The other (other) design cycle!

The day before yesterday I published something I boldly declared as my current favourite design cycle. Bold, but premature. In a process familiar to anyone that designs, I subsequently found myself awake at 2.00am with a new and improved version circling my imagination. Long experience has taught me that when this happens the only thing to do is to get up, make notes, unpublish the previous version and start again.

Apologies to all those that got an email notification and then couldn’t find the post. Now you know why.

So, in what I hope is now something close to my best ever design model, here’s the macro overview. In coming weeks I’m going to post detail about each phase but for now let’s give you the tree top perspective so you know the pattern. 

I have renamed this model a design spiral for evolving systems. I prefer “spiral” to “cycle” because cycles imply something relatively stable, or at least something that displays dynamic equilibrium. Good design is iterative. We evolve our gardens, farms, lives, homes and relationships over time. Going around and around in circles would be both pointless and demotivating. So spirals it is. Of course spirals can work both ways. Ignore the process and things can very quickly start to spiral downwards. 

I also wanted a model that reflects the way most of us actually work. It’s rare to be involved in a design task where you work towards a finished plan for an entire site, create it, install it and then just maintain it. Most of us start small and slow and build our systems over time, improving them as we learn and altering them as our needs and circumstances change. A design spiral might be applied to the whole of your project or to a discreet part of it. I would still encourage everyone to start with a concept plan so that you have an overall pattern for your site or project, and you can use this design spiral to create that, but when it comes to implementation you might want to start with a herb garden or some bush regeneration and the spiral will work just as well at that level. You can also apply it to reviewing your concept plan over time.

I have managed to return to just four categories. I appreciate that I’ve done this by combining two verbs into each category. This is because the more I tried to separate them the more they demonstrated their synergy. Some things work best when they happen together. The order within each phase of the spiral is arbitrary. You might be exploring and learning at the same time, or doing one followed by the other. All combinations are valid and designers often have sequential preferences in the way they work. 

I have deliberately referred to systems because systems are what we design. The relationships between things and the dynamics within the system are significant. Permaculture is more than just a grab bag of elements and strategies. 

So here’s a graphic of my current favourite model. (Regular followers will recall that I always refer to everything as my current favourite, in recognition of the fact that I am applying this design spiral as a model for evolving my own design systems. The fun never ends!)

Drum roll please……

The ethics and principles touch everything we do, all the time. This is the most significant difference between designing in permaculture and most other design models. A landscape gardener will follow much the same design process but will not necessarily anchor their work to an ethical base.

Permaculture is not the only ethically based design pattern, but it is one of the most popular.

The four stages of the design spiral are:

  • Explore and learn
  • Dream and describe
  • Plan and prioritise
  • Implement and maintain

Here’s some broad brush strokes for each section, with details on each to follow in future posts:

Explore and learn:

The more we know about our site the better our design will be. This includes knowledge of the external factors that will influence the site. We can learn directly, by visiting the the site, talking with clients and taking samples and measurements or we can learn indirectly by researching the site online. Learning and exploring includes the continual need to explore the work of other designers, the permaculture literature and the relevant bodies of knowledge that inform good design.

The temptation at this stage of the spiral is to rush to designing before you have all of the information you need. If you are designing for someone else then this is the stage where you explore the needs and wishes of your clients and learn about what they are hoping to achieve. I consider the planet to be our primary client in permaculture so asking “What does the earth need?” and “How might this design respond to those needs?” is essential.

Dream and describe:

In traditional design models this stage is often referred to as “ideation”; the process of generating ideas. It’s time to use what you have learnt and discovered to get creative. What is the nature of this place? What patterns have emerged? What are you hoping to achieve? What yields will this system provide? What will the key sub-systems within this design look like (eg: restored wilderness, water, food and nutrient cycling, habitation and the built environment). Keep in mind that our first ideas are not necessarily our best ideas. Aim to generate lots of options and then use the ethics and principles to winnow them.

At the end of this stage you will have a design brief that clearly describes what you are hoping to achieve. The brief may include wish lists, base maps and overlays, photos, mood boards, vision statements and mud maps; anything that helps you to have a clear idea of where you are headed.

Plan and prioritise

It’s time to commit to a plan of action. If this is your first time around the design spiral it’s worth putting the time in to developing a concept plan for the whole site or project. This will give you a macro pattern that guides your progress. Taking a big picture approach is critical to designing good systems because the relationships between the various components are part of what makes your design align with the core ethics and principles of permaculture. If you already have a concept plan then you can use the design spiral to develop a plan for a particular section of that plan, or for all of it. Having said that, if you are just starting out in permaculture you might prefer to practice on something smaller and simpler than an entire site while you find your feet. Choose something that’s easy to change, like a herb or vegetable garden, so that if you have better ideas later you won’t have serious regrets.

Good planning includes prioritising. Plans are realised over time and some things need to happen before others, either because of the limitations of time, money and energy or because there is a clear sequence to creating the plan; you can’t put your walls up until you have laid your foundations. Remember that the sequence within each phase is arbitrary. Some people prefer to set priorities before they plan, some after and some do both, but setting priorities should always be part of good planning.

Implement and maintain

“Finally we get to do something!” said one of my students during a presentation on design. This is a common misconception. Everything that has happened before this point was “doing something” and it is a human pattern to rush to doing and regret the consequences of not thinking things through. That’s not to say you can’t start doing until you have everything you need to realise an entire plan, but staging things based upon logical choices rather than personal preferences will usually save you time, money and energy.

I have included maintenance is this stage of the spiral. As soon as you start to implement you will also be creating maintenance tasks. Initially these will require more time and energy as your system becomes established and that is why factoring them into the process is so important. Maintenance requirements might also be a limiting factor in your implementation plan. If the new thing you created needs close attention for the next six months until it is up and running then better to do that than to try and get another plate spinning.

Maintenance will feed into your exploring and learning on the next journey around the cycle. Could you be any more energy efficient? Do the maintenance tasks associated with something you have implemented outweigh the yield?

…..and repeat

The real key to this model is that it is continual. There is no limit to how much we can learn and no end to the joys of exploration. The joy of playing with new dreams and developing new plans increases with our confidence and expertise. Even after more than 20 years I am still endlessly redesigning my systems, including the garden, my teaching materials, my design model and my life. It is deeply satisfying.

To those new to permaculture this might seem like an endless chore, and it would be if it was just a cycle that went around and around with no change in outcome, but a spiral climbs upwards. The more you design the better you become at designing.

More details soon. All feedback welcome.

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