A Proposed Weak Link: Neglect of Design Process: Part One

Here I want to propose a first weak link of permaculture in its design system sense. This weak link is the neglect of design process in permaculture literature, education, and media.

In teaching permaculture design, my colleagues and I (primarily Adam Grubb) rely on two main diagrams. The first we introduce is a permaculture design framework, the second a permaculture design process. Here I’ll share the framework diagram as I find it brings into focus the weak link we are to discuss here.

I should acknowledge Bob Corker and David Holmgren before proceeding, as both have shared alternative versions of this pyramid with me in the past and got us started with it. I find it a powerful teaching tool and am grateful to the both of them for putting me onto it. Bob Corker, I recall, was using a version that he attributed to Max Lindegger and Leigh Davison.

Anyways, let’s first consider the base of the pyramid, which is the place for the most foundational influences on permaculture design: ethics. Whether you go with earthcare, people care and fair share, or some other wording, the idea is that all permaculture design in all contexts honours these ethics.Permaculture Design Framework - Ethics

Now let us process to the next level, which sit on top of the ethics, but are still universally applicable: permaculture design principles. Again, no matter which list or hybrid list of principles floats your boat, the idea is that these principles apply to all permaculture design, everywhere. It always makes sense to design from patterns to details. It always makes sense to use edge effect, or to catch and store energy. These principles, like the ethics below them, are context-independent.

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Now let’s jump up to the very top of the pyramid – the most context-dependent content you might learn on a permaculture course or in a permaculture book. These are techniques – specific actions or processes used to achieve things. Examples are double digging or grey water reed beds.

Screen Shot 2015-07-20 at 9.44.06 am

What sits a level more general than techniques? These are strategies, which are more general than techniques but more specific than ethics and design principles, being once again context-dependent. Examples are biointensive gardening or greywater reuse. Once you have a strategy you can move to consider which techniques are appropriate to implement that strategy in a given context. Strategies are like the rubber, you might say, and techniques the road.

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So this is all well and good and I can’t imagine a permaculturalist who would have an issue with the overall gist of this framework. But here’s the rub. The key to successful, achievable, appropriate, relevant strategies and techniques is the extent to which they are grounded in the ethics and design principles. But you can’t just jump from one to the other and hope for the best. You can’t go straight from ethics and principles to strategies and techniques. It does not and cannot work.

Yet this is the impression one takes away from many permaculture design courses and books. It is the impression I took away from my first permaculture design course. What it forces is hit and miss design, where you try and replicate this strategy or that technique, like your teacher said, while also trying to keep the ethics and principles in mind.

What is missing, of course, is design process – the only thing that can get you from the universal ethics and design principles to the specific strategies and techniques appropriate to a given context.

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In my experience, permaculture education & literature has tended to distribute the focus something like this:

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Ethics are touched on, design principles are covered in some depth (sometimes patterns are covered in here somewhere too), design process is glossed over (covering design methods, by the way, is very different from covering design process – which is another discussion for another time), then the rest is all strategies and lots of techniques – whichever the teacher or author happens to like most.

Where I feel that in contexts such as a permaculture design course something more like this would be so much more appropriate and effective in terms of empowering participants to go out and use sound design process to get to appropriate strategies and techniques.Screen Shot 2016-04-16 at 9.56.03 am

Here ethics and principles are still covered in some depth. There is much less time spent on strategies and techniques with the core focus being on how all these things feed into (ethics and principles) or are generated by (strategies and techniques) sound design process.

Before closing and until next time, I should mention that this is not a previously unrecognised weakness in permaculture. Various folk have been tuning into it and some of them doing something about it (the initials DJ and DJD come to mind ;-)). I will be not only writing about my take on much of this work, but inviting many of these folk into this conversation/project.

That said, we still have a heck of a long way to go. It is clear to me that permaculture in general continues to suffer from chronic and systemic design process illiteracy. Until we acknowledge the widespread neglect of design process, it will be hard to galvanise steps toward literacy, which is foundational to making permaculture stronger.

Endnote: See part two of this two-post set here (in which I get to the same point a different way).


  1. Hmmm, I’m a professional fulltime designer (of the PC variety). My brain is starting to hurt while I think about how I actually go about “design”. Some thoughts of mine….just rolling off, without too much editing…

    The ethics are pretty unhelpful (just a reminder or pointer to something really). However, it is essential to have a good grounding in ecological, cultural (!), financial literacy, etc.

    Several years after I completed my PDC, I trained with Haikai Tane, and he challenged permaculture soundly, dismissing it as a social network for urban folk… He also challenged some of the ecological literacy that is delivered in permaculture. Haikai’s work is grounded in watershed ecology and cultural biases around water and landscape.

    The easy example is to compare the pastoral cultures (esp England, USA, Australia, NZ) with forest/gardener/fisher cultures (I’m familiar with asia, think rice paddies nestled in terraced treecrop landscapes, although it is done all over the planet). These 2 broad cultures have completely different ways of looking at, managing, and living in landscapes. I grew up as a 4th generation dairy farmer, and I can’t say strongly enough how much we in the pastoral cultural paradigm are blinded & limited by our culture. And of course permies the world around are blinded by their own culture… as Holmgren/Mollison et al are and were too, and permaculture reflects this cultural bias very heavily…

    Working with Haikai has had a significant impact on my own professional practice and design process (in fact I virtually threw everything out and started again from scratch!).

    I’m often concerned to see “Water” taught several modules into, or towards the end of a (modular) PDC. To me, watershed ecology is fundamental to the overall design process, so I always teach it within the first 3 days (when I’m the course coordinator that is)…

    So anyway, water (and its attendant cultural blindness) is one of my own personal biases in permaculture design (probably everyone has one). And I get the feeling from reading permaculture websites all over the world that watershed processes and cultural biases are poorly understood and poorly taught in PDCs too.

    Is it just me or are the principles not really that useful?!?! I may be opening myself to a huge load of criticism here…. the only principle I consciously use in my professional practice is “design from patterns to detail”. Maybe it is just that most of them are so obvious that I use them but don’t even think about it anymore. But there are some in there that really, I ignore – some of them I even find annoying.

    When I think about my own design process, I go from
    -reading the landscape… to
    -my understanding of Ecological Literacy and applying patterns that heal watersheds, recharge aquifers, and make them potentially super-productive…. to
    -matching crops/treecrops/landuse to the appropriate “habitat” in the landscape (Ok that is just another pattern really) …. to
    -ensuring that nutrients (wastewater, animal housing) support the crops/treecrops that will appreciate it the most… (another pattern) to
    -sensible stuff like shelterbelts, paths, etc (don’t ask me more about how I design that stuff …. it is just well…. being sensible!) (but mostly it is about patterns)
    -and beyond that, how we interact with the landscape (ie garden etc) is a very personal thing, and I’d rather leave that up to the client…. but mostly they want more detail, so I give it my best shot, whilst thinking they are probably going to change it a dozen times and they are wasting their money paying me to “design” it. (must jump in here and say that they are almost always delighted with the end design 🙂 )

    I’m shocked (!) to see greywater re-use and bio-intensive growing grouped together as strategies! I see “greywater re-use” as on a par with “growing food”. They are both key responses (patterns) to ecological literacy/function, whereas bio-intensive growing is a technique in my mind, as are greywater reedbeds ….

    Yawn … I must be a patterns person, although the occasional technique comes along that piques my interest.

    So here is my own pyramid: (admittedly it is really just applicable to land-based design)

    Techniques/personal preference/lifestyle
    Design Process (recognising the patterns in the landscape and then applying patterns
    that respond to the landscape and fulfil the function required)
    Ecological literacy
    E t h i c s

    Maybe I’m not a real permaculturalist…

    If you got the the end of all that, you are a determined person 🙂

    1. Thanks for sharing Kama and it turns out I’m a determined person ;-). I appreciate you taking the time to put your understanding of your current design process into words and look forward to chatting more when I see you at the design process thingo next month.

  2. Great initiative Dan! I’m loving the cutting edgeness of this…

    As a VEGucated permie I have to say I’ve been lucky enough to have been instilled with a solid design process. In fact I was tasked with defining permaculture in writing recently and automatically described it as “a design and consultation framework……..” so it’s ribbing off!

    Looking forward to keeping up to date with your work.

  3. Dan, et al,

    There’s another huge weak link in permaculture at the bottom of the pyramid. People talk about ethics and principles, yes, and these are key, but these are incomplete as the basis for any coherent cultural/philosophical system. Ethics and principles essentially fall into one category of philosophical discourse: axiology (the branch of philosophy dealing with values, as those of ethics, aesthetics, or religion). My (very basic and limited) understanding from way back is that no philosophical system is complete/coherent unless it deals with at least these three aspects of reality: axiology (what we value / believe is right or wrong), epistemology (a branch of philosophy that investigates the origin, nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge–how do we know what we know? what are valid ways of knowing anything?), and ontology (the branch of metaphysics that studies the nature of existence or being as such: that is, what is the nature of reality?). OK, I admit this sounds high falutin’ and heady, for sure. But I guarantee you that these themes will come back around (usually unconsciously) as we continue the exploration and get into arguments/discussion on this blogsite. Indeed, unconscious disagreements on epistemology and ontology underlie many of the heated arguments I’ve witnessed and participated in as part of the permaculture scene over many years. And these themes underlie many of the challenges you lay out re: design processes also. I don’t have time to get into specifics here, but I’ll watch and bring this up as examples occur in the conversations. Thanks for doing this man! Rock it out!

    1. Oh hooray for bringing back ethics! I often feel that while we give our most thoughtful nod to “Earth Care,” permaculture to date seems to have so much less to say about “People Care” or “Fair Share.” The very idea of setting limits and sharing the surplus feels like a vital and direct critique of core tenants of capitalism, and could be a profound ethical basis for beginning to bring alternative economic and cultural patterns into our designs — a hugely needed paradigm shift in a world consumed and exploited by our “need for constant growth.” Yet, so often, it seems that in our rush to build “successful” permaculture projects (whether farms, consulting professions, or others) we find it easier to fit them comfortably inside of modern capitalism. So much “richness” to explore here! So many challenges and opportunities to live more fully into (and to design with more integrity to) our foundational ethics.

    2. Thanks so much for chiming in Dave – is a great honour to have you drop in! My response to your two comments is I’m with you, I get you, but easy tiger, all in good time ;-). I believe everything you mention needs to be addressed one way or another in due course if permaculture is to reach its potential, but I feel that to jump into such realms prematurely will lose most folk and hinder the deeply collaborative nature of the required pathway forward. But I look forward to hearing more of your thought when the conversation catches up to you, I can say that much.

  4. Hello Dan…
    Can’t agree more about the lack of focus on design process in permaculture.

    It is not only lacking in the design of physical places but I find it lacking (not completely, of course) in the behavioural and problem solving capacity of some in permaculture. They are fine people, of course, but their thinking I have found to be reactive to situations rather than analytical and solution-focused. This I witnessed in the panicky response of a national permaculture organisation to what was a minor incident.

    Thus I submit a subset to your finding of a lack of design process: a similar lack in employing design process in the business of permaculture organisations.

    I’ve been fortunate to have been on various teams involved in permaculture design implementation through local government. I suspect there are those who would write off this avenue of mainstreaming the design system as it is institutional rather than community-driven although it engages with community as volunteers and students, and although the works being done were those identified through a placemaking process (itself a participatory design process) that involved regional permaculture groups and individuals.

    To get back to why I feel fortunate, it is because those on the design team include an architect and a landscape architect, both with the PDC in their background, and a local government sustainability educator who used to teach the PDC. A structured design process has been critical to the development of the Randwick Sustainability Hub at the community centre.

    What has been revealing in this process is the need on civic projects to work with the needs of others and to accept that this will to some extent limit what you can do in terms of design.

    …We met at the Turangi APC.

  5. Warning–I am not part of permaculture institutions so I may deviate from certain cultural norms, even as I work for permaculture.

    Traditional design/construction/maintenance thrives because of a whole socio-economic infrastructure that supports and reinforces implementation over time. Mainstream strategies have legs, BECAUSE they devour ecosystems and turn them into personal privilege. Decentralized ecological designs (Pc and friends) are not yet supported by solid cultural infrastructure. So one of the key components of a Pc “design process” is the evolution of a human system that can continuously observe and interact ecologically while it sustains itself culturally. Dominant human systems (however maladaptive) grow BECAUSE they self-design to conserve flows of authority, ownership, information, and belonging–the flows that characterize the dynamics of human systems, just as energy, water and nutrients flow in ecological systems. If we are not in there redesigning core human system infrastructure (governments, professional societies, education systems?) our ecological systems fail due to cultural entropy–they are poorly organized within the human system flows. Can we really build durable cultural systems in isolation? Is the romantic notion that we are Noah building an Arc useful or accurate? Existing human systems are powerful BECAUSE they are keyed into human system flows, and are ruthlessly adaptive. I don’t see an honest reckoning of human system design in permaculture. There seems to be this hope that if you better organize the ecological context that then the social context will follow. I’d propose that effective gardeners have forever been hard at work shaping the socio-political setting (giving voice and power to the ethics), to protect their projects from warlords and cultural entropy. However the human system design process (even within the mainstream environmental movements) is shallow, politicized, and defensive, rather than empirical, practical, and constructive.

    1. Appreciate your thoughts Paul and find myself in complete agreement. I hope to tackle these essential issues in future posts and hope you’ll still be with us then!

  6. Our Milkwood PDCs are design process focussed, built on Dave Jacke’s process after working with him extensively in 2014. It flipped our PDC model upside down, and it’s much better for it 🙂

    1. Thanks so much for sharing Kirsten – I’m also so grateful for Dave Jacke’s work in this area, and remain grateful to you/Milkwood for bringing him over that time – his visit left a lot of positive and continuing ripples! Much more on Dave’s approach to come in future posts.

  7. Thank you for this. I completely agree.
    I found Aranya’s book, Permaculture Design filled this gap. It was provided as part of the package on a PDC I attended and I was impressed with the step by step approach to the design process. Unfortunately the opportunities to teach the content were limited by time.

    I’d like to design a course where we work through this process with participants, perhaps on a weekly basis, so that they get practical support in designing their gardens and implementing as they go. My concern is that many PDC plans never leave the paper, and that good design comes with lots of practice and experience. Giving critical feedback to people that are just starting out is difficult and while there were some glaring design flaws in some of the personal and group projects in our PDC there was a reluctance to point them out to enthusiastic and hopeful beginners.

    I also think we need to be realistic about what’s achievable in a two week course. The PDC is really an introduction to permaculture design and while it goes into more depth than a two day introductory course it couldn’t and doesn’t qualify anyone to be a designer.

    I’m pleased to see the recent introduction of a university level permaculture qualification. I’m hoping we see more of that in the future.

  8. Hi Dan,
    I have just read through all your posts on this link and think you are on the right track. I read it this morning along with the article below –


    in which George laments the lack of a credible ideological alternative to the neo liberal machine post the 2008 financial crisis. At this moment in history we had the chance to accept the awful mistakes that had led us to this meltdown and begin afresh. Of course there would have been and there still are credible alternatives to the status quo but the powers that be lacked the intestinal fortitude to change the course of history for the better.

    I mention this because you refer to the moment when Permaculture ‘ needs to shine and get its gallop on’ and the concern you have that its design systems may not be as robust as they need to be in order to be truly credible to what will invariably be a suspicious and doubting ‘mainstream’. I think your work in attempting a constructive critique of the design systems of permaculture and identifying where the weak links are and making them stronger is important work if permaculture is to be taken seriously as a ‘mainstream’ alternative.

    As a relative newbie to the discipline i am not sure i can offer you much assistance at this stage other than my moral support. I have just started my first PDC through the Waikato Environment Centre so will pay attention to the course structure in light of your observations, so as to better understand how improvements can be made in the future.

    Looking forward to catching up at the Hui.

    1. Lovely to hear from you and to have your support Shane (moral or otherwise) – I’ll check out George’s piece and I look forward to some good chats next weekend.

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