Bringing it all together in one diagram (Part Seven) – Mapping the design process signature of permaculture, culture, and even nature herself (Your turn!)

Okay, let’s bring this little diagram sub-series toward home. I’m feeling that this and a couple more posts ought to do it…

To recap, I have introduced a little diagram, or table, or chart, or whatever the heck it is. I have taken some time to explain each of the three-fold distinctions comprising each axis. I have gone through in some detail the nine spaces the two axes define. The overall idea is that whenever we design or create anything, the process we use can be located somewhere in this chart.

I have shown that each of us as a person has an evolving process signature this chart can help us understand. I have shown that each project we are part of has an evolving process signature this chart can help us understand. BY way of a mini-recap, by process signature is meant the centre of gravity of a person, project or whatever’s design process dynamics.

In this post I want to zoom out. I want to show how we can use the chart to map the process signature of larger things. Things like permaculture itself as a global body of theory and practice. Things like modern culture itself as a global body of theory and practice (that permaculture is nested within). Heck, things like the entire rest of nature herself (which modern culture is nested within).

I am excited about where this exercise might lead us. While I have an inkling of what ballpark that might be, I’m so open to surprises along the way. This is where you come in. For here’s what I suggest. Before I share my attempt to locate the process signature of these three things on the chart based on my (limited/partial) perspective, I’m going to invite you to have a go based on yours. Yes you, you reading this. I invite you to go through the below exercise then to publicly or privately reach out and let me know your results. Come on people, let’s do this! Let’s get excited about some globally distributed on-and-offline permaculture design process participatory research!

Your Mission (if you choose to accept it)

Your mission has three tasks. The first task has two sub-tasks. So that’s four tasks you just signed up for by starting to read this paragraph. Thanks. Now I invite you to read on and to do exactly what I say :-).

Start by getting yourself a version of this chart you can make marks on. Maybe copy it onto some notepaper or something:

Mission 1.1: Where is Permaculture in General At?

Here I invite you to consider the design process signature of permaculture itself and then to place your mark on the chart. Here by permaculture I mean permaculture in general. I mean taking all the permaculture design process descriptions, definitions, demonstrations, examples, experiences you have ever encountered, seen, read about, heard about. Ones you may have personally participated in, for sure. But as importantly all those you’ve read about, seen online, heard about, one way or another are aware of. Imagine gathering them up into one big basket.

Great, now imagine cramming them all into a giant pedal-powered blender. Now imagine yourselves jumping on the bike and pedalling. Really go for it! Whiz those suckers to a paste. Blend all the different process examples, whether one, ten or a thousand, into a smoothie. I’m hoping it will come out something like chlorophyl green, but let it be whatever colour it is. Don’t argue with it or try to tamper with the result in any way. Let it be exactly what it is.

Now imagine tipping a teaspoon or so of smoothie onto this here chart where ever it best belongs:

Come on, come on, make your mark – the suspense is killing me!

In other words, I’m asking you to take the average of all the permaculture design process descriptions, definitions, demonstrations, examples, experiences etc. you are aware of and to place that average on this particular map. It may be a weird shape. It may be inside one square or spread out over a bunch of squares. It may be round and fat. It may be a long thin curving shape. It may have vague boundaries. Whatever. So long is there some kind of blob or smearing of smoothie on the chart I’m happy and you’re done.

Now. For the next step.

Mission 1.2: Where is Permaculture’s Cutting Edge At?

Your next task is to make another smoothie. This time I want you to move your ingredient list from permaculture design process stuff in general to the subset you personally consider to represent permaculture’s cutting edge (as far as design process goes). The stuff that resonates most deeply with you. The stuff that in your experience leads to the outcomes you feel best represent whatever you feel that permaculture is really about. The books about permaculture design process that excite you the most. The permaculture designers you most deeply respect, perhaps those that have been living and breathing and practicing permaculture for the longest. That sort of thing. And regardless what the domain of application is.

Note: I’m assuming here that permaculture is a) evolving and b) evolving toward its cutting edge.

Okay you know what happens next. Rinse out the blender and make another smoothie. Again, tip a bit on the chart and see where it ends up. Make your mark. It may overlap with your prior mark, it may not. Now wash the blender out again (if I would you I’d drink the remainder of the contents first). Onward.

Mission 2: Where is Modern Culture At?

Forget about permaculture for a moment. Zoom your focus out to modern culture as a whole.

You see what I’ve done here – I mean if permaculture’s cutting edge is not actually deforming the boundary of modern culture in beautiful directions then something is badly wrong, right?…

Now same deal. Pedal, smoothie, blob, map. On average, in general, where on the map do the dominant or default creation processes in daily use in modern culture sit? How are buildings, bathrooms, parks, roads, school curriculums, websites and whatever else created in general in modern culture terms of the chart? Make your third mark.

What process created these buildings? Image source.

Onward. One more smoothie to make then you are off the hook (and it’s my turn).

Mission 3: Where is the Rest of Nature At?

Alrighty, one more zoom out. Or zoom in, or zoom sideways. No matter which you’ll soon find the rest of nature there waiting. I want you to take the rest of nature as a whole. Waves, starfish, mountains, frogs, forests, fungi, fingers. All of her.

Through the lens of the chart, how do they get created in general? As you understand it, are frogs fabricated or generated? Are apples assembled or partitioned or transformed into existence? Make your fourth mark on the map. Make sure you colour or label them so you don’t get mixed up later.

How did these fingers and the tendril come to into being? Photo courtesy of Joel Glanzberg.


Thanks in advance for your work. I look forward to receiving your emails and comments and to collating and feeding back the results in the next post. Frankly given this blog is not exactly mainstream if I even get one or two responses I’ll be happy enough. You could either send through a photo of your marked chart or send it through as A2, B3, etc. If you’d like your input to be anonymous that’s fine – send it through and let me know you’d like to remain unnamed. You have two weeks.


For the public record Making Permaculture Stronger now has a patreon page you can hear/read about here.


  1. If the fundamental aim of any design process is to achieve Ian McHarg’s “creative fitting”, resulting in health and happiness, then the whole-part will always be in interaction with its surroundings. Both adapting to it and changing it.

    The operators “transforming” and “generating” don’t cover this ground.

    A suggestion would be to perhaps add a third axis – time (the type of interaction with the surroundings) with the parameters: fully fixed, intermittent/linear (adaptive design), cyclic (evolutionary design).

    1. Gerald thanks so much for your stimulating comment!

      Following Christopher Alexander’s lead, while I don’t emphasise it in this chart, part of what transformation connotes for me is a focus on how a given whole-and-its-parts creatively fits at its own level of resolution, with respect to the smaller parts it contains, and with respect to the larger whole it is part of (what you refer to as interaction with its surroundings). The generative piece is then about striving to achieve this fit in real time in an ongoing way where the process never stops. So in this sense I (tentatively) see generative transformation as inseparable from what you call cyclic or evolutionary design. Where any kind of fabricating (up-front masterplanning) is much more likely to be what you call fully fixed, and hybrid perhaps more likely to be what you call adaptive (with intermittent/linear feedback loops into and back from the environment). So I’m not sure it would be an independent axis, though I’d be interested to find what others think and to ponder this more myself.

      One other third axis I have considered previously is that moving from 1) designer, builder and end user are the same, 2) any two are the same and the other different, and 3) all three are one and the same. Though as soon as you move from two to three axes the accessibility plummets. I’d also stress that this framework is one of so many ways of teasing apart differences between different kinds of design processes and in that sense is highly selective, limited, & partial. Though it is also feeling to me like both a helpful conversation starter and a useful stepping stone or collection of rungs on a ladder that can be kicked aside once it has given the necessary leg-up :-).

      ps. I would love to read Ian McHarg on “creative fitting toward health and happiness” – can you recommend the best source for this? Also Gerald I followed the link to your site and I’d love to hear any additional process insights you’ve gleaned over your years of practice as an architect that you’d be kind enough to share (including any thoughts you might have on design process within permaculture and Alexander’s work which I’m guessing you must be familiar with).

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