Meg McGowan’s Take on Permaculture Design Process (E14)

Meg McGowan

In this episode I inquire into Australian permaculturalist Meg McGowan’s design process. It is a rich chat in which Meg shares many brilliant insights after working as a permaculture design process facilitator / coach for many years.

Meg out there taking it to the people…

I met Meg at the 14th Australiasian Permaculture Convergence in April 2018 and was struck by her passion and clarity. While I didn’t manage to get a selfie with Meg at the event this character did…

David Holmgren and Meg McGowan

Meg’s (active!) blog is here, her and her partner’s Permacoaching facebook page is here, and among so many other things she happens to be a permaculture design cartoonist! Check these out and there are a bunch more here.

One Permaculture Design Process
Planet Permaculture

HUGE gratitude to the wonderful Ben Mallinson for creating the new intro and outro music – a massive improvement (no offence to my mate Nath who created the old one on his phone in about three minutes). Ben has been volunteering his time to help out with several of my projects as we explore ways of getting him involved in my professional consultancy work – and I have very much appreciated his assistance.

Now I should confess that Meg and I recorded this chat way back in September 2018. It took this long to get the thing edited and released. I guess that’s a good sign in that this project is a hobby and when push comes to shove, and non-hobby parts of life call, it waits a while :-). Still, I sense that things will be warming up from here and I envisage releasing at least one podcast episode per month for a while (and the next one will come out in about two weeks).

Thanks again Meg and I’m delighted to have you as a friend and colleague and look forward to our next yarn :-).

Let’s wrap up with Meg’s take on a condensed set of permaculture principles:

Bringing it all together in just. one. diagram. (Part Four – the Nine Spaces)

The below diagram summarises coming up to three years of publicly poking around into how permaculture design is usually defined, discussed, and practiced.

I am aware you might find it a little abstract or confusing at first. But before you head back out to the garden to harvest those spuds, I would ask you a question.

Do you really care about permaculture?

If your answer is yes, I implore you to give this diagram a chance.

Call me crazy, but I believe it has exciting implications for the future of permaculture. Indeed, I sincerely believe that the ideas it is (imperfectly) attempting to convey have significant implications for the question of whether permaculture has a future.

Okay. In the hope these grandiose phrasings have secured your attention for a few more paragraphs, let us proceed.

I have already reviewed the y axis. The y axis contrasts three ways whole-part relations can be understood within creating (or designing and implementing) processes. I call these assembling, partitioning, and transforming.

I have also reviewed the x axis. The x axis contrasts three ways designing (or thinking) can be related to implementing (or doing) inside creating processes. I call these fabricating, hybrid, and generating.

After a quick overview, I’ll now take a look at how the two axes comes together to define nine possible spaces any design process can sit within (and move amongst).

Overview and the Nine Spaces

Whenever you design and create anything, you deploy one or another conceptual framework. One or another way of framing and making sense of both what you start with, how to go about developing or changing it, where you are heading, and why you are even bothering. No matter if you’re aware of your conceptual framework. It is there.1

Though rudimentary, preliminary, incomplete, and partial, the diagram we’re here exploring contains nine possible ways of framing and going about designing and developing anything. These are like nine highly simplified conceptual frameworks or ways of framing key aspects of any creation (design and implementation) process. Let’s take each in turn, sharing a few examples to clarify the gist of each.

Three Different Kinds of Assembly

We’ll start with the bottom row, which present three different kinds of what I call assembly. Assembly is when you start with predefined separate parts and construe your job as putting them together to form a whole.

Fabricated Assembly (A1)

This would be like assembling a lego set from the plans in the box. You start with a bunch of parts to assemble, and your assembly is dictated by the pre-fabricated master plan that arrived with the box of parts. Hence the name, fabricated assembly.

Fabricated assembly is the default way that modern building developments are designed as well as engineered structures like bridges.

In a permaculture setting, fabricating assembly would be assembling the items on the client’s wish list (chicken house, pond, apple tree, compost bays etc) into a detailed master plan before implanting that plan (which is exactly what beginners are so often taught in permaculture design courses and introductory permaculture books).

As I have previously shown, the standard approach recommended in permaculture books and on permaculture courses is fabricated assembly:

…or, as a permaculture stall at a local event I attended put it:

Here is a detailed design I completed primarily using fabricated assembly: 

Hybrid Assembly (A2)

This would be like having your kid approach you with a rough hand-drawing of a planned construction which you then attempt to build, figuring out the details based on what pieces are available and the kids preferences as the thing takes shape (whether with lego or otherwise). I can’t help but include this cheesy photo which you can imagine having started with a rough (concept-level) drawing assembling a mountain, some trees, castle ruins, etc.

In a permaculture setting, this would be assembling a concept-level design diagram on paper before starting to implement the assembly on the ground, where the details would be figured out as you go along.

Here is the first example I found on the web when I googled “permaculture concept design” (thanks for sharing Deb!). While I cannot be sure, and while in places it dips into more detail than a strictly concept-level plan, it seems to me that this design is a fairly good example of what I mean by assembly or element assembly at the concept level.2

Generative Assembly (A3)

This would be like having no diagram or design at all, but simply some kind of general intention about what you’d like to make, then looking through the pile, picking up a piece of lego, then starting to build something where both the general outline of the thing and the details emerge as you go along (which might include what the thing actually even ends up being, exactly).

In a permaculture setting, this would be like getting to work on a site where you just start moving elements around, finding a connection that aligns with your general intention, then adding another element to connect in with the first two, and so on. The resulting assemblage emerges or is generating from within the creating process. This is not to say it is a haphazard or random process.

As I understand it, generative assembly (sometimes in combination with hybrid assembly) is the approach used in agile software development, where lines of code are assembled and the software product emerges from the building rather than being planned out as a whole up front.

Three Different Kinds of Partitioning

Now let’s move up to the middle row, which present three different types of what I call partitioning. Partitioning is when you start with a whole then successively partition it up into smaller and smaller parts. The word partition literally means “to divide into parts.” In this way it is the opposite to assembly, where you start with parts and end up with a whole.

Fabricating Partitioning (B1)

Here we have to move on from lego. Lego is inherently about assembly. You can’t really partition lego, apart from breaking some construction apart into the pre-defined blocks it was made from. So let us move across to origami, where you start with a whole piece of paper, then partition it (i.e., divide it into parts) by folding. Fabricating partitioning in an origami context would be like completing then following a detailed plan like this:

Or imagine fabricating partitioning as it might apply to working with the medium of play doh. You might starting with a certain sized-blob of play doh and a detailed set of instructions or plans that you follow exactly, and that say things like “first divide the blob into two equal sized bits. Now make one half into a sphere and the other into a cube. Now take the sphere and indent a line around it dividing it into two hemispheres. Now push a 1cm hole in one side of the cube using a sharp pencil” etc. Your job is to partition up the play doh according to a pre-fabricated master plan.

In a permaculture setting, fabricating partitioning would be like starting with a drawing of a whole property, then drawing a line to partition it into two sub-wholes. So for instance you might start by drawing a line to partition zone five from the other zones, or the private homestead area from the public visiting area, or some such. You then zoom into one of the freshly created areas and further partition that, and so on. What makes it fabricating is that you partition your way to a detailed design on paper before you start implementing.

In the following example completed by my colleague Adam Grubb you see how the whole site was initially partitioned into a concept-level design before then being further partitioned into details. This is what fabricated partitioning looks and feels like.

Hybrid Partitioning (B2)

This would be like having your kid approach you with a blob of play doh and a rough hand-drawing of where they’d like to take it (maybe it is a rough drawing of an elephant, for example). Using the diagram as a guide, you start moulding the material, where the details of the elephant-like shape emerge as you go along.

In permaculture setting, this would be like completing some rough, high-level partitioning of a site on paper then letting the details emerge as you implement. I have documented a couple of clear examples of hybrid partitioning permaculture design processes here and here.

Generative Partitioning (B3)

This would be like having no diagram or design at all, but simply some kind of general intention about what you’d like to make, then looking at your piece of paper or blob of play doh, making some change to it, looking at it again, making another change, and so on (the process would likely involve testing out then undoing certain changes too). Here both the general outline of the thing and the details emerge as you go along (which might include what the thing actually even ends up being, exactly).

Three Different Kinds of Transformation

Now let’s move up to the top row, which present three different types of what I call transformation.  Transformation is when you start with a whole that already has parts then iteratively modify and evolve it using many different types of actions including assembly and partitioning. In other words, transformation transcends and includes both assembly and partitioning.

Fabricated Transformation (C1)

This would be like starting with some material, such as a piece of wood. You look at the branch and you then draw up a detailed master plan of some object you’d like to make the branch into. A fishing rod, or a bow and arrow, or a flute, or whatever. You then start transforming the material (cutting bits off, adding bits on, changing the shape etc) constantly checking it against the plan and makes changes to make it closer to the plan as drawn. Below is a detailed design for a slingshot, for example:

In a permaculture setting this would be like starting with a site, drawing up a detailed master plan, then setting about gradually transforming the place toward the master plan, where sometimes you’d partition what exists, sometimes you’d add new things, sometimes you’d delete existing things, and so on. As you may have already realised, this is what actually happens in practice when we try to implement any detailed permaculture design.

Hybrid Transformation (C2)

This would be like above with the piece of wood but rather than drawing up a detailed master plan you stop at the concept design level. Then as you transform the wood’s shape and size you both steer what you’re creating toward the concept design and let the details emerge as you go along. Let’s say you started with a rough sketch of a hedge hog then made a start where these details emerged as you went along:

In a permaculture setting this would be like getting a concept design together then starting to actively transform the space, where the details come out in the wash. I have documented a clear example of hybrid transformation here. Below is a concept sketch followed by a photo of the details as they emerged in the process of implementing the concept design:

Generative Transformation (C3)

Coming back to our piece of wood, let us say you set out to make something, and rather than figuring out what this something is up front, you just start modifying it. You cut this bit off. You whittle this bit down. And so on. A beautiful little something emerges. This bowl, for instance, could surely only have emerged from a process of generative transformation, where at every step of the process the next step was decided on then and there, based on what was right in the moment, and where any pre-existing plans either never existed or were thrown away.

As I write this I vividly recall a very similar (if much rougher and amateur) example I once experienced. I was helping a friend cut down some large silver wattle (Acacia dealbata) trees next to his creek in NZ. One of the larger trees felled, I was about to start lopping the log up into rounds of firewood. It then occurred to me it would be fun to craft, with the chainsaw, some sort of useful object – possibly a piece of outdoor furniture. I cut off a large length. I looked at it. The idea of a little seat arose. I cut out a seat shape. The result rolled back and forward too much to make a seat, so I fashioned some supports out of the offset from the seat bit, and used them to support the seat. I then noticed the lack of back support, so I used the final bits of left over wood to notch in and add two little backrests. The outcome was rough but beautiful and both utterly un-expected and perfect. My friend later said that as I was crafting the thing I had a huge smile and looked like a kid at play. Here I was not merely assembling. I was not merely partitioning. I was doing both and more. Nor was there any plan, conceptual or details. There was only my intention to have fun working the material and see what happened.

In a permaculture setting, generative transformation was at play when David Holmgren decided to start building a shed on top of the spot where materials had found themselves being stored (as opposed to his and Su Dennet’s house the design of which David fabricated off site).

I have shared one clear example of generative transformation in a permaculture setting here. The below photo conveys something of the forms that were generated without any prior whole-site concept plan or detailed design in hand.


Hopefully this post has shared how the focal diagram actually does correspond to different ways it is possible to go about creating (or designing and implementing) anything. In this next post, I’ll share some ways that the diagram can be used to diagnose the centre of gravity and trajectory of an individual designer, of an individual project, and of permaculture (or any culture, for that matter) as a whole.

Hope to catch some of you then, and if you have any inclination please do make a comment below.


A mini-conversation with Jason Gerhardt

Hey all, for reasons I’m sure will be obvious I’ve decided to promote this insightful comment on the last post from Jason Gerhardt into a post. Meantime, the blog will be coming back to life soon, and I can’t wait to start rolling out the next leg of the MPS journey come 2019. In my humble opinion, we’ve nearly completed our warm-up exercises and things are about to start getting interesting :-). Over to Jason with my reply below:

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).

And my reply:

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 reallywant (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 proceed1 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 are more accurately construed as contemporary aspects inside a healthy process (where the usual understanding of what defines the line where design stops and implementation starts becomes completely redefined). 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 well said (and could become the beginning of a whole thread in itself!):

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, are in spirit and practice 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!


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

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.


Bringing it all together in just. one. diagram. (Part Two of Five)

The last post introduced this weird and possibly confusing little diagram:1

The diagram frames a pathway from more conventional design processes toward what I believe permaculture is deep down really about. The conventional starting point I’m calling fabricated assembly. The radical alternative the diagram invites us toward is what I call generative transformation.

Generative transformation is really good stuff. I believe permaculture and generative transformation are meant to be together, just like orchid and wasp, legume and rhizobia, or carbon and nitrogen in the perfect compost. Indeed, I’d argue that generative transformation is in play when any permaculture project really shines.

Which leads us to a question.

WTF is Generative Transformation?

Generative transformation refers to the top-right section in the diagram.

Breaking it down, there’s the generative (or generating) piece and the transformation (or transforming) piece. Let’s start with transformation (and what it is an alternative to). We’ll come back to the meaning of generative in the next post.


Consider the three options along the y-axis of the diagram. Starting with A. Assembling, we move to B. Partitioning, culminating in C. Transforming. I’ll here introduce and explain each as different approach to creating – as in bringing forth new form in the world.

A. Creating by Assembling

From an assembling perspective, how you go about creating (which includes both designing and implementing) is easy: choose some elements then join them into whole systems. Start with parts, stick them together and hey presto, there’s your whole!

So for example you might get a wishlist of desired elements such as pond, chook house, windbreak, and veggie patch and then figure out how to best insert and connect them to create a whole permaculture garden.

A chronic risk with this approach is that in its focus on inserting and arranging elements, it is all too easy to impose solutions (“let’s put the swale here, and then the herb spiral can go there”), even if you don’t realise that is what you are doing.

The upshot is this: When we define and apply permaculture design in this way, as we permaculturalists so widely have, what we are aiming to create, and hence what we do create is assemblages of elements.

B. Creating by Partitioning

As I showed in an early articleliving systems are not assemblages of elements. Indeed, this culturally and permaculturally widespread assembly approach flies in the face of how any living organism comes into being. It was Christopher Alexander that woke me up to this fact:

Design is often thought of as a process of synthesis, a process of putting together things, a process of combination.

According to this view, a whole is created by putting together parts. The parts come first: and the form of the whole comes second.

But it is impossible to form anything which has the character of nature by adding preformed parts (Alexander, 1979, p. 368)

Alexander shows that contrary to viewing design as an assembling process, it is more accurate to say that a person’s parts or organs unfold out of the growing whole cell, embryo, foetus, where the whole comes first and the parts come second.

Taking Alexander’s words at face value, I conducted and documented several practical design examples (here is one and here another) where the whole design process was explicitly about moving from pattern toward detail and gradually partitioning the preexisting whole landscape.

So for instance you might start with an entire backyard, partition it into orchard and veggie areas, then partition the veggie area into annuals and perennials, and so on, right down to where the parsley goes.

One advantage of this approach, alongside more closely mimicking how the rest of life creates itself, is it requiring that you pay more attention to the pre-existing whole you are working with. The risk of imposing pre-formed solutions2 is thus significantly reduced. Hence it being midway on the continuum from less and more life enhancing.3

C. Creating by Transforming

Eventually, after many years designing by assembling, then having played around with designing by partitioning up the whole, the penny dropped for me. Alexander was not talking about flipping from assembling (joining parts into wholes) to partitioning (dividing wholes into parts). This is a false dichotomy. Following in Alexander’s footsteps,4 I now use the words transforming and transformation as a bigger and more inclusive process than merely assembling or partitioning.

Transformation as Seeing

Wrapped up inside what I mean by transforming is a whole different way of seeing what is, let alone doing something with it. This different way of seeing I might call deep systems thinking,5 or even a kind of field theory. I am just starting to really experience this way of seeing personally, which I believe we can all continue to get better at.6

It starts with clarity on two basic terms: whole and part. When it comes to living systems, you cannot have a part unless it is part of a whole. Similarly, there is no such thing as a whole without parts. The two words imply and need each other to make any sense.

What this means for transformation as a way of seeing is that you cannot merely start with the parts and then eventually arrive at the whole (the assembling approach). Conversely, you cannot merely start with the whole and then drill down into the parts (the partitioning approach). As much of a head f@#$ it is for the modern, linear, mechanically-oriented mind to grasp (it is perhaps easier to start by trying to experience this that than to intellectually understand it), whenever you delve into a part, you are going directly into and toward the whole. If this wasn’t true, that thing wouldn’t be a part! Likewise, whenever you are delving deeper into the whole, you are going directly into and toward the parts.7

When I observe David Holmgren reading landscape, for instance, this is exactly what I see him doing. As he reads from a small stone into the geology of the whole site, or from the lean on the trees into dominant wind patterns, he is moving toward the part and toward the whole in one and the same act.

I wont push my luck here any further, but I would love to hear if it resonates with anyone else’s experiences and experiments and I did want to convey that there is a lot of depth in this notion of transformation even if only as an authentically holistic way of seeing.8

Transformation as Doing

When we approach what we do in this way,9 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. Yes, it is hard to disagree, I know, and it seems blatantly obvious when I say it. But here’s the thing. Even though we might intellectually grasp and agree with this stuff, the way we then behave as designers and creators very often disagrees with it.10 As much as we might like the sound of this, it is very hard not to fall back into the culturally dominant design-by-imposing-and-assembling rut when the rubber hits the road (as Tom alludes to in this comment).

I use transformation to transcend and include the seemingly contradictory approaches of assembling and partitioning. To transform is to start, always, with a whole that already has parts. Every whole landscape already has parts. Every whole person already has parts. When we surf or dance or co-participate in the evolution of either, the whole and the parts are moving forward together, simultaneously.11

Permaculture is Transformation

Permaculture is never about starting something brand new, or with a blank slate, and dropping something entirely new into a space or place. It is always about stewarding the ongoing transformation of what is already there. In this sense, we are only ever retrofitting what we already have. For there is always, everywhere, something already going on. Which is to say there is already a whole, which already has parts. Our job is to listen to the narrative already unfolding inside any situation, then to harmonise with it and where appropriate perturb it in life-enhancing directions.

When we are in the process of practicing permaculture, furthermore, we are both tuning into and honouring aspects of the pre-existing whole situation, as well as changing some of these aspects. What we are doing, therefore, is simultaneously conservative and creative.12 Transformation in the sense I use it here always includes both.

Tabular Recap

The following table recaps the three-way distinction between assembling, partitioning and transforming. I hope it helps and that you are getting a feel for the distinction and if and how it might shed light on how you see and work with things.


Hopefully this idea of transformation and how it differs from both assembling and partitioning has landed clearly. In the next post we’ll focus on the x-axis and what is meant by the progression from a fabricating through a hybrid to a fully generative approach to designing and implementing.

Meantime, if you’ve any inclination whatsoever, please do leave a comment sharing your honest impressions.


Alexander, C. (1979). The Timeless Way of Building. Oxford University Press

Bortoft, Henri. The Wholeness of Nature : Goethe’s Way Toward a Science of Conscious Participation in Nature. Lindisfarne, 1996.


Bringing it all together in just. one. diagram. (Part One of Five)

The following diagram is a hyper-condensed summary of over two years, 80 posts and 70,000 words worth of this blog’s assorted ramblings about permaculture design. In this three-post series, I’ll try and explain the framework or set of distinctions it shares and what it might (fingers crossed!) have to do with permaculture’s future. 

For those of you who are just passing by, please at least read this one sentence summary:

For the rest of you, thanks for sticking around, and let’s commence a less rushed second pass through a significant moment (and milestone!) in the history of making permaculture stronger. I’ll set the scene with a metaphor.


One way to sum up this project would be to say it’s been an attempt at something like an acupuncture needle. As I understand it, the idea behind such needles goes something like this. First, you start by carefully observing the patient. Then,1 if you stick the right needle in the right place, in the right way, and to the right depth, you can catalyse something good. You can free up blocked or stagnating energy. You can boost the patient toward vibrance and health.

In my own clumsy, sporadic, and making-it-up-as-I-go-along way, I have been trying my hand at sticking a needle into permaculture. Does this imply I think permaculture has scope for more vibrance and health? It surely does. Furthermore, after years of observing and interacting and thinking and feeling and doing and being I’ve decided to focus my energy (and my needle) on the part of permaculture called design process.2

Please don’t switch off when you hear the word design. Part of my aim is to get across that permaculture is about so much more than design in its conventional sense of making clever drawings before we act.

To me, permaculture is an invitation back and forward into a radically retrofitted way of being and doing humanity. Yet I believe that there is one primary blockage or barrier to permaculture realising its power and potential in this broader sense: the lack of a deep and shared understanding of what it is we’re talking about when we’re talking about design process.

Hence my repeated needling of design process as it is currently understood within permaculture. While the jury is out on whether my efforts will have any lasting value, I have been encouraged by the ratio of appreciative murmurs to pained yelps from the patient :-).

This framework I’m unveiling here has come from my experience of having stuck a couple of different needles into different aspects of permaculture design process.

The diagram introduces and suggests a name for a space that I believe is permaculture’s core business, home territory or primary purpose. While no doubt the language can be improved, I’m tentatively calling this space generative transformation. As we’ll see, generative transformation is a way of going about doing or creating anything, be it a garden, farm, organisation, livelihood, or life.


The diagram and the framework it conveys is intended to be like a new and improved acupuncture needle. It is intended to be conducive to permaculture’s good health. These current posts are an attempt to stick this deeper and more comprehensive needle into permaculture and to wriggle it around a little.

Aside from explaining the diagram’s innards, I’ll be arguing that to the extent it identifies with the bottom-left part of the diagram (what I call fabricated assembly) permaculture diminishes its potential. The invitation and the challenge of this framework is actively exploring pathways toward the top-right. Toward generatively transforming whole systems in life-enhancing directions.3

In the next post, I’ll get stuck into a detailed explanation.4


Talking Permaculture and Design Thinking with Gordon from Rune Soup

Thanks to Gordon White for a fascinating chat I look forward to continuing in future. As Gordon put it on his release page:

This week we welcome to the show permaculture designer and theorist, Dan Palmer. Dan is the host of the podcast, Making Permaculture Stronger, where he facilitates fascinating discussions on what’s right and what’s wrong with permaculture and where it might be headed next. And the tl;dr is that what’s wrong with permaculture is, in the main, what’s wrong with everything else.

So we have a great discussion on the theory of design in general, the shortcomings of western categorisations and their dualist implications and, somewhat improbably, merging with a chicken.

It’s a truly fantastic chat. Download the episode directly here or listen along on YouTube above.

Also some really interesting comments have shown up on that release page too. I reproduce this one from Haig only in that it is not so often that you see Alfred North Whitehead and Bruce Lee referenced in the same paragraph!

As a Processian (Processist?), I’m compelled to at least chime in with a word of approval anytime Whitehead is mentioned! Whitehead moved into philosophy and formulated his metaphysics out of the failure of trying to mechanize mathematics; he saw deep and far what the implications of that failure really meant, and the metaphysics that came out of his searches just so happens to have rediscovered so much of what ancient esoteric traditions have been telling us all along. It’s a shame contemporary science and philosophy have ignored him (and them).

From this “flow model” as you call it, we see why the design process is irreplaceable, we can’t just shut up and calculate our way into new modes of being, the edge of the process wave is pure creative potential that refuses to be tamed into a deterministic mechanism until it’s settled past the peak into the trough. This design process at the edge of reality is formless, and does not submit to a particular style, it’s what Bruce Lee aspired to, form without form, style without style, when creating his martial arts system Jeet Kune Do. I bring Lee up because he was in the same situation, birthing a system that aimed to detach itself from all the rest that came before it by pruning away the built-up detritus which was constricting potential. Jeet Kune Do never became too popular, it was more of a conceptual success than a practical one, but it did help create the mixed martial arts movement, a fighting system that has seen enormous success, mainly because it eschews theories and styles for what actually works, and that is only known through real-world feedback and interaction.

Feedback and interaction over a priori theory points us back to an intellectual movement in science which can be viewed as a parallel to Whitehead’s work in philosophy called cybernetics, but, as with Whitehead, it’s become all but forgotten except for the superficial pop culture prefix cyber. Cybernetics uses a flow-model of science (though still mostly materialistic) and prioritizes pragmatism over theorizing (except when trying to theorize pragmatism!). You really can never remove theory completely, even if it’s just a sublingual intuition, or a subconscious drive, theory is the membrane surrounding our ordered mental model, keeping it safe from the chaos of the environment. The problem with theory, like all problems of extremes, is when it is too undeveloped or too calcified, the trick is to remain balanced, to be semipermeable (as nature understands), and to have it evolve ecologically.

I guess then the proper advice, it would seem, is Bruce Lee’s admonition to “become like water my friend.”

What is Design, Anyway?

I wanted to bring together a bit of recent facebook discussion about what design is and what design might have to do with permaculture.

What is Design?

First up, this question was recently posted on the MPS facebook page:

A question. What does the word “design” connote for you? How would you answer a child who asked you what it was?

Here are the different comments folk were kind enough to contribute (gratitude!):

Linnet Good: Making deliberate decisions about how to create something.

Melissa Chambers: Got to say I don’t dislike the dictionary definition [see pic below]. But for me it is more about creativity and personality.

Ivanka AustralianaYou spend time figuring out how you want everything to look and function… use your plan to complete your mission

Marguerite de Mosa: Christopher Alexander

Renee Kelcey: Making a plan for how to do something

Greg O’Keefe: A design (noun) is a model or description of something that could be created. Design (verb) is the act of producing a design. The design (adjective) of something is its abstract form, whether or not it was created according to an explicit design (And yes, I would give that answer to a child. I’m not very good with kids)

Justine Taylor: Form + function…… or aesthetic + function: same. Sometimes function is more important (e.g office desk chair) sometimes form/aesthetic is (e.g Ghost Chair by Phillipe Stark). Either way ‘design’ is the combination of both!

Meg McGowan: I hand them an egg beater and a whisk and ask them what they think these tools could be used for. I would then have a conversation with them about why you wouldn’t just use a fork to do the same job. This would lead into a conversation about how design involves creating some kind of benefit for someone, or it solves some kind of problem. Then would ask them to look around them and see if they can find anything that someone else might have designed. They would probably start with the obvious, and ultimately realise that every single human-made thing or system has been designed by a person or a group of people.
Kids get to ‘everything human made’ faster than adults but the epiphany is just as much fun. 

Then I would have a conversation with them about what makes for a good design and what makes for a bad design

My other fun activity is to ask people to describe any system they own; the way they organise their kitchen, wardrobe, school bag, back pack, swag….
Why did they choose this particular pattern rather than another? What other patterns might they have chosen? Did they spend time intentionally designing a pattern or did they allow a pattern to evolve over time? Or do they just have a random collection with no design? What are the pros and cons of these three alternatives (while acknowledging that some people use a combination of two or three and inviting comment on other patterns). Did anyone choose a pattern based on something they have observed in nature? 

This exercise is about teaching people system design and it’s also about helping them to recognise that they are already designers. For those that struggle to identify a physical thing, like a wardrobe, their morning routine is a good standby. Why do they do things in that order and not another? What are the benefits of having an established pattern and what are the benefits of breaking it?

With very little kids I ask “Why does a toothbrush look like a toothbrush?”
They are brilliant at this.
“It needs the hairy bit to hold the toothpaste and rub my teeth”
“It needs the handle so I can get to the back of my mouth”
“It needs the scraper so I can scrape my tongue clean”
What do you think people used before they had toothbrushes?
Is a toothbrush better? Why?

Jenny Kato: An activity of thinking, imagining and testing to create something so that it is useful, practical, beautiful, economic and able to be made.

Raye Hodgson: A picture of how it looks when it is just right.

Hans E. Deern: a drawing of the Place where your deepest dreams come true

Tim Hill: A design is kind of like an imaginary friend….

Mirla Lacen de Murillo: A design is the choices you make to place everything in the most perfect place. And the more education the more perfect the design 

Stephanie Mette Harbo: In a broad sense, design connotes to me an overall scheme that pertains to evaluating and intentionally adding value to an entire project or area

With regard to Permaculture, Design involves creativity to incorporate visual interest or appeal with practical or functional accessibility; consideration of past, present and future uses; knowledge of logistics and installation, not to mention working with time or budgetary limits

Is Design Process a sensible Focus for Permaculture?

In April 2018, David Holmgren was asked “What is the most important question you think permaculture should be asking itself over the next few years?” Here is how he started his reply.
Well in that most general sense, in the sense of what is universal – what should permaculture collectively be asking – I think it is a deeper and hopefully more shared understanding of design process.
In subsequently sharing the longer reply on facebook I was fascinated by two comments which, on the face of things, expressed strong resistance to David’s suggestion. I think both are useful indications of deeper issues or themes with permaculture and in particular with its relation to design process. See what you reckon!:

Peter Brandis: It’s a pity that the answer is so limited to the design process (but so is Making Permaculture Stronger I guess, so it’s understandable). As Rafter Sass Ferguson wrote somewhere (I recall) that permaculture is a combination of a design system, best practice framework, worldview, and movement (and I know people disagree with this, incl Toby Hemenway, and others). But if permaculture is more than design, why focus on just the design aspect? Why not (for example) talk about the question of a movement (to overthrow the industrial, consumptive, degrading way of life), or the shift required in a worldview to reach a more regenerative way of life? Or why not focus on getting a definition (of permaculture) we can all agree with? After all after 40 years or so, we are no closer to having a generally agreed definition of permaculture, and we have myriad definitions. Why isn’t there a push to redesign the PDC /education process? There’s so many important “questions (the) permaculture (movement) should be asking itself over the next few years.”

Stephen Bailes: I feel that this obsession with the design process will yield very little in the way of fruit . What is really needed is a better understanding of the processes operating within the systems that we are trying to design . Observing systems and their associated functional processes can be tricky in real time which is why we want to understand patterns . Observable patterns are the current manifestation / state of the system at the moment of observation. These may change over time when observed from the same location . Designs tend to be for a designated place and its fixed boundaries and as such cannot ” follow” the pattern . So over time at a given location patterns will change . We need to know the current state of the system into which we are trying to apply our new design , not easy I would suggest . Any implementation of a new design is a in effect a pertubation within the old system which in itself may have ” moved on ” , no longer bounded by the design constraints . Have we any idea how the new combined system will react ? Does the design process reflect any of these ideas ?

Brendan Morse: this is exactly what David means by focusing on the process. an appropriate and mature design process will ensure that this observation, in relation to local contexts, doesn’t get ignored.

Stephen Bailes: I am not sure that we are talking about the same thing here or not . This for me demonstrates fully the dilemma that we face , are we suffering from some kind of equivocation here . Are we saying that there is a direct one to one relationship between the words “design process” and ” natural process ” . For sure they are both processes and permaculture plays within the same domain as natural processes . Are we suggesting that the design process goes on in the same physical and mental space as the natural processes ? I think generally this is not the case and that designs are imposed upon a space and that the design processes goes on else where . 

Lets say though that for the sake of argument David did mean that the two ideas were one of the same we are still in difficulties . That is the number of agents involved . The designer is but one person maybe two at most . Complex systems are made up of countless numbers of agents. Do these other agents have a say in the design side of things ? If we say that they do , then their ” democratic ” agency should overwhelm the will of the the permaculture designer . This is can often be the case , the system turns wild. 

So I am not sure that we can bunch the two processes under the one roof. The designer in the permaculture sense becomes an observer of natural processes , a learner , a ” taker in-er ” . The question then remains is this what we would call design in any normal meaning of the word ? There has to be a difference and that difference has to be explicit . This takes me back to my opening line. 

Are we talking about the same thing ?

Spiced Gora: Stephen Bailes by and large, your first comment seems to discuss things that I feel would by most be considered part of design process

Regarding your second comment, much of the dialogue within the first inquiries of MPS to date has been about exploring evolving design process toward something that more authentically mimics natural creation processes – one the more wholesomely mitigates the imposition that you mention