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What is permaculture and how can we use it as designers?

Permaculture is a set of design principles centered on whole systems thinking, utilizing the patterns in natural ecosystems. 

When I heard about the permaculture principles for the first time, it felt like an epiphany. These are the principles I unconsciously follow in all my design processes. As a designer I can use and implement the permaculture principles in all my projects. It helps me to check how meaningful they really are.

In 2018 I made my permaculture design certificate and this experience changed my life. I'm eager to explore the intersections between permaculture and (product-) design and to teach others how we can make this world a better, greener place.

Permaculture Principles

  1. Observe and interact. By taking the time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.

  2. Catch and store energy. By developing systems that collect resources when they are abundant, we can use them in times of need.

  3. Obtain a yield. Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work that you are doing.

  4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback. We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well.

  5. Use and value renewable resources and services. Make the best use of nature’s abundance to reduce our consumptive behaviour and dependence on non-renewable resources.

  6. Produce no waste. By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.

  7. Design from patterns to details. By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go.

  8. Integrate rather than segregate. By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between them and they support each other.

  9. Use small and slow solutions. Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and produce more sustainable outcomes.

  10. Use and value diversity. Diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides.

  11. Use edges and value the marginal. The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.

  12. Creatively use and respond to change. We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing, and then intervening at the right time.

Soeder Backpack, Swiss design, swiss leather, scarlet allenspach
This backpack I designed for Soeder is made from a bee waxed fabric, produced in England, vegetably tanned leather from swiss cows in switzerland, all sewn in switzerland. Even the buckes were designed by me and produced in switzerland. If you take of the buckles, you can through it on the compost when it's broken.

Permaculture and Design

As a designer I can use and implement the permaculture principles in all my projects. It helps me to check how meaningful they really are and if I forgot about something important. My favorite part ist the "use small and slow solutions". I was never a big fan of betting everything on one card ("Use and value diversity") and don't feel comfortable making big investments, if I haven't seen systems working properly on a small scale. Also "Design from patterns to details" is a rather good advice for a designer. We've all lost track in a project on some point...

The three ethics on which the whole of permaculture builds are articulated in Mollison's A Designers' Manual as following:

  • Care of the Earth: Provision for all life systems to continue and multiply.

  • Care of people: Provision for people to access those resources necessary for their existence

  • Return of surplus: to those two goals. If there is extra of something, use it either to help people or help the Earth. Never waste it.

As designers we have a responsibility to know about the impacts our products will have on the environment. And I see it as my responsibility to make this impact as good as possible. We even have the ability and power to create products in a way, that our planet and its habitants can benefit from our work.

Permaculture design emphasizes patterns of landscape and function assemblies. It determines where these elements should be placed so they can provide maximum benefit to the local environment. Permaculture maximizes useful connections between components and synergy of the final design. The focus of permaculture, therefore, is not on each separate element, but rather on the relationships created among elements by the way they are placed together. Permaculture design therefore seeks to minimize waste, human labor, and energy input by building systems, and maximizes benefits between design elements to achieve a high level of synergy. Permaculture designs evolve over time by taking into account these relationships and elements and can evolve into extremely complex systems that produce a high density of food and materials with minimal input.

If more designers start thinking in circles, waste and damage to our environment can be reduced to a minimum. Use compostable or recycled materials whenever you can, get to know your producers, not only your suppliers, but also the ones down the chain. Explain your customers why this is important and worth paying for. And spread the word!



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