By Finn Mackesy and Gary Marshall
This blog post started as a comment on Dan’s first blog post reviewing and critiquing our Design Process Primer and evolved into a more detailed and complete response. We asked Dan if we could post it as an article on his blog and he agreed – great!
To start off we are hugely grateful for the time, effort, rigour and passion with which Dan is driving the conversation about permaculture and ‘design’. We think a lot about design and are grateful someone else has taken the time to provide reflective feedback on our current attempt to capture our understanding of a robust and high quality design process. The fact that Dan is going through this with such a fine tooth comb – “a thorough going over” – is brilliant and we hope it continues to generate reflective critical dialogue, refine and hone our own thinking and understanding of design and contribute to Making Permaculture Stronger (MPS).
We have tried to keep our response confined specifically to Dan’s critique, however we do go off track in few places to try and link in other aspects of design theory and practice that we think might be of interest and value to the ‘Making Permaculture Stronger’ initiative.
To finish a long winded introduction we want to emphasise the purpose of the design primer. We designed the primer as a high level, loose fit guide to the design process for the purpose of applying it to a wide range of design challenges and contexts. We designed it for ourselves as design practitioners trying to work across a range of fields and as a resource for our design education and training work. It is Instrumental Theory1 which attempts to generalize and codify knowledge as a basis for practical action and is derived from empirical observation and practical experience.
At this point it’s probably worth mentioning that we agree with most of the comments Dan made in his previous post reflecting on our Design Process Primer and appreciated his insights about design based on the introductory quotes and introduction. So with that said let’s get into it…
Design involves more than creating something that never existed before
Healthy design is about creating new stuff. Yes, it usually is. But it is also about conserving and enhancing old stuff. Both matter, as flipsides of the same coin.(Dan Palmer, )
We find it hard to disagree with this observation. Dan’s observations about the third quote2 resonate and we particularly like the Christopher Alexander quote – we hope you don’t mind if we use this :-).
With that out of the way we will respond to the following points raised in Dan’s critique:
- Defining Design
- Design is More than a Cognitive Practice
- Design is More than Just Problem Solving
Design is basic to all human activities – the placing and patterning of any act towards a desired goal constitutes a design process. (Victor Papanek, 1972, p. 23)
Victor Papanek was one of our first introductions to ‘conscious’ and ‘ethical’ design and we have held his definition of design core to our design practice and our permaculture training programme. While we have not returned to his work in some time it might be worth noting that this definition reflects Herbert Simon’s well known and much earlier definition of design.
Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. (Herbert Simon, 1969, c. 1).3
Loosely speaking in the 60s there emerged in the western understanding and conception of design two distinct schools of thought. One of these is linked directly to Christopher Alexander and his focus on ‘physical’ form and outcomes as the focus of design and the other to Herbert Simon and his focus on design process and the desire for ‘improvement’ as the focus of design.
The tension between these two conceptions of design remains evident today and informs the discussion about design thinking. On the one hand, following Alexander’s thesis, designers give form to things; they are privileged makers whose work is centrally concerned with materiality. This is the tradition of craft and professional design fields that create specific kinds of objects, from furniture, to buildings, to clothing. Simon, on the other hand, suggests that designers’ work is abstract; their job is to create a desired state of affairs. This way of thinking about design is the core of all professions, not just the work of engineers and designers of artifacts. (From Kimbell, L. 2011. Rethinking Design Thinking: Part I. In Design and Culture – Vol. 3, Issue 3. United Kingdom.)
This raises one of the challenges we might put to Making Permaculture Stronger. While we feel Alexander has much to contribute to quality design, we have a concern that there are potential unconscious and unintended impacts of over-emphasising or biasing Christopher Alexander’s design process which, in our judgement, assumes ‘form’ as the inevitable outcome of design. As Mr. Alexander states in the first sentence of Notes on Synthesis of Form:
These notes are about the process of design; the process of inventing physical things which display new physical order, organisation, from, in response to function (Christopher Alexander, 1964, p. 1)
For us (and in a fair bit of our work) ‘design’ outcomes are not focused on ‘form’. If permaculture design is about more than physical form (which we feel it definitely is) we need a broader conception of design and design process than we feel Alexander provides and we feel Simon, and design ‘thinkers’ that follow in his footsteps, such as Victor Papanek contribute significantly to our understanding of design and design process and we feel it has much to offer permaculture design.
Through our work we teach design and work with a wide range of ‘novice’/beginner designers who have no experience with a conscious design process in any shape or form. In this context we find that an easy to understand, structured approach to ‘creative problem solving’ (see below for more discussion on this term) is an effective way to bring people on board and engage in design process. In this light, we think of Christopher Alexander’s work as fairly esoteric and more suitable for an ‘advanced’ audience, or people who at least have some exposure and experience with design process.
We mention this now as it feels like Dan’s recent ‘unpacking’ of design process has shone light into the over-emphasis on the head/rational function of design at the expense of a whole-person approach using all of our senses (see below for more detail) and it would be of equal value (we feel) to explore the emphasis permaculture design (and design more broadly) places on form at the expense of non-material/physical design outcomes or achievements.
Design Is More Than a Cognitive Practice
Healthy design involves rational, conscious operations. Yes, surely. But it also involves a sound dose of the pre or sub or nonconscious/non-rational (including the emotional). Both matter. (Dan Palmer, 2018)
We agree with Dan’s criticism that the title of Design Thinking (DT) reveals a predisposition to cognitive design processes at the detriment of using other senses to inform the process and outcomes. There are several other issues we have with DT (that we will not get into here4) but it also has much to contribute to help evolve contemporary design theory and practice. For one thing, as Dan alludes to in his blog, it explicitly focuses on those being impacted by the design. For example, DT5 is explicit in its adoption of empathy as a core design principle and practice, which as far as we understand is unique in the design world.6
As a side note, the Hasso-Plattner model presented in the link Dan shared in his previous post about DT is only one of many DT process models. DT does not, like most other design ‘disciples’, have a defined or agreed process so while the link he provided is a reasonable introduction to DT, there are many alternative interpretations.
Despite its name Design Thinking deliberately attempts to move beyond the purely cognitive/mental realm of design and promotes a more holistic approach to design than is typical today – moving us closer to design as ‘a way of being’. One way in which DT, and related practices in the field of social innovation,7 achieve this is through the explicit attempt to make design less about something professional designers do (almost magically or mysteriously and often removed from the design context) and more about something all of us can practice in our day-to-day lives. However, this isn’t a Mollisonian ‘with a whole lot of information and a Permaculture Design Certificate you are now qualified to go out and redesign the world’, but a more genuine attempt to make design less about designing ‘solutions’ for people and more about designing interventions and conscious experimenting with people. We think quality design often includes empowering stakeholders to be a part of the process through collaborative, participatory or ‘co-design’ processes. This is another reason why at Resilio we value the likes of Herbert Simon, Victor Papanek as well as Design Thinking – they have all contributed to helping reframe design away from a purely professional practice, to an everyday ‘way of being’ and collaborative practice.
Design is More Than Just Problem Solving
the two frames, problem-solving and potential-realising, are both valid and useful but of a different logical type. The former sits at a lower and subsidiary level to the latter. … it is about moving from solving problems to enabling potential… In other words when we move our frame from problem solving to asking what is possible here, and we focus fully on the potential for supporting a given system in activating or expressing its essence or approaching its own singularity or distinctiveness. … Healthy design solves problems. Yes, but only in service of the deeper problem (or, if you insist, meta-problem) of activating essence / enabling potential. Both matter. (Dan Palmer, 2018)
Dan makes some very interesting observations and we agree in principle that the higher ‘goal’ of design is enabling potential and agree that it should be the ends to which all design aspires. We often talk about exploring unreleased opportunities in our work (but this is not captured in our Design Primer).8 However Carol Sanford’s phrasing is much more eloquent and insightful and captures a deeper structure that design can draw on.
However, we have a degree of hesitation / caution about focusing on potential. It concerns issues about understanding potential in the broader interpretation of design and, at the risk of coming across pessimistic, setting false expectations.
Enabling Potential – The potential of what and according to whom?
How is the potential understood? From a purely rational perspective, the potential of some design outcomes can be precisely determined, for example, from the laws of thermodynamics we can determine the optimum transformation of solar energy to electricity, which can be calculated, and stated matter of fact in advance. The potential of a landscape for another example, which involves ‘natural’ and ‘cultural’ practices involve phenomena that can be objectively evaluated through observation and mapping of existing characteristics and processes, historical events etc., to help determine the potential ‘climax’ ecology. However a wide range of other inputs need to be considered including subjective perception and sensing of the landscape as well as values and behaviours of the people who interact with it. The point here is that the concept of potential very quickly becomes subjective and relative. Said another way, understanding the potential of a place, person, thing etc. becomes increasingly more subjective (and intangible) when the subject of design shifts from purely objective like the solar example cited above toward more subjective phenomena such as a building, a public space, an object, a transition initiative, a business start up or a local currency.
As an example of one of the ways we approach this challenge in our work is through the creation of a ‘vision’ or more accurately a ‘shared vision’ to full the space for the project potential.
Visions become responsible through all sort of processes. The best one I know is sharing it with other people who bring in their knowledge, their points of view, and their visions. The more a vision is shared, the more responsible it gets, and also the more ethical (Donella Meadows, 1994)
How you might go about developing a shared vision is a topic for another day and we assume that this is a small part of the space Dan will be covering when he gets to his series on Holistic Management – Dan? Finally, and particularly with design in the sociosphere9 a shared vision often holds the space of the project potential and like a vision, in an unknown unfolding process, the potential should be ‘held lightly’ allowing it to evolve, adapt and respond to change.
Enabling Potential – Understanding potential in the context of complex adaptive systems
The observation that design must do more than simply solve problems is also a good reminder that that we don’t just face problems, we also face a wide range of ‘predicaments’ or wicked problems10 that don’t really have solutions only trade-offs and responses. Using the adaptive cycle (also known by many other names11) as a framework, from our perspective it depends both of the type of context/system you are working in as well as where in the adaptive cycle that system is at as to whether potential or problem should be of greater focus or importance. Before we go any further here we might just pause and give those that aren’t familiar with the model a quick overview from the Resilience Alliance:
For ecosystem and social-ecological system dynamics that can be represented by an adaptive cycle, four distinct phases have been identified:
- growth or exploitation (r)
- conservation (K)
- collapse or release (omega ?)
- reorganization (alpha ?)
The adaptive cycle exhibits two major phases (or transitions). The first, often referred to as the foreloop, from r to K, is the slow, incremental phase of growth and accumulation. The second, referred to as the backloop, from Omega to Alpha, is the rapid phase of reorganization leading to renewal.
During the slow sequence from exploitation to conservation, connectedness and stability increase and a capital of nutrients and biomass (in ecosystems) is slowly accumulated and sequestered. Competitive processes lead to a few species becoming dominant, with diversity retained in residual pockets preserved in a patchy landscape. While the accumulated capital is sequestered for the growing, maturing ecosystem, it also represents a gradual increase in the potential for other kinds of ecosystems and futures. For an economic or social system, the accumulating potential could as well be from the skills, networks of human relationships, and mutual trust that are incrementally developed and tested during the progression from r to K. Those also represent a potential developed and used in one setting, that could be available in transformed ones.
Adaptive cycles are nested in a hierarchy across time and space which helps explain how adaptive systems can, for brief moments, generate novel recombinations that are tested during longer periods of capital accumulation and storage. These windows of experimentation open briefly, but the results do not trigger cascading instabilities of the whole because of the stabilizing nature of nested hierarchies. In essence, larger and slower components of the hierarchy provide the memory of the past and of the distant to allow recovery of smaller and faster adaptive cycles. A nested hierarchy of adaptive cycles represents a panarchy.
Using this model to illustrate, in exploitation or re-organisation stages a focus on potential makes a great deal of sense as the potential for system change is much greater. During the release or potentially even conservation stages focusing on problem solving is likely more appropriate. Furthermore the type of system and where in the life cycle of that system you are designing will impact significantly on the potential of that system which can in some contexts literally change day to day. In a complex system the potential is dynamic, constantly evolving and often practically elusive which makes designing for potential practically implausible.
Put another way, the nature of complex systems suggest that a system has to be ready for change. A good example of this is the Occupy movement, the so called Arab Spring, ‘Brexit’ and the election of Donald Trump – all social phenomena that have emerged out of a complex system at a particular time during the system’s cycle. The occupy movement was a response to the GFC and we don’t see any evidence of a similar international movement emerging until another similar event creates the condition for that potential to be realised.
To conclude we will attempt to improve on our working understanding of design by ‘misquoting’ the original IDEO description of design we use in the Design Primer:
Design is a process, a way of engaging the mind, the body and the suite of human senses, in effect it is a ‘way of being’. ‘Being’ like a designer can transform the way you approach the world when presencing the potential, creating new solutions or responses, and exploring new opportunities and emergent potentials for the future: it’s about being aware of the world around you, believing that you play a role in shaping that world, and taking action toward a more desirable future. Design gives you faith in your creative abilities, a way of immersing yourself in a particular context to provide clarity and insight, and a process to take action through when faced with a difficult challenge / new opportunity or releasing latent enabling potential
We also just wanted to offer a quick response to the following excerpt, which didn’t fit cleanly into the other observations Dan offered.
Actually let me start by ensuring you make the connection between my earlier observation about the inherent issues with defining the phases of a design process as what strike me as purely rational operations (defining, analysing, generating concepts, evolving ideas…) (Dan Palmer, 2018)
We agree there is an issue with an overly rational approach to design. However our experiences and observations suggest, as noted above, that framing design as a sequence of phases (that don’t always occur in a linear or even logical sequence) is an effective way of helping people with a wide range of understanding and experiences to grasp the core insight that design is a process rather than the drawing, plan, building, garden, artifact etc.
An analogy might be useful – Design can be thought of a little like a journey from one place to another. Whether you plan it completely in advance or you just go where the wind takes you, you will inevitably have a beginning, a middle and end to that journey. Let’s focus on the emotional experience of the journey here – the excitement and anticipation typically experienced at the start, the doubt, feeling ‘out on a limb’ and out of one’s comfort zone might be typical of one’s emotional field somewhere in the middle, particularly if this is a journey you’ve not made before, and the sense of gratitude, achievement, completion or increased wisdom or growth that might happen at the end are all part of a wider pattern of journeying. While everyone may not experience all of those things along the way, recognizing that there are typical stages on a journey and anticipating what one might experience at different stages can be quite useful for novice and seasoned travellers alike. And let’s face it, some of us travel better than others, so trying to learn from the patterns that emerge out of other people’s journey and even mimic those who travel well seems like a useful thing to do. This is the value we see in attempting to map out the journey of design and recognise the predictable patterns and stages along the way. Furthermore, our cultural predisposition to using our heads as the primary means to reflect, make meaning, and capture insights and understanding means that it is almost inevitable that our design models will bias rational operations to map the journey of design.
Finally, we thought it might be useful to highlight that we don’t believe any diagram or collection of diagrams is going to capture the potential depth and richness of the design process and that individually and collectively, the different visual representations of the design process are only ever going to highlight parts of the process. With this in mind, we want to share two additional design process diagrams that aren’t captured in the Design Primer that we think have merit:
Design as an ongoing process which is a hybrid between the method Christopher Alexander’ maps in his book Notes on the Synthesis of Form and a design thinking model. We also like the clear visual reference to the infinity symbol and the adaptive cycle. Thanks for the link Dan!
And this one – we don’t know the original source of this diagram however it does seem to resonate with many people’s experience of the design process.
- This is opposed to Critical Theory which resists and challenges taken for granted ways of thinking and puts forward alternatives, of which Making Permaculture Stronger is a great example, and Interpretive Theory – which is intended to help better understand a situation without necessarily changing it.
- “design is an interactive, imaginative process for creating something that has never existed before”. Birkeland, J. (2008). Positive development: From vicious circles to virtuous cycles through built environment design. London UK: Earthscan.
- As a side note, Herbert Simon was also involved in the early development of the ‘heuristic technique’ or ‘heuristics’ which is “any approach to problem solving, learning, or discovery that employs a practical method not guaranteed to be optimal or perfect, but sufficient for the immediate goals. Where finding an optimal solution is impossible or impractical, heuristic methods can be used to speed up the process of finding a satisfactory solution. Heuristics can be mental shortcuts that ease the cognitive load of making a decision. Examples of this method include using a rule of thumb, an educated guess, an intuitive judgment, guesstimate, stereotyping, profiling, or common sense”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heuristic
- For starters Design Thinking has all the hallmarks of being a fashionable tread that will no doubt be out of favour in a few years’ time. This is why we are interested in design process.
- The term Design Thinking is often used interchangeably with ‘Human Centered Design’
- One could argue that permaculture has its own version of this embedded in its own practice through the application of the ethic of People Care but we think DT’s use of empathy explicitly embeds People Care in the design process.
- See for example: Design, When Everybody Designs: An Introduction to Design for Social Innovation by Ezio Manzini
- For example the overview of our design project brief for the permaculture design certificate we run reads: “The APW Permaculture Design Certificate design project provides an opportunity for participants to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of David Holmgren’s 12 permaculture design principles and apply them to a relevant, real life environment. There are no absolute limitations on the subject matter of the project, so long as you demonstrate an understanding of the permaculture design principles through the application of a considered design process.” – https://apw.org.nz/
- The sociosphere describes the realm of human society, culture and psychology – it includes all socio-cultural, political and economic systems and structures that define and influence human behaviours and interactions in any given culture and society, as well as the relationships and interactions between them.
- “A wicked problem is a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wicked_problem
- For example adaptive cycle of complex systems was originally developed by C.S Hollling and L H. Gunderson under the name Panarchy – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panarchy. David Holmgren refers to it as the Four Phase Model of Ecosystem Change in Permaculture Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability and David Flemming refers to the model and the Wheel of Life in Lean Logic.