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


  1. Design, for me, is about giving decisions time to breathe. About being imaginative, while overcoming our unconcious biases (and those of others who we may enlist to help us). “I count him braver,” observed Aristotle, “who overcomes his desires than him who conquers his enemies; for the hardest victory is over self.”

  2. Peter reminds us of Rafter SF’s 4-fold analysis of permaculture, and that it’s not just a design system but also a movement. It is as a movement that permaculture can be effective, and possibly save the world. Therefore I’d like us to think about making permaculture the movement stronger. Maybe the first step is to agree what we are actually on about. Is it design, or a vision for a better, simpler, more natural life?

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