016.

After the team arrived, everyone was introduced, and cups of teas were in hand, Michael suggested a short meditation, which I understand was an aspect of Dave’s just-finished course that was much appreciated and enjoyed.

So Dave led a lovely short meditation which marked the transition into the day’s focus, and let us all become more present and centred. Not something I’d suggest to every client, but in this case it was invited by the client and totally hit the spot for everyone.

As we sipped our tea Michael then outlined his broad objectives for the day, which centred on getting to a solid scheme or layout for the valley area above the new house dam:

Yandoit Caldera

Dave then prompted a quick chat about roles, given this was what he calls an open consultancy. The way he explained it was that if a consultancy and a workshop got together and had a baby, an open consultancy would be the baby. Michael and Lisa’s role was clients. Dave’s role was designer. Steve, Yonke and Bridget’s role was observers (though they all ended up having valuable input into into the design too). My role was mostly observer but with a tiny bit of client (or client representative) and a tiny bit of designer (as a project manager of the larger design and development of the site – though really these days I’m really just more a supportive friend of the project) mixed in. Something like that anyway. I mostly was intending to keep my mouth shut, watch, and learn. But Dave ended up being so inclusive (which is also Michael and Lisa’s middle name) such that the process evolved into a really pleasant conversation between us all.

Dave’s Process

Like the forest, the design process is complex and multilayered, yet both have structure. Certain principles and “archetypal” activities undergird every effective design process, yet each trip through it is unique.38

Now it was time for Dave to enter his design process proper, which in his terminology goes a little something like this:

  • First impressions
  • Goals articulation
  • Site analysis & assessment
  • Design proper
    • Concept design
    • Schematic design
    • Detailed / patch design

Keep in mind that Dave was in a foreign landscape, was between two almost back-to-back workshops, and had a single day to try and get some design done of a large and complex site with multiple objectives. A tough gig, to say the least! It was utterly impossible to apply the process in an ideal and comprehensive way, given this would have taken many days and ideally many months. As a result, part of what I observed Dave doing during the day was mixing things up in a way focused on giving Michael and Lisa the most bang for buck by the end of the day. That said, he did an extremely impressive job of it, got to a really solid design, where and all steps in the process were still present to some degree. Let me step through them now, while the day (I wrote most of this the day after) is still fresh in my mind.

First Impressions

When doing professional design, it is good to observe undirectedly first thing, before you know much about a client’s site or goals. You can have such valuable first impressions only once!

First Michael clarified the boundaries of the focus area inside… 

From left: Bridget, Yonke, Steve, Michael, Dave

and outside…


Then Dave and all of us scattered and took a leisurely stroll around the space. Viewing it from all different places and generally soaking it up. I want to share a few of Lisa’s photos here to get across the fact that this step is really important in Dave’s process. It is not to be rushed, and as I understand it is not thematic/themed, but about inviting the space to start revealing itself to you.

DaveDam DaveNotes DaveWalnut

Here and there Dave would ask a question, or a few of us would chat about something, but mostly we were simply soaking up the site.

One aspect of what Dave did that I noticed, in addition to making a few notes and quietly contemplating the space, was tuning into his gut feelings about different areas, the way a fence cut through one ridge, and so on.

As someone who increasingly appreciates the power of human feeling to detect subtle but critical aspects of a site, I was stoked to see someone else acknowledging the value of this source of information as equally if not more important than what the analysing intellect can detect. As my currently favourite design writer, Christopher Alexander, has put it, the intellect is too crude of a net to catch the whole.

Goals Articulation

 Design your forest garden in the context of clear self-understanding concerning what you seek to create…

We now headed back inside to enter the goals articulation phase. Michael and Lisa had carefully prepared a two-page statement under the titles or subareas Dave uses:

  • Value statement
  • Goals
  • Opportunities
  • Criteria

Which as you can see move from the general to the specific.

Something Dave said about here stayed with me as another indicator of someone who has been in the game for a while. I paraphrase, but it was something like “We can develop an inspiring vision for this forest garden but without spending time on the labour, maintenance and implementation I would be doing you a disservice.”

Another major point that came up was about scale. Dave observed after taking in Michael and Lisa’s value statement that “you could achieve this value statement in a much smaller space.”

A final note before we move on is to do with the word “articulation.” Dave uses this word at the top level for this whole bit of the process rather than “statement” or something else and I had been aware that a reason for this was that the word “articulate” somehow brings more of the whole body-mind into the process. “Statement” on the other hand feels like in can flow straight from the conscious mind, thereby missing a very important source (i.e., gut/heart feeling).

But in chatting with Dave later in the day I mentioned the way in which, thanks to Christopher Alexander, I have been using “articulate” lately, which is in the sense of making a design more nuanced and detailed. He then explained that this meaning of articulate is equally integral to his sense of goals articulation, where part of what you are doing is not just tapping into the whole body-mind (what do the clients really want, deep down), but working with what comes out to refine and clarify its structure and organisation. Not just running with what comes out on the first pass but probing it, removing redundancy, sorting the wheat from the chaff (or the apples from the coddling moth larvae, as the case may be).

An example of this articulation work was when Dave started unpacking the value statement and goals, again tuning into his feeling (in his words using his whole body-mind) as a way of finding inconsistencies or conflicts. Here’s one exercise we started – a process for refining the goals by putting like with like, and clarifying relations. For instance sometimes one goal is high level and implies or includes others.


Now we headed back out, for a sort of dance between site analysis and high-level concept design. I felt the phase of the process that took the biggest hit due to the extreme time constraints was themed and rigorous site analysis and assessment (again carefully chosen language from Dave here – analysing and assessing are different but complementary), though that said the fact that Michael and I had been observing the space closely over several years as well as the eyes of locals Yonke and Steve as well as the experience at this stuff of Dave and Bridget meant we did pretty darn well given the circumstances. One thing I didn’t ask Dave was how long he would have had in an ideal world, but I reckon it would have been at least a few days or a week just for site analysis and assessment.

Concept Design

Resolve the basic patterns and large-scale issues first.

For Dave the concept design is kind of the first glimmer that arises of a high-level whole-site pattern or layout. As I recall it Dave actually first shared his first hint of this earlier on at the end of the first impressions walk (in which site analysis and assessment was happening also).

I had myself a bit of a moment, as, sitting atop the little dam wall and surveying the space, Dave articulated what was arising for him at that moment as regards the first vague hints of a concept design arising in this space for these clients. The reason I was blissing out as he shared it was it was identical in every important detail to what had been arising in me over some time and years of interacting with the space.

I can’t remember his exact wording but it centred on more extensive and management-friendly camp-underable nut groves in the bulk of the valley base including an open glade in there somewhere and more intensive fruit-focused edible forest gardening styles on the footslopes.


I was really impressed that in about an hour Dave was able to arrive at a place that was crystallising for me only after several years of contact with the site and clients!

It is also deeply affirming when more experienced designers come up with similar ideas to oneself in terms of feeling more confident in whatever process you used to get there.

Schematic Design

Schematic design expands the seed of the design concept to see how it manifests in somewhat greater detail… (Edible Forest Gardens, VII, p. 233)

I’m inserting a bit of an arbitrary boundary between concept and schematic design here, as we were well and truly free-forming by this stage, but I want to convey a feel for the directions the conversation/consultancy now headed as we headed from patterns to details. Really, as opposed to saying this is what we were doing and then doing the opposite, as all too much permaculture design continues to do.

Design is fundamentally messy. We learn useful things when we take it apart and put order to it, but we also risk fooling ourselves into thinking that the process is clean, linear, and organized.

So in addition to refining the points of distinction between the main areas in the concept design (camping, nut grove, clearing, edible forest garden/s) we started tuning into a couple of critical high-level decisions/distinctions as to the way that the future driveway will wrap through the space, and the location of the planned future teaching building.

We spent a lot of time on these two things, rightly, given that they together were a big part of defining the context of all the rest. We walked, we sat, we felt, we talked.

One aspect of this bit I want to share was that Dave/we did a very good job of not locking anything in prematurely. Here’s how he explains why:

the worst design mistakes are ALWAYS made at the schematic level.  Getting the rough relationships right there is critical.  This is the stage where Type 1 errors are made, and no amount of fiddling at the detailed level will fix them.  Particularly in the short time I had, I wanted to make sure the patterns were good.  The details would evolve a lot over time anyway.

For example we got to a point where there where three main spots the teaching building felt like it could sit. We visited them all and discussed pros and cons as well as how it felt to each of us. Slowly we converged on one tentative area that felt best.

With the road it was even better. I really liked how Dave demonstrated mental freedom and flexibility to cast the net of ideas widely before filtering them against the goals and site and how they felt.

For instance we went inside and Dave pulled out his old-school drafting tools. Pencils and stencils and stuff came out of his bag – it was cool. I also appreciated the time and care he took to get the scales and stuff really close to right. I am generally a hell of a lot more slap-dash but I liked the vibe of let’s take our time here and make a nice job of this, even if it be a draft we might throw out in ten minutes.


So he laid out the drive in one configuration and then the tree and other systems to harmonise with it, discussing as we went, rubbing out and modifying as we went.

I like how though he was drawing it really felt like the ideas were crystallising communally and collaboratively before and as he sketched them in.

Then he suddenly said okay and cast that sketch aside and tried a completely different way of wrapping the drive in. And another. And another. I love this stuff and I do this all the time. Where the overarching volition is “let’s assume that we might not have got it right or best yet and poke and prod and try alternatives before we get all attached to anything.”

I want to see this attitude grow and infuse, permeate permaculture design as it is taught and practiced everywhere. For I know, without a shadow of doubt, that being biased toward ideas we come up with just because we came up with them and unconsciously assuming they are right is to healthy design as herbicide is to a herb. Kills it dead. I want to see design process live and assuming we are wrong and taking steps to reduce the wrongness before moving on is one critical key step toward such.

Sorry, getting off topic here. Let’s get back to the storyline.

Limiting Factors

Oh yes, this I also wanted to mention. I know from experience that every client-site ensemble has one or three primary limiting factors that each step of the design process has to take into consideration. So I was really happy to find Dave spending plenty of time and focus on things like wind, frost, & maintenance.

(Sort of but not really) Detailed Design

We next dove into more detail and passed through each area of the emerging configuration numbering and specifying plant details.


Here is where the design diagram got to:

As you’ll see it’s not a detailed design in the sense of Dave’s book…

This diagram is from Edible Forest Gardens, Volume II by Dave Jacke with Eric Toensmeier (October 2005) and is reprinted with permission from ChelseaGreen Publishing.

…but really a schematic (or what some people might call a concept-level) design laying out key areas and then listing possible plant species to include in each. So, just for the record, what Dave delivered for Yandoit Farm was more akin to what in the below diagram I’ve been calling the hybrid approach rather than fabricating (or at least is consistent with it). Tick! I really like how it is in pencil and feels fluid and unfinished. I’m also looking forward to exploring these topics in my next podcast interview with Dave.

By this stage, as is clear in this photo, I was getting tired. I mean by now we’d been at it for 11 hours!


So, there you go. I’m sure you can appreciate why I called the day delicious, and I hope this has been interesting/helpful to you. If so, why not leave a comment below sharing any thoughts or reflections it brings up for you. I close with a pic of Dave with the day’s design (which he generously had all of us co-sign)…



In Dialogue with Dave Jacke (E06)

In this episode Dan Palmer from Making Permaculture Stronger enjoys a high-energy, cut to the chase dialogue with Dave Jacke from Edible Forest Gardens. Dave and Dan explore:

  • Dave’s 38+ year journey with design process and permaculture including:
    • his first design project at Simon’s Rock College
    • his initial contact with permaculture and then Bill Mollison
    • his initial contact with the writings of Christopher Alexander (especially Alexander’s 1964 book Notes on the Synthesis of Form)
    • his experience studying at the Conway School of Landscape Design
    • his relationship to permaculture
    • his ecological design process
  • Permaculture’s design process enigma (has a lot to say about ecological design but not a lot to say about ecological design process)
  • The relation between the designer, the designing, and the designed
  • Problems with the expert/hero approach to design
  • The relation between rationality and feeling/emotion inside ecological design process
  • So much else…

Dave Jacke’s work has been referenced many times in previous posts, and was the sole focus of this one.

We really hope you enjoy the episode, which is feeling like beginning of a longer conversation, and please do leave a comment sharing any feedback or reflections below…

Dave doing site analysis at Yandoit Farm, Victoria, Australia, 2016

The Resilio Studio Design Process Primer: Part One – Introducing

About six months back my friends and permaculture design colleagues Finn Mackesy and Gary Marshall got in touch. They were keen for peer feedback on a beautifully presented short document laying out the design process framework underlying their work as part of Resilio Studio (Auckland, NZ).

You can download and view the entire (21 page) document in PDF format here or here. Here is a taste:

Now at first glance, this is yet another variation on the linear fabricating approach I found standard across all permaculture design process descriptions I could find in my earlier literature review:

Here, design process is conceptualised and written down or diagrammatically summarised as a linear sequence of steps in which a design is put together to a relatively complete level and only then implemented. A bunch of arrows is then added to try and do justice to the fact that in reality the different steps tend to get all mixed up with other (in space and time).39

However, flipping through the document the above image sits within, I was pleasantly surprised to notice mention of generative processes – which apart from by myself and these legends I had never before seen mentioned in the permaculture literature.40

The document explicitly differentiates what they call sequential processes (or implementation strategies):

from a particular take on generative ones:

Gary confirmed my suspicion that this inclusion was at least in part a result of his keeping an eye on goings-on here at Making Permaculture Stronger.41

I immediately realised that their document would serve as a fantastic example of how others have incorporated some of the discoveries of this latest inquiry into their basic understandings of sound design process. Indeed, in the very last post of this inquiry I shared how the permaculture design company I run alongside Adam Grubb has gone about this.

In this post I thank Finn, Gary and the rest of the Resilio Studio team for giving  me permission to share their process here (be sure also to check out their projects page including this example of them applying their process in a real-world context).

As Gary put it when he originally shared this with me:

this is a ‘live document’ we are keen to get input from a wide range of people to feed into the next iteration.  With no expectation, if you have the time, energy and inclination, it would be great to get your feedback – any and all feedback welcome.

What a great attitude – I’m honoured to count Gary & Finn as colleagues in the space of clarifying and sharing their evolving understandings in the genuine interest of strengthening them.42

Okay, more than enough from me. I’ll now hand over to Gary to introduce the Resilio Studio Design Primer, and I will start sharing my feedback in the next post.

We designed the primer as a high level, loose fit guide to the design process for the purpose of applying it to a wide range of design challenges and contexts. We designed it for ourselves as design practitioners trying to work across a range of fields and as a resource for our design education and training work.

The primer describes both agile/iterative/generative processes as well as sequential/waterfall/fabricated processes. In our experience design processes and implementation strategies need to match the design context. Depending on the project, we find that sometimes an iterative approach is most appropriate and at other times more sequential processes are better suited. For larger and/or more complex projects there is usually elements of both.

As an emerging design practice we have applied this design process and the sequential, generative as well as hybrid implementation strategies to a range of projects. These include purely social interventions through to physical infrastructure as well as ‘placemaking’ projects that involve both community development as well as built outcomes.

Gary Marshall
Auckland, New Zealand.


Darren J. Doherty on Design Process, the Regrarians Approach, and Making Permaculture Stronger (E05)

In this episode Dan Palmer from Making Permaculture Stronger enjoys a wide-ranging conversation with Darren J. Doherty from Darren and Dan explore:

  • Darren’s 25-year journey with design process including:
    • how he got started
    • key influences along the way
    • key realisations along the way
  • The Regrarians Works Pattern and the Regrarians Platform
  • The current state and trajectory of permaculture including why good people so often seem to leave
  • The relationship of Darren and the Regrarians approach to permaculture
  • much else, including the new 10 week REX® Online Farm Planning Program (that Dan is looking forward to participating in as a student)

We really hope you enjoy the episode, and please do leave a comment sharing any feedback or reflections below…

Dan and Darren recording this episode last week in Bendigo, Australia

Oh yes, one more thing – during the closing comments at the episode’s end, Dan refers to this video clip:

On the Relation between Designing and Implementing in Permaculture – Part 23

Two posts back I summarised the key discoveries of an inquiry into the relation between designing and implementing inside healthy permaculture design process (starting here).

In the last post I shared a podcast with Ben Falk in which we chatted about this relation (as well as a bunch of other stuff).

In the next couple of posts I want to share a few examples of how a couple of different permaculture designers have responded to or adapted some of the outcomes of this inquiry into their own design process understandings, models, or diagrams.

I would love to hear from others about this too. The way I see it, either you already had something quite different to what is available in the existing permaculture design literature, or, if the conclusions of this inquiry have any validity, a wee bit of revision is in order!

In this post I’ll share an example from the permaculture design firm I run with my friend Adam Grubb. We call it VEG or Very Edible Gardens. In the next post I’ll share an example from some colleagues who run Resilio Studio over in New Zealand. Then, if you’d care to submit something, perhaps in the next post I’ll share your take.

VEG’s Design Process Diagram

Okay, let’s look at VEG’s example.

After many years of trying to diagrammatically summarise the design process we were using and evolving we ended up with this1

…which we were most proud of, and used to train quite a few workshop participants. Yet in the terms of the foregoing inquiry, just like all the other examples I have reviewed, this is a clean example of fabricating, in which designing up to a detailed level precedes implementation.

As the results of this inquiry started to illuminate crippling deficiencies with fabricating as an appropriate approach to permaculture design, I realised that things had to change. The above diagram just didn’t sit right no more. It felt like I was misleading people if I suggested this was the most effective way to go about organising one’s process. Furthermore, it was losing its correlation with my own processes of designing and developing, both personally and professionally.

So in a spare minute before a course I changed it2

…so that it at least now reflects what I’ve been calling a hybrid process (if not going as far as fully fledged generating). In a hybrid process, you get as far as a concept design before launching into implementation and let all the detail emerge from an iterative dance between reflecting, acting, and evaluating. Head, hand, and heart, all moving forward together. See an example here.

Personally I’m only just edging into the territory of feeling comfortable of bringing fresh designers straight into a fully generative process.3 I’m there with my own process, but in terms of an on-ramp for others, the above diagram is about as far as I’ve pushed it. But I can feel a completely fresh diagram emerging, starting from scratch rather than trying to retrofit what started out as yet another linear fabricating sequence, with the addition of more and more little feedback arrows trying helplessly to hold it all together. More on that in due course, no doubt.

Anyways, that’s it folks – one example of translating the outcomes of this inquiry into our work as designers and design educators.

In the next post I’ll share another example. Meantime, a good day to you.

ps. Again, if you also care to share your current best effort at a diagrammatic summary of your take on sound permaculture design process, then right about now is a particularly good time to give me a nudge. I mean I’ve just shown you mine, right? Surely a little reciprocation is in order?

More broadly, I’d be thrilled if this site became some kind of sharing place where permaculture design educators from around the world could share and co-evolve design process understandings. Permaculture’s lone wolf era is over, people, let’s catch up with the times here! Any ideas on how this might be facilitated (and in particular anyone with energy to help make it so) are welcome!