Bringing it all together in just. one. diagram. (Part Three)

A couple of posts back I introduced a diagrammatic snapshot of where Making Permaculture Stronger has arrived after over two years conducting two in-depth inquiries into the design process understandings at permaculture’s core.

The diagram contains a tentative framework for understanding how different kinds of design processes are constitutionally more or less able to enhance life.1 It has two axes. The last post explained the y-axis. There I laid out the difference between assembling, partitioning, and transforming as three distinct ways to think about how whole-part relations can be understood  whenever we do stuff or create stuff.

Here I’ll move to the x-axis and review the difference between fabricating, hybrid, and generating as three different ways that designing (or thinking) and implementing (or doing) can be related whenever we do stuff or create stuff.

Long-term readers of this blog will have seen this three-way distinction before, but I wanted to have a fresh go at presenting it for readers who might only be reading this current four-part series (which is being reproduced on at least one other site).

We’ll start with fabricating, then consider generating, then come back to the hybrid middle ground.

Fabricating (Master Planning)

fabricating approach completes an up-front design or master plan and only then starts implementation.

Here are a few early examples of fabricated master plans I played a leading role in:

fabricated assembly

fabricated partition-then-assembly

Aren’t they pretty! They also bring together thousands of mistakes in the sense that many of these decisions would be made much better in sequence and in context as the site was being developed, rather than being dreamed up and crammed into a pretty picture up front. This is not to suggest that there is not a time and place for such pictures, by the way (something we’ll discuss more in the next post). It is to say we get in trouble when we forget what they are – diagrammatic guesses that can never, ever capture or respond to all the new details that only and inevitably emerge as soon as you start to intervene in any complex system or ecosystem.

Ben Falk has put this very nicely:

It’s easy to just take paper too seriously and have too many decisions based on what is or isn’t on a piece of paper. It can be great to guide overall decisions and to know starting points and know general steps but if it’s not coupled with the active hands on that constantly changes what’s on that paper master plan/site design it can be very misleading and very dangerous.


A generating approach focuses on a rigorous process for repeatedly honing in on the best next step then taking it. Here we generate a design layout or pattern in the very process of actively modifying whatever we are working with. Any design sketches are at best servants of the way things are unfolding on the ground, rather than upfront masters (as in master plans) where pre-cooked guesses are imposed.

Though I first learned about generating from Christopher Alexander, I was subsequently delighted to discover that permaculture co-originator David Holmgren had been exploring something similar for many decades. Check out David’s 1994 words where he contrasts master planning (fabricating) with strategic planning (which is something very similar to what we’re calling generating).2

Master planning, (where detailed plans are implemented producing a final fixed state which is a copy of what is on paper) has been discredited in the planning profession due to its failure to deal with complex evolving systems…

In strategic planning, the emphasis is on processes of development which are on-going and respond to changing circumstances. It recognises that complex systems can never be completely described, predicted or controlled but that forces can be identified and worked with to develop a more balanced and productive system. Most importantly, strategic planning can help pinpoint the initial step to get the desired processes moving without later having to undo what has already been done. (David Holmgren, 1994, p. 21)

In a master planning or fabricating approach, it is extremely hard, if not impossible, to avoid making premature decisions and then imposing them on reality. You thereby end up taking steps that are not the best suited to what is actually going on at that stage in the unfolding process.

In a generating process, on the other hand, we move from imposing on reality to unfolding out of reality. As a result, the decisions we make along they way are non-arbitrary. They are made at the right time in the presence of the right information meaning we have at least a chance of getting them right. When by fabricating we make our decisions before we even start, it is like we are turning on this massive tap of arbitrariness where the quality of the outcome rests on the nature of the guesses we made at the start.3

Furthermore, if we seek to mimic natural process, nature generates – it never fabricates! As a result, an authentic generating process is much better able to connect in with and enhance life. It just. makes. sense.

Here’s a few images and a recent bit of drone footage from the 10-acre Mayberry Woodend project in Victoria, Australia, where the lovely residents and I have been experimenting with a generating process. In terms of our diagram this was actually an example of generative transformation – something I’ll explore and explain further in the next post.

This next diagram shows all we drew before we started to ground-test and do – a diagram that includes only what we’d decided was the best next step – a new driveway:Here a photo of the works underway:

and the patterns that were generated, here in a photo…

…here in a video:

The point I want to make is that not only are functionally and aesthetically harmonious layouts achievable without drawing upfront plans, what emerges is in my early experience so much better (as in more functional, more connected, and more beautiful) that what could have been captured in any upfront plan.

For the record, I am not saying that there is no place for drawing on pieces of paper or computer screens. Indeed, as I’ve shown above, part of the planning process for the driveway in the above video was drawing possible driveway layouts on paper. But the focus was honing in on and crash testing the best next step, not creating a ‘plan’ to impose.


The hybrid approach is now easy to explain. It mixes together equal parts fabrication and generating. In particular, it involves completing a high-level, broad strokes concept plan ahead of starting to implement, but then lets all the details fall out of the creating/doing/implementing process as it rolls forward.

My friend and renowned ecological designer Dave Jacke describes what I’m calling a hybrid approach well in this personal communication:

In reality, I design the overall pattern, implement key pieces after designing them, then redesign as more parts of the system get implemented. I have never had a client where I could implement all at once as a grand expedition! It’s always been piecemeal implementation with design along the way, responding to changes in goals, site and emergent reality as the design goes into place. But having a big picture view, that is, an overall site design to at least a schematic level, is critical to help one work out where to begin the implementation. Then I would design the relevant patches, including their site prep and implementation strategies, and then proceed on the ground. Staking out is a critical part of the process!  Field testing the design in reality, essentially (from a personal email communication received January 28, 2017)

Here’s a simple example of a rough concept design I sketched with my parents for the layout of their new house garden:

Here’s us (my dad and I, although my mum was right there too!) getting to it and figuring out the details with rakes and shovel rather than pencils and computer mice:

and here’s the resulting layout from above…

…and from the front:

Winging it

You’ll note a little asterisk in the diagram next to the generating label.

here’s what it says:

Not to be confused with winging it (ill-considered random/ haphazard implementation generating no coherent design)

I mention this to ward off the misunderstanding that a generating process is somehow less rigorous, logical, evidence-based, or documented/documentable than a fabricating approach. In my experience it is much more of all these things!

It is also harder work. You cannot just draw a nice picture, hand it over to the implementation team, then slack off as the territory gets rudely affronted with your map. You need to stay fully engaged as you make changes, immerse in the outcome, and figure out the best next move from there.

Point made. Generating is a world apart from winging it.

From Less to More Life Enhancing

An authentic generating process is infinitely more able to honour and enhance the life in a given system than a fabricating process (and obviously a hybrid process its in between).  This is an important point I want to flesh out a little more.

Life and adaptation are not separable concepts. In other words, all life involves, requires, maybe even is adaptation. To enhance life, therefore, is to enhance adaptedness. Enhancing adaptedness, by the way, is another way of saying enhancing fitness – fitness in the sense of the fitted-ness of a whole’s parts to each other, and the fitted-ness of that whole to the larger wholes it sits within. The moment an organism doesn’t fit its environment, for instance, it doesn’t live.

Now here’s the thing. Adaptation cannot be fabricated or master planned, period. I believe it to be an essential truth that adapted systems can only emerge or be generated iteratively, in an ongoing dance between a system’s form and its context.

This is why in the diagram we are here exploring, I contend that a generating process is more able to enhance life than a fabricating process.

I’m going to let Christopher Alexander (2002) drive the point home:

…there is a fundamental law about the creation of complexity, which is visible and obvious to everyone – yet this law is, to all intents and purposes, ignored in 99% of the daily fabrication processes of society. The law states simply this: ALL the well-ordered complex systems we know in the world, all those anyway that we view as highly successful, are GENERATED structures, not fabricated structures.

The human brain, that most complex neural network, like other neural networks, is generated, not assembled or fabricated. The forests of the Amazon are generated, not fabricated. The tiger, beautiful creature, generated, not fabricated. The sunset over the western ocean with its stormy clouds, that too is generated, not fabricated. (p. 180)

The significance of generated structure lies in the concept of mistakes. Fabricated plans always have many mistakes — not just a few mistakes but tens of thousands, even millions of mistakes. It is the mistake-ridden character of the plans which marks them as fabricated — and that comes from the way they are actually generated, or made, in time. Generated plans have few mistakes (p. 186)

If an [human] embryo were built from a blueprint of a design, not generated by an adaptive process, there would inevitably be one thousand trillion mistakes. Because of its history as a generated structure, there are virtually none. (p. 188)


I have shared three ways in which designing and implementing can be related inside any creation process: fabricating, generating, or a hybrid including bits of both.

I have shared how I think this distinction matters in that only the generating and certain instances of the hybrid approach are able to deliver on permaculture’s aspiration to partner with and enhance life in whatever contexts it is applied.

In the next post we’ll zoom out and consider the diagram as a whole and various ways it can be usefully employed in understanding, practicing and teaching permaculture design process.


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.

Holmgren, David. Trees on the Treeless Plains: Revegetation Manual for the Volcanic Landscapes of Central Victoria. Holmgren Design Services, 1994.


  1. Where there is a clear assumption on my part that permaculture is in essence very much about enhancing life and hence ought to be interested in always getting better at it
  2. David learned strategic planning from his second great mentor, Haikai Tane
  3. Keeping in mind that “plan” is always a euphemism for “guess”


  1. YES!! This aligns with what we spoke about regarding ‘soft systems’ and the way they can’t be planned as a final concept because they are never finished. A detailed, finished plan often, in my experience, leaves people feeling overwhelmed and not knowing where to start. We are now ‘permacoaching’ clients using a process that aligns with what you are calling a generative approach. Start with all of the same observation and collection of information, but then generate ideas and options and make plans to implement the best choices in stages.
    In our PDC we’re asking students to demonstrate an understanding of the design process for their final assignments, including staged implementation, rather than asking them to show us a detailed plan. This is helping them to develop serious design muscles and not to get bogged down in detail. I am leaning more towards a concept design as the most useful for clients. It helps them understand the macro and gives them the freedom to play with the micro. My observation is that they are far more likely to engage quickly with a concept plan and actually start doing.
    Wonderful stuff, Dan, and it’s definitely making permaculture stronger. Thank you. Love this stuff.

  2. Hi Dan, this is exactly what I thought you’d arrive at, that is, design as an evolutionary process. It’s kind of the only logical outcome, to build living systems by processes of evolution (the guiding principle of life), which is what happens in design regardless, even though it may not yield the desired outcomes. On some level I think Mollison had it right with “allow systems to demonstrate their own evolution”. Humans tend toward control and have a very hard time when things don’t go to plan, so we need to ease up on our expectations (and our plans), not become more and more rigid about getting exactly what we want. At least to some degree I hear this in your conclusion. However, we definitely need things to not fail. There is a difference between failure and deviation.

    Don’t make too big a leap in minimizing the importance of designing upfront, however. It is integral to the overall process, just not the end (because there is no end!), and not more important than any other stage. The design process is circuitous and loops back on itself continually, never ending, and it includes implementation and management, which are equally important design stages to send one back through every other stage. This is an affront to the image of the know-all architect while mere laborers put the pieces together. And it is why the mere laborers always grunt and grumble behind the architects back because they are the ones that save the day when things deviate from plan, as they always do. So we need to be careful in codifying a new process that favors the on-the-ground work over any other piece because eventually we will end up right back at the same place with a lopsided design process. This will be especially true on large projects with multiple elements being designed, implemented, and managed by multiple teams, which is the way most of the design world works outside of residential landscape design. So on some level, we simply need a leveling of the playing field in the design trade, and we need to educate everyone as if they were a designer (because everyone is). No player’s role is more important than any other. This might get us even closer to permanent culture 😉

    I do want to be clear that I think your articulation is the way the design process has always been. I also think a good designer is able to decipher when even a fabricating approach is the best method (because sometimes it is!) considering the greater context of the ongoing evolution of a clients paradigm and/or project. It takes a lot of time and gradual paradigm shifting to achieve wholism, which is why most people who are fresh out of a PDC can’t design for squat, nor should they be expected to, able to, or allowed to (especially when the stakes are high).

    You have articulated this thoroughly and more fully than previous articulations of the design process, and I applaud your hard work, Dan. I’m excited to see your thoughts on how we share this with students and advance it in the design trade (beyond the confines of permaculture).

    1. Thanks so much for your comment Jason! Everything you say resonates with where I am coming from and nicely recaps many of the main points I’ve been exploring (which, as you say, at the highest level includes framing “design as an evolutionary process”). A few little reflections in response:

      As regards easing up on our expectations, and not becoming “more and more rigid about getting exactly what we want,” I think there is a crucial (and under-appreciated) distinction here between what you could say is what we think we want (which is usually a superficial wishlist of desired elements or outcomes) and what we really want (which is around deeper intention & quality of life). I mention this because when reality either invites, or, if we don’t accept the invitation, forces us to deviate from imposing our wishlist according to our plan, we can deem this failure. But when we get clear on the above distinction suddenly the degree that the details of what happens where when and how can vary enormously, indeed need to vary enormously in order to deliver on the deeper intention or reason for getting involved in some project in the first place. Where yesterday’s failure is transformed into today’s success (even if it means moving to another property or project or whatever) :-).

      I love your

      So on some level, we simply need a leveling of the playing field in the design trade, and we need to educate everyone as if they were a designer (because everyone is). No player’s role is more important than any other. This might get us even closer to permanent culture

      As these inquiries proceed (even though I take a long break when other parts of life call, it’s all feeling very alive, and after two years I feel like that things are only just getting started here!) I’ll be looking closely and critically at the whole idea of framing design as a circuit of separate stages occurring one-after-the-other (design-implement-manage or whatever variation) and developing an alternative framing where these phases are more accurately construed as proceeding simultaneously inside healthy process (where the usual understanding of what defines the line where design stops and implementation starts becomes highly problematic). But I absolutely agree that any way of dealing with lopsidedness that simply moves the lopsidedness somewhere else is not transforming the underlying pattern (and is a trap I have to avoid falling into, or even coming across as having fallen into).

      This is also so spot on!:

      It takes a lot of time and gradual paradigm shifting to achieve wholism, which is why most people who are fresh out of a PDC can’t design for squat, nor should they be expected to, able to, or allowed to (especially when the stakes are high).

      Also in an upcoming post I’ll try and get across the confusing fact that fabricating and generating are more attitudes than technical facts about this or that process. I know of projects that, though they involve much fabrication on a technical level, are in spirit highly generative, and vice versa!

      Thanks again Jason – it is gratifying to be in conversation with experienced colleagues such as yourself, who not only get what the hell I’m going on about, but enrich and enlarge the conversation by sharing from their own experiences.

      I might have to hit you up about recording a podcast interview sometime!

      1. Dan, this is really soulful work you’re doing. I think about it all the time (and wish I remembered to check your site more often). I think about it so much because my work demands me to keep trying to get closer to the core. I say “soulful” because you’re onto the core of something very important about life in general, and how we make sense of failure, success, and so much more. I agree with everything you said. It’s tricky work too. We’re all so prone to falling into various logic traps and dualities. We really need each other as a community to stay on course. So thank you for laboring away. It has enriched the last few projects I’ve been doing. I’d join you for a chat anytime.

  3. Great Dan! It confirms how I’ve gone about design for my own 1/4 acre in the previous 10 years or so. I’ve now done about 15 designs for clients, yet still haven’t done a full design for my own place, something which I often felt a bit funny about… and thinking I should really get it done someday. However, now I realise that I’ve been doing Generating design – almost exactly as you describe it. Overall concept sketch; but detailed design on individual elements / areas as the implementation progresses. Mistakes still made; but gee – I think given all the unknowns about how/when/what-with, each area actually gets done, doing an entire design upfront never made any sense.

    Of course I can do this design/implement as you go for my own ‘context’; but this same process would be far more difficult to offer to clients; not so much because they wouldn’t get a detailed / pretty design; but because it’s (often) THEM doing the implementing, and it’d feel ‘micro managing’ or very expensive to continue to be involved as it goes, not least because the client is as much the variable as the actual design!

    I guess this is where the Hybrid comes in… but again, for a client; a more detailed design upfront will allow more time to collate and consider more information, which results in a more accurate starting point. With few exceptions, most people then also start implementing in a ‘generating’ kind of way – doing certain sections at time, and making changes as required.

    1. Thanks Goshen and lovely to hear from you again! All good observations – I am enjoying finding ways of working with clients generatively that are affordable for the client, viable for me, avoid micromanaging, and waste no time on unnecessary detailed designs (that are problematic whether they are followed or not). It has been a transformational journey, I can tell you, but I can also assure you and anyone else that it can be done and done well. Part of my trick has been sitting in the space of the question “how am I going to make this work” rather than the presupposition “There is no way this can work!” But I am aware it is no walk in the park and involves some degree of paradigm shift and I want to find ways of supporting others who are keen to transition in this direction. Maybe I ought to offer a webinar some time where I can share some of my adventures and fellow designers (or should I say design process facilitators) can do the same…

      1. Cheers… A webinar or workshop would be great…! Over the last few days I’ve been thinking of how I could offer more generating type designs, and would def like to explore the idea further. For me personally, I do find communication easier by delivering a design, but would be good to include a ‘generating’ component, some way of being involved in updates or changes at the implementation stage, just unsure of how to go about this now… No hurry to this, I’ll keep thinking about it.

  4. What an extraordinarily rich and robust concept you’re articulating. A river building from its tributaries. One thing that struck me was how we can get stuck and misled by labels . Winging it is a fine example: a set of behaviours mistaken for something else. Strategic planning (something I’ve had a lot to do with) is another. There’s a lot conducted in that name that is nothing of the sort. But when it’s conducted with a sound evidence base, incisive thinking and excellent service no novo problem solving, it’s highly successful…Much like the demanding journey of truly sound design in any realm worth undertaking (like permaculture or restorative agriculture). Thank you, Dan.

    1. Thanks John! Yeah I didn’t think to mention it above but David Holmgren talks about how strategic planning effectively died with its institutionalisation (and became a variant of the very thing it was originally a radical alternative to).

  5. Hi Dan,

    Great work with this framework it is so clear and focused and well argued.

    I still think that this approach is intrinsic to permaculture and always has been rather than a new idea, but I hugely appreciate your ability to define, clarify and promote it.
    I will definitely save a copy of this diagram for my toolkit.


    1. Thanks Niva and right on! Here’s a line from the in-preparation part four (of what has now grown into a five-parter!):

      I want to make it clear that I don’t think that generative transformation is in any way a new thing. It is an attempt to describe not only nature’s default operating system, but what already happens when permaculture is at its best. As in generating real, adapted solutions that wrap themselves beautifully into and around the specifics of given situations.

  6. I like this and it makes intuitive sense. But how do I deal with different levels of permanence? Some things – like earthworks, or building location, need to be thought through because a bunch of other things cascade from those decisions.

    In specific terms, I am currently designing a greenhouse for the NW corner (I’m northern hemisphere) of my garden. I like the idea of a gradually stiffening design, and that’s how it’s happening in my notebook, as I incorporate considerations raised by different articles, books and videos that I’m consulting, but I can’t really figure out how to make the process more generative in *reality*, rather than my imagination. Building a structure requires me to think through the materials I’ll need ahead of time and how they’ll fit together, so that they’re available when I take a week off and have friends round to help me build it. I guess I could build in stages, and design the next stage after I complete the first? So maybe my priority should be figuring out what needs to happen in the first stage and which decisions I’ll be better able to make once I’ve built the first stage?

    It sounds so simple now I’ve thought about it, but what does it actually mean in practice? I’ll maybe report back at some point.

    1. Greetings Joshua and thanks for chiming in! Such a great question that cuts to the chase of the issues and the opportunities at stake. I’ll not attempt (or pretend I even have) a concise answer here, but I will be exploring it with lots of clear examples in future posts and podcasts. Part of the picture is that pictures, as in drawings or design sketches, totally and will always have their place. It is always about finding and surfing the sweet spot between:

      -excessive or superfluous premeditation (up-front planning) that ultimately compromises the best, most adapted outcomes by overly dominating subsequent happenings,
      -too little premeditation where you cut off opportunities and steer yourself into a dead end or cacophony of clashes

      For me there is a lot caught up in this innocent-sounding little idea of the best next step. For a series of best next steps, if they are indeed the best next steps, define a solid or sensible sequence. For me the scale of permanence is a surface manifestation of the deeper idea of doing things in a sensible sequence, much like zones are a surface manifestation of the deeper idea of getting your access and circulation patterns right.

      I cannot imagine a building project where taking it in stages (where you plan what you need for that stage, get it happening, then reassess what is to become the following stage) doesn’t get you to a more adapted, functional, beautiful, elegant outcome than planning the whole build up front then implementing strictly to plan. Again this is not to say that there is not a time and place for buying a prefab kitset and throwing it up, or planning an entire build on paper or screen first. Hopefully, however, such cases don’t result in a lack of adaptivity as the thing then goes up and once built continues to evolve.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *