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

Prefix: This post gets to the same point as the previous one in a different way. Just getting crystal clear on the nature of this weak link in permaculture in its design system sense before we start exploring attempts to address this weak link in future posts. Now then, let’s get on with this post:

The word design is both a verb and a noun, a process and a thing. The process of designing (verb) results in a design (noun). In my opinion, the power of permaculture design has been compromised, crippled even, by an unacknowledged over-emphasis on design as a noun, thing, or end and a corresponding neglect of design as a verb, process, or means.

All that can generate a sound permaculture design is a process of designing, or as it is more commonly referred to, a design process. A design process is a program or sequence of foci & actions from which a design emerges. Regardless of other details, this process must involve a tuning into people and place in a way that, moving from vague to specific, and from patterns to details, reveals an appropriate design bringing people and place together within a flowing, functional, fine-feeling whole.

The ability to generate sound designs is the same as the ability to engage in a sound design process. There is no way around this. No thing can be created without a prior process of creating. It would seem obvious, therefore, that the details of the process are as (if not more) important than the details of what a particular process resulted in at some point in the past.

It is not just that to focus on the designed, and for that matter on the implemented, can distract us from tuning into, discussing, evolving and sharing the process of design that gets us there. It is that this focus can become a disastrous substitute when folk start attempting to replicate a design (i.e., the spatial configurations along with particular strategies and techniques), which are not as appropriate in another setting. This happens rather than attempting to learn and replicate the design process, which, if sound, can generate a solution that is appropriate in whatever setting it is applied to.

As I survey the permaculture design literature, attend talks, see the work of beginning designers, I see a huge coverage firstly of implemented designs (look at this garden I designed & implemented, this farm I designed & implemented etc) and secondly of finished designs (look at my beautiful design diagrams). What I do not see, except in isolated and scarce silos, is coverage of the design process responsible. Then when I do probe and tease evidence of this process out, I am generally not impressed with what I see.

To talk plainly, what I see is most often mistake-ridden and full of imposed ideas that to some degree are being inappropriately forced on the site/client. Yes, yes, I know you want to see an example, and that will happen in future posts. For now I’m just trying to say it like it is and open the conversation, with the ultimate aim of showing this stuff up more by seeking out and exposing sound process more than pointing the finger at the unsound.

I don’t see this general lack of quality as a weakness or deficiency of the designers involved (though of course there is always the chance that is an additional complicating factor!). I see it as a weakness in the attention that has been given to the collaborative development of permacultural understandings of what sound design process is. What it looks like. Where it starts. Where it ends. The bits in between.

The coverage of this stuff in most introductory permaculture books and courses is abysmal, and after ten years in the game I am starting to appreciate what is possible in terms of what sound design process can generate. It takes my breath away. As I once heard Dave Jacke say on a podcast, permaculture design has so far taken baby steps. Just wait until we start to properly walk!

But first we need to agree that we are just getting started, that we have work to do. Then we can start to nut out ways of collaborating in moving this core aspect of permaculture forward.


  1. Loving these posts Dan- and totally agree.
    I have had many conversations with people about this.
    I always try and facilitate Design Thinking- Its not the Herb Spiral (!), its the thinking that has gone into the herb spiral- its the observations, the considerations to climate, the considerations to client etc.
    Its always site and context (client) specific, and so many times I see stock standard ‘elements’ or ‘techniques’ just basically drag-dropped into a design, instead of seeing it and getting to know it as a living landscape, and marrying the landscapes needs with the clients needs.
    Permaculture, as it has become more popular I imagine, has had its focus shift to very trendy techniques a lot of the time, forgetting our responsibility to wild places (revegetation and a connection with Native habitat is crucial) and our need to have a relationship with our landscapes (and I am talking inner and outer).
    I am also keen to explore the gap Permaculture has with Native vegetation, people and culture, as it has originated from looking at ingenious methods around the world. I’m seeing gaps being bridged slowly, especially with the response from Bruce Pascoes book, and I am hoping to see Permaculture start to incorporate more wisdom from our Indigenous peoples.
    Will be following these articles 🙂 Thank you!

  2. Then a complementary question would be: what makes an ecologist? What are the skills, worldview and state of mind that best lead to this ecological design outcome?

  3. I will add to this a reflection I’ve been having and sharing lately: In Shaivite philosophy there is an understanding that “the perceiver, the perceived, and the act of perception are one.” Huh? I invite you to observe an object, any object and contemplate this as you perceive any thing. The more I have done this, the more I realize how true it is. (And I know it sounds very “woo woo”; if that leads you, dear reader, to dismiss what I’m saying, I feel sorry for you. Pay more attention to your direct in-the-moment experience and let’s talk). More so, the longer I have practiced design in a conscious way, I have come to realize that “the designer, the designed, and the process of design are one.” If we want to have an ecological design outcome, we must use an ecological design process, ***and the designer must be an ecologist.*** Who does the design is as critical as the process used. And indeed, if the design process used does not change the designer, the design process is faulty or the designer is not paying attention. I know I am making several long leaps in here from beginning to end of this post, but I hope folks can follow them.

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