Bringing it all together in a diagram (Part Five) – Mapping the Evolution of your Design Process Signature

Each and every one of us creates things. Daily. Constantly. Humans are essentially creative, in the sense that they are always creating things, bringing new form into the world. Whether you are creating or co-creating a meal, a conversation, a garden, a blog post, a fresh tune on your ukulele, another day of your life, we are participating in creation. I even want to say that we are creation participating in itself.

Zooming up and out a little from all the individual little things we are each creating, we soon bump into these things called projects. We are each involved in a bunch of different projects. Some projects might run for a few days, others a few years, others several centuries.

Here things get interesting. Whenever we are involved in a project, we bring along what I call a process signature. It is not normal to be aware of one’s process signature. To be aware of the specific ways of being and doing that we bring to any project (or indeed, any task). Yet it is there.

Just like your real signature, your process signature recurs. It recurs in the sense that we don’t invent a brand new, completely novel process every time we create a new thing. Over time our processes take on a certain generic character. This character is our recurring process signature. What starts out as a little groove becomes a well worn rut in the landscape of our personal process dynamics.

Here’s the thing: With focused effort and inquiry we can become conscious of the rut our process signature has created for itself.1 This opens a fascinating new option for us. It opens the option of escaping the rut. It opens the option of exploring new or at least less traveled pathways and grooves though the (unexpectedly vast!) universe of process and hence process signature possibilities. It opens the option that our processes become increasingly alive, self-aware, whole, agile, flexible, adaptive, and even beautiful. In other words, it opens the option that our processes and hence our process signatures continuously grow and evolve.

Does this sound like a bit of you? Something you’d be interested in exploring more? Something you’d even be a little bit excited by? If not, well maybe I’ll catch you some other time. If so, read on. In this post, I want to start showing how this diagram I’ve been developing can help with exactly this.

A Quick Recap of the Diagram

In the last post I explained nine spaces comprising the below diagram. Each space frames one way of going about creating (as in designing-developing) anything. The nine spaces fall out of the interaction between two variables, each having three possible states. One is three ways wholes and parts can be understood to be related. The other is three ways designing (or thinking) can be related to implementing (or doing).

Using the Diagram to Map the Design Process Signature Evolution of Permaculture Designers

Everything I said above about process signatures applies to permaculture design consultancy. Permaculture design consultants take on projects. I am a permaculture design consultant. I take on permaculture design projects. Over the last fourteen years I have played a leading role in several hundred of them.

In what follows, starting with myself, I’ll show how the diagram can be used to scan our individual permaculture design process signature evolutions.

Dan Palmer’s Permaculture Design Process Journey Mapped on the Diagram

In becoming more aware of my own permaculture design process signature, I have found it useful to notice how it has evolved over the years. Here is my understanding of its evolution over the last 14 years drawn as a line on the diagram.

Dan Palmer’s Permaculture Design Process Trajectory 2005 – 2019 and ongoing

I started out following my initial teachers and books (not to mention my entire culture) which were centred in the A1 (fabricated assembly) space. I designed this way as an amateur and then professionally for a good three or so years. I sold clients detailed plans of element assemblages. I wished them well with a smile as I handed them their master plan and my invoice.

Then I came down with a virus. A memetic virus I found in Christopher Alexander’s writing. Be careful in reading this (least you get infected too):

The key to complex adaptation… lies in the concept of differentiation. This is a process of dividing and differentiating a whole to get the parts, rather than adding parts together to get a whole (Alexander, 2002, p. 197)

It took a while to sink in, but eventually motivated me to break through into the B1 space (fabricated partitioning). I was still in the business of selling detailed diagrams. But I got to them by dividing up the space (moving from patterns to detail) as opposed to joining little bits and pieces together (moving from details to pattern).2

My continued experimentation with Alexander’s work then sparked my leap across to B2 (fabricated partitioning). I stopped worshipping at the altar of the master plan. I started quitting at the concept design stage. I was still a diagram pedlar – the diagrams I was selling just got fuzzier :-).

My next epiphany was realising that assembly vs partitioning was a false dichotomy. I finally arrived into the space I now call transformation, initially into C2 or hybrid transformation. Here, as I have put it previously:

…we see what we are doing as always and without exception transforming a whole-and-its-parts. To transform is to make different, to differentiate. When we are transforming a whole-and-its-parts we are making it different. No matter whether we are integrating in new parts, removing old parts, or changing existing parts around. These are all different ways of transforming the system, of differentiating the whole.

From there I soon dipped my toes, in fact my entire body-mind, into the sweet waters of generative transformation (C3). Be warned, all ye yet to venture back into this part of the forest.3 Once you get yourself a taste of this juice, your whole conception of what design is and can be changes forever. Sure, as my squiggle shows, I wriggled around a bit, and indeed at least once in recent times I agreed to fashion up a fabricated detailed plan as part of a large development project where I couldn’t be involved otherwise. But by and large generative transformation is now my home base, my happy place, my process signature’s centre of gravity.

Jason Gerhardt’s Permaculture Design Process Journey Mapped on the Diagram

I can’t say how excited I was when Jason Gerhardt of The Permaculture Institute shared the following in a recent comment:

This latest post and the diagram are wonderful. It allows me to see the growth of my own journey in the diagram, which frankly is a revelation after many years of trying to understand what was happening to me. I want to recount that a little, mostly for myself to further ingrain this diagram in my mind, but I’m posting it here for what it’s worth.

I much agree that permaculture has existed in the state of fabricating. I have certainly met many permaculture students and maybe a pro designer or ten who practice in the A1 space. I’m happy to say I was never taught permaculture design as an A1 process though.

While I’m very certain a lot of PDC’s are taught in the A1 space, I feel pretty sure that I was taught permaculture in the B1 space (not much better really). After a couple projects I realized how prescriptive the B1 space felt, and therefore how unartful it was as a process. I wanted more than that, so I worked to transform my practice into what looks like the C1 space. I existed there for a few years. It allowed me to build my foundation for working with clients, carrying projects out, and getting a lot of experience. Ultimately I realized how mechanized even the C1 space felt. I became a design-churning machine, still prescriptive, but more organized and a little more artful. Eventually, in addition to the grind of the work, what made me question what I was doing was seeing how only some or none of the pieces of my designs were being built once I stopped doing full installs along with the design.

Then along came a client, a family actually, and we organically found a way to work together on a different level. We befriended each other, and actually came to really cherish each other. We transformed their yard primarily via the C2 space because of that closeness, which is to say the closeness of the relationship allowed my practice to grow to that space. We were able to develop the comfort, trust, and relaxedness to be able to play beyond traditional confines. Ultimately, I saw their lives change through their interaction with the landscape. I hadn’t actually witnessed the changes I made in the physical environment leading to profound changes in the inner worlds of my clients. That told me I was on to something. Though the clients moved on from that property, the space still exists and functions well 10 years later, but the funny thing is I don’t even care about the site because I recognized the design was about the people not the property. Since that point, I felt my design practice grow at a rapid, and honestly, bewildering pace. I feel like I’ve been meandering through the second and third hybrid and generative spaces ever since that project. I had to try stuff out. Sometimes the design work was just too cumbersome for my clients to engage with thoroughly, and some work became highly functional and cherished environments. As a side note, I think teaching with Joel Glanzberg for a few years contributed to this evolution of my process as well.

Now, I feel like I can use the C1, C2, C3 and B2 and B3 spaces depending on what’s called for by the project. I feel the most artful in my process than I ever have because I’m not trying to do a specific thing or attain a certain level or result. I just want to do what’s appropriate to each situation without expectation. At this point, 15 years post-PDC, I’d say I primarily spend my professional design time in the C2 space, partly because that’s what the market can bear, or the most artfulness that the design profession (clients and design teams) can embrace at this point in time, in my experience that is. I tend to work on commercial projects, public spaces, and large-scale ag properties. It may be different for smaller residential or garden design.

Jason Gerhardt, Feb 11, 2019.

Here’s my interpretive squiggle of Jason’s process journey (which I promise to change Jason if you think I’ve stuffed it up!).

Jason Gerhardt’s Permaculture Design Process Trajectory

What is most interesting to me is that while Jason and my squiggles are utterly unique, there is a high-level resonance in that the overall trajectory is from the lower left toward the lower right. Hmmmmmm. More on this in the posts to come.


So, there you have it. The diagram as a process signature typing and evolution tracking tool. I warmly welcome any other designers out there to have a play with where their process signature does or does not sit within the nine spaces. With if and how it has evolved over time. Be my guest – have a play with sketching your own process signature evolution on there. Then make my day and send it through to me.4

I just had an image arise of a gathering of permaculture designers who each wear their mapped process signature evolution diagrams on their shirts as they walk around. Some one scans another shirt and says “Excuse me – I have to ask how on earth you jumped from A1 to C2 in one shot – is that even possible?” Ha!

I appreciate, by the way, that for some this might seem too abstract, too hard to grasp, completely irrelevant to the realities of practical design work, teaching permaculture, growing food, running a farm etc etc. If you are in that camp then please speak up too! Let us work together to close the gap. Let us meet in the middle where theory and practice belong together and continuously feed into and enrich each other.

You see I personally would like to believe this work is a tiny little contribution to permaculture’s own process of continuing to wake up, to grow up, to become more present to its own essence and hence its real potential.5

I thank you for your attention and your interest. Hopefully I will catch you in the next post. There I’ll show how the diagram can be used to map the process signature evolutions not only of entire projects, but of permaculture as a whole.


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.


  1. Not to mention how crowded and stuffy it is in there!
  2. You can read more about the difference here.
  3. I say venture back in that it’s where we all came from before our culture stamped it out of us
  4. Aside from Jason I have mostly discussed this stuff with David Holmgren. As I recall, David wasn’t sure whether in his process journey he’d gone up then across in his evolution toward the top right, or across and then up. But he did recognise that his process signature had evolved in the same overall direction as both Jason’s and my own.
  5. I mean I have to tell myself something like this to justify the countless hours I’m pouring into it!


  1. It’s almost like you read my newest article in pre-publication with the finger pointing at the moon metaphor. Ha! 🙂

    I have to agree that some processes definitely bring us closer to our desired goal of regeneration and lastingness in human culture. And that is the point of exploring this beyond greater design literacy, as you said. It brings up the importance of aims, goals, and achievement. This is something that I feel permaculture itself has not articulated fully yet, and something we hope to contribute to at the PI. With a focus on aims, goals, and achievement we can move closer to the edges of right and wrong/good and bad, and have a more well-defined scope and context for the nesting of permaculture in the first place.

    1. Thanks Delvin and thanks for the work you are doing too. I do love this idea of pointing permaculture back on itself :-).

  2. I like how this is developing, Dan. You more or less got my process trajectory down, no change required. 🙂 I’m excited for what you hinted is coming.

    I’ve started looking at the nine spaces in terms of the process that gets applied to a project. What led me into this line of inquiry is realizing that I apply the top three spaces in a single project starting with C3 as site and people analysis—a very generative and transformative phase. The trajectory moves from C3 to C2 for concept design and then to C1 for detailed design, and then doubles back on itself with implementation, and sometimes back yet again. The spaces change as the phases of work change. For example, I often do project proposals with a minimum of three phases of design work. This is often required by the nature of my work. This helps elucidate the non-linearity of design process in general. Further, that helps me avoid the better-than concepts and ideas of superiority that trajectory could hint at. I continue to feel that all of the possible approaches in the nine spaces are appropriate in some specific context from a general design perspective. Whether they are Permaculture Design is another question.

    Lots to play with here, and lots of logic traps continually coming up for me. You are bravely exploring this so publicly and deserve much respect for doing so. Excited to see what’s coming.

    1. Thanks so much Jason. Once again you are anticipating with uncanny precision the topic and even some of the details of the next post. It’s almost like you hacked the site and can see posts-in-preparation :-). Your point about this not being about superiority is so important and something I have to be careful about with my language. On the one hand, I see no approach as better or more true than any other. They are just different, and they create different results, where my focus is trying to more clearly understand what our options are and to increase my own process literacy. On the other hand, if the particular genre of results we seek are to do with re-infusing landscapes and people and places and spaces with life, well, then I’m repeatedly finding some process dynamics more effective that others. That said, the process itself must be adapted to its context, and if we inappropriately impose any particular type, then, well, we’re missing the point. Thanks again and I’ve already quoted you again in the upcoming next post. You’re becoming my accidental co-author :-).

      Oh and I hear you re logic traps. I always like to remind myself how puny any attempt to characterise or pigeonhole reality is. So long as we’re dealing with fingers pointing at the moon and not the moon itself, there will be flaws and contradictions.

  3. Many Years ago I attended a small workshop called “Owning Organization” in which the Facilitator had created a process whereby a synergistic effect could happen. He called it the 5 P’s and diagramed it in the shape of a triangle. It can be applied to any purpose and the Fifth P was that ….. “Purpose”. A well-defined end goal of where the process would lead to. This was at the top or apex of the Triangle. Without that there is no getting there if you do not know 100% where you want to be. The First P is “People” Those that would participate constantly and consistently within the process, elemental to the function. Each Individual should be assigned specific tasks and would be required to commit to doing only those specific tasks. No overlaps. The Second P is “Planning” A roadmap if you like of who does what, when and how. The Third P is “Professionals” Those that need to be brought in or rather outsourced for specific tasks at specific times with expertise in areas needed to achieve the end purpose. The Fourth P is The “Process”. The release time, the ready set go after all the preparation and purpose building blocks are ready and everyone and everything is available and tuned and focused into where they need to be to get that Synergy happening. The result is a Well Organized System of Events that lead to the desired outcome efficiently and amazingly quickly. Maybe some of these elements of Synergistic Development could assist you in your quest for evolving the design process of Permaculture. The Facilitator that spoke to me all those years ago was Robert Prindable from Sydney. I have often used this simple technique of Five P’s when organizing civil construction right down to my permaculture gardens over the years and have found it extraordinarily simple fast and efficient. I hope this is of some interest Dan. You can reach me on my Email below if interested in further discussion.

    1. Many thanks Robert and the process framework you describe does sound extremely helpful and relevant to all this (it reminds me of something I read about Bennet’s use of the enneagram to organise processes actually). I’ll email too, but I’m wondering whether you’d consider writing up an example of its application in a permaculture context that I could share as a post.

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