What is Permaculture design?

The question “What is permaculture?” appears everywhere in permaculture literature and is often one of the first topics covered on courses. But the question “what is design?” is addressed less often within permaculture circles, and the question “what is distinctive about permaculture design as opposed to other design disciplines?” less often still. So that’s what I’ll try to do here.
What is Permaculture?
Permaculture is a design system for creating sustainable human environments”
– Bill Mollison

Because this question is addressed at length elsewhere, I won’t go into much detail here. Suffice it to say that definitions vary (and are to some extent subjective), but generally converge on something like: permaculture is a design approach with an explicitly ethical basis, that draws lessons from nature to address human problems.


Massing model used in ‘Permahaus’
What is Design?
“Design is a word that’s come to mean so much that it’s also a word that has come to mean nothing.”     – Jonathan Ive

Like permaculture, the term design is easy to understand but can be tricky to pin down to an accurate but concise definition. It is a word that has been used in myriad contexts, and picked up associated connotations and nuances along the way, obscuring its core meaning.

So let’s start with the origin of the word itself. Design can be both a verb – the act of designing – and a noun – an artefact that is produced by the act of designing:

“design (v.) 1540s, from Latin designare “mark out, devise, choose, designate, appoint,” from de- “out” (see de-) + signare “to mark,” from signum “a mark, sign” (see sign (n.)). Originally in English with the meaning now attached to designate; many modern uses of design are metaphoric extensions.” (Harper, 2015)

“design (n.) 1580s, from Middle French desseign “purpose, project, design,” from Italian disegno, from disegnare “to mark out,” from Latin designare “to mark out”.” (Harper, 2015)

This gives us a good idea about the essence of the term: to “mark out” how some or other materials or other elements will be arranged in a given context; to “devise” how a given problem will be addressed; to “choose, designate, appoint” how something or things will be in future. It implies a thinking and decision-making process that supports a change from one state to another or the creation of something new. Essentially, to design is to make plans.

The Pantheon in Rome. Built in 176AD it still boasts the world’s largest reinfoced concrete dome.
The contemporary Oxford Concise Dictionary definition attaches concepts that many designers consider to fundamental to design: an overall purpose (e.g. a brief), function and aesthetics:

design noun. 1. a plan or drawing produced to show the look and function or workings of  something before it is built or made. > the art or action of conceiving of and producing such a plan or drawing. > purpose or planning that exists behind an action or object. 2. A decorative pattern. verb. decide upon the look and functioning of (something), especially by making a detailed drawing of it. > do or plan (something) with a specific purpose in mind.” (Pearsal, 2001)

So, design is about planning or making things that are appopriate for the problem at hand, that work and, ideally, that look good.

In most design disciplines, aesthetic considerations are considered secondary, as indicated by the mantra: “form follows function”.

Even the most fanciful creations of haute couture – arguably the design discipline that elevates the importance of aesthetic considerations the highest – tend to have holes in the right places so that the models can navigate the catwalk without crashing into one another or falling into the crowd.

But other design disciplines are utilitarian in the extreme and place little or no importance on aesthetics, for example, spacecraft or database design (although, to such designers, the “aesthetics” of the design may be expressed through the elegance of the engineering: the economical use of material resources, or by employing a particularly efficient search algorithm).


Serkan Cura fall-winter 2014-15 haute couture collection
Design Processes
“I tried a dozen different modifications that were rejected. But they all served as a path to the final design.” – Mikhail Kalashnikov

An iterative process helped Mikhail Kalashnikov design the the world’s most simple, reliable & affordable assault rifle. 1 in 7 of all firearms globally (75 million) are an AK47.
Rational Model
Traditionally, many design disciplines have identified a logical sequence of discrete stages involved in progressing from the problem identification to a finished solution. Newell & Simon (1972) call this the rational model.

It usually starts with a brief or problem and may incorporate research, analysis, prototyping, testing, (at this point many iterations or the prototype may be developed tested, modified/improved and retested), presentation, implementation and maintenance/evaluation stages.

Each stage of the overall design process has processes and tools associated with it, and it may have professional standards, codes of practice and even statutory regulation/legal constraints.

Examples of the rational model include the RIBA Plan of Work in architectutre & construction, the waterfall model in SDLC (Software Development Life Cycle) and SSADM (Structured Systems Analysis and Design Method) in information systems design.


Source: Sharon Encyclopedia
Some structured design processes incorporate an iterative, or cyclical prototyping phase, where numerous candidate designs are tested and tweaked based on the test results until the final design is ready.
Action-Centric Model
The Action-centric model recognises that designs often progress in a non-linear fashion, that designers may work more spontaneously and intuitively, sometimes jumping backwards and forwards between design stages, and that design goals may evolve during the process.

While this model lacks the structure that can help to ensure that essential tasks & processes are carried out, it is more flexible, can enable spontaneity and creativity, and accommodate more opportunistic design responses.

Clearly, some design disciplines will lend themselves to more formal design processes and others to more fluid ones. And even within a given discipline, different design projects may call for different approaches. This is particularly so for permaculture designers, as they may be designing in various different contexts, as we will see below. In such cases, it can be a real challenge for the designer to identify the appropriate approach for any given problem.

So, what’s distinctive about permaculture design?
So far we’ve looked at some general aspects of design. But what is it about permaculture design that makes it permaculture?

Explicit Ethics
While many professional disciplines such as medical and legal professions have a strong guiding code of ethics, this is often less present, or emphasised as much in traditional design disciplines.

Architects in America, for example, could be faced with with the moral question of whether to accept a commission to design a prison that contained an execution chamber, with little solid guidance from their profession. And then there’s the environmental destruction caused by mining & processing building materials, emissions from buildings’ energy systems and so on.


BHP Billiton’s Mount Whaleback mine in Western Australia used to be a mountain before it was mined to make steel. Should architects and industrial designers have an explicit code of ethics to limit their use of such resources? Source: tetralab.ru
In contrast, permaculture’s simple ethics are placed at its very core. They’re clearly set out in Permaculture: A Designers Manual (Mollison, 1988). Briefly, they comprise:

  • Care of people
  • Care of the earth, and
  • Setting limits to consumption and redistributing surplus

If the design isn’t aiming to work in accordance with these ethics, it ain’t permaculture, plain and simple. A thousand herb spirals on the lawn of your nuclear missile launch facility aren’t going to make it a permaculture nuclear missile launch facility.

Democratic design: participatory & collaborative

“No one has to be a genius, but everybody has to participate” – Philippe Starck

The complexity of many modern design challenges demands that the people who meet them know what they’re doing: buildings need to stand up; the software that runs artificial ventilation machines needs to be bug-free; the wheels of trains, cars, buses and bicycles need to stay on.

But we live in the age of the superstar designer. Fashion designers, architects, furniture designers enjoy the same levels of fame and celebrity as film stars, sports personalities and musicians. In a consumerist culture, we idolise those who conceive the objects we worship.

And this creates a kind of debilitating mystique, a learned helplessness around the business of designing. We’ve come to regard the art of design as something reserved for highly trained people who posses a genius that the rest of us can only dream of. When it takes seven years to train as an architect (and arguably a lifetime of pratice to become a really good one), how can the rest of us ever presume to design anything?

But not all designing is highly complex, or a matter of life or death. Not all designing requires expert-level knowledge. Not all designing needs to be the sole preserve of technical or creative specialists. Some design can be carried out by the masses. Some design can be democratic. The notion of democratic design is not new. Philippe Starck’s definition of democratic design is design that provides quality pieces at accessible prices. In this definition, design authority continues to reside with the expert – i.e. Starck – while the rest of us get to participate by spending money on goods he’s designed. We are still passive, helpless consumers.

In contrast, permaculture’s notion of democratic design is about people taking control of the design process itself. And where possible, implementation and production processes too. As Herbert Simon notes: “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.” And it is this broader definition of design that, I think, applies to permaculture.

Indeed, if we accept Bill Mollison’s ‘prime directive’ of permaculture, that The only ethical decision is to take responsibility for our own existence and that of our children” (Mollison 1988), it could arguably be more accurately described as anarchic or libertarian design.

Of course, good design requires skill, judgement, and an understanding of design principles. And the more one practices design, learns from others and reflectively develops one’s practice, the more successful one’s designs will be. And so, permaculture invites us all on a journey to explore our own creativity, develop our design skills, reflect on our success and failures, and deepen our thinking.


LILAC residents collectively adapt and develop the landscape scheme originally proposed by the architect.
Biomimetics… or “Ecomimetics”?

A core idea in permaculture is that biological and ecological systems provide us with useful examples of successful strategies as well as solutions to specific problems that we can use in our own designs. There are, of course, other disciplines that look to nature for inspiration:

“Biomimetics (which we here mean to be synonymous with ‘biomimesis’, ‘biomimicry’, ‘bionics’, ‘biognosis’, ‘biologically inspired design’ and similar words and phrases implying copying or adaptation or derivation from biology) is… a relatively young study embracing the practical use of mechanisms and functions of biological science in engineering, design, chemistry, electronics, and so on” (Vincent et al 2006)

So, permaculture could perhaps be described a biomimetic design discipline. However, the story doesn’t quite end there. Because permaculture places a particularly strong focus on systems thinking, it tends to look to ecosystems for much of its inspiration. As ecosystems include both biological and non-living elements, permaculture might more accurately be described as an “ecomimetic” design discipline.

Two main strategies are used in permaculture to copy ecosystems’ desirable characteristics:

  • ecological (design) principles
  • pattern application

Ecological principles are an attempt to codify certain ecological concepts into useful rules of thumb. For example, in ecosystems, greater species diversity generally tends to imply greater ecosystem resilience. And so a design principle that guides permaculture designers is “use and value diversity


Spiral pattern in a snail shell, Ukraine
Pattern application seeks to identify patterns in nature, and understand what they convey to us about the function of the system in question. When we want elements in our designs to perform certain functions, we can choose appropriate patterns to achieve our ends.

For example, trees follow a branching pattern because it is an efficient pattern to transport water and sugars around. If we want to design a garden with an efficient path layout, we may find that a branching patterns is the most appropriate or useful.

Unlike many design disciplines, permaculture is not limited to a particular medium or domain, e.g. graphics, textiles, furniture, buildings, computer systems etc.

Instead, permaculture is more abstract. It can be seen as a transferrable design philosophy or approach that can be applied across a broad range of media and problem domains.

David Holmgren’s ‘Permaculture Flower‘, right, suggests some broad areas that permaculture may be concerned with (Holmgren 2002).

Holmgren's flower: ethics & design principles in the centre; petals represent various design domains including land & nature stewardship, finance & economics, education & culture, tools and technology, building and more

Holmgren’s ‘Permaculture Flower’
So, an architect could use the permaculture design philosophy to inform their design for a building or neighbourhood, such that the final development exhibited sustainable, regenerative and resilient qualities. Equally an IT systems designer could use permaculture design to choose to deploy recycled or energy efficient computers in a resilient architecture, perhaps running open source software.
Design processes
There are a number of design processes that have been put forward by people through permaculture’s history. Typically they’ve been borrowed and/or adapted from other disciplines and many of them propose a sequential approach based on the rational model mentioned above. A fairly typical example is SADIMET: Survey, Analyse, Design, Implement, Maintain, Evaluate, Tweak.

An interesting exception is the design web which is perhaps closer to the action-centric model. Proposed by permaculture teacher and author Looby Macnamara, the design web proceeds in a non-linear way between ‘anchor points’ within a wider process.

For a comprehensive review of design processes and an exploration of their origins, look at James Taylor’s excellent slides on the subject.

Design tools
The range of tools, techniques and methods used by permaculture designers is as long as your arm. They have almost all been borrowed from somewhere else (permaculture is something of a magpie in that respect), which is fitting and appropriate given that, as noted above, permaculture designers may be working in – and across – a range of disciplines.

Old favourites include things like input-output analysis, where the needs and products of each element within a design are listed to see where they might be met from elsewhere in the system. And of course, zones and sectors support design decisions that should lead to energy efficient solutions.


Permaculture zones
So, there you have it in a nutshell. Permculture design is about giving yourself permission to take control, arrange things
in ways that work with nature to achieve effective and ethical results. It’s about working smarter, not harder, and you can apply it in almost any context. And most importantly, it’s about enjoying yourself while you’re at it.
Diamond, J. (2006) Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Viking Press, New York.

Harper, D. (2015) Online Etymology Dictionary [Internet] http://www.etymonline.com [retrieved 23/08/2015]

Holmgren, D. (2002) Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability. Holmgren Design Services, Hepburn.

Mollison, B. (1988) Permaculture: A Designers Manual. Tagari Publications.

Newell, A. & Simon, H. (1972) Human problem solving, Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Orr, D. W. (2002) The Nature of Design: Ecology, Culture, and Human Intention. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Pearsall, J. (Ed) (2001) The Oxford Concise Dictionary, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Starck, P. (2015) [Internet] Quotes http://www.starck.com/en/philippe_starck/quotes/ [retrieved 07/02/2016]

Vincent, J. Bogatyreva, O. Bogatyrev, N. Bowyer, A. Pahl, A. (2006) [Internet] Biomimetics: its Practice and Theory http://rsif.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/3/9/471 [retrieved 06/02/2016]


Original version HERE





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