This article bridges two previous articles, one on mapping and one on vision and assessment, while giving insight into how one can operate as a designer systematically. The key word here is cataloguing the information ascertained so that necessary documentation occurs and eventually one can go from this step into idea generation (conceptual planning) through design parameters refinement.  Design is a process that can have linear steps but flows through all the different stages simultaneously. Although ideas pop out immediately in the field or placement of certain elements are suggested by clients, it really helps to zoom back out and see the whole picture before placing elements like a food forest or chicken coop. Cataloguing does exactly this, especially as the designer develops a systematic approach, which this article aims to guide one towards.  This can be on the land itself but you must have some solid maps going into it, good picture-taking skills, good note taking, and the balance of so many different aspects of design.

Contact and Setup Design Document

When I receive an inquiry from a possible client, I have a step by step process to initiate and hopefully secure the design assignment. First I ask for more info to make sure I am the right designer for them, send my infographic pdf of how I operate, and begin to line up a site visit. I express my fees and give a rough estimate of cost given the size of the land but

Screen shot of part of my design doc sent to clients

create space for it to be more or less once I know more. Thus I keep going with dialogue asking for more info on the site, on their vision, and for map resources.  From there I work in Powerpoint to set up the document I will deliver to them at the end of the design process.  Yes, design with powerpoint (click here to learn more). Beyond this commonly used software having all the necessary tools for design, it is a presentation software. Consequently, when one looks at the slides as pages of a book, you are essentially generating a book for the client with texts, drawings, and pictures.  Even if you are doing the design mapping with Autocad or Illustrator, you still have to collate the information in a presentable form. So whatever it is, be it powerpoint or not, get organized from the beginning and develop a system so each time you do a design for a client you aren’t reinventing the wheel.  This will evolve over time as feedback is garnered. Many designers use a copy and paste system for development of suggestions.  For example if five of my 12 clients want a greywater system, I create the basic pattern slide of a greywater and copy and paste that into each design.  I have several tools I rely on for that including my online book which you are reading right now, a deck of element cards for art, and their descriptions. These slides simply get copied and pasted and then details on their particular design are created if they want details on that particular element. That was a bit of a Segway towards later steps but the point i am driving home is get systematic so you can pump out design efficiently.

Look at maps before you ever step foot on the land

Before going to the land use google maps or some other service including GIS if possible (see the maps article).  Again GIS will give you the best look at the land because of its contour line feature and other features hidden in different layers, i.e. flood plains or geology below.  GIS is not everywhere so some clients will have maps already of the area and its property line, sometimes with contour lines generated through a surveyor.  Study what you see and have this file prepared digitally and/or print it out so you can scribble notes along the way.  I like to not only look at the property itself but also to zoom out and see what is going on in the region. You can jot down what you see about the land already and also about what you are seeing beyond the property lines. Before you arrive at the site itself, observe the surroundings to conceptualize the bio-regional context.

During consulting record particulars on maps in hand and expand on that once back in the design studio

As a consultant/ designer your main task within this assigned role is to read the landscape for the client.  That is what they are paying for essentially; your trained eye with your accrual of knowledge around plants, soils, climatic factors, water, topography, earthworks, economics, and cultural links.  Thus systematically record these particulars as this is why permaculture isn’t simply a rubber stamp process of each place looking nearly the same such as a poorly designed suburb.

Particulars might be a low spot where water is pooling, a preferred microclimate, or the state of a particular corner on a building. I even had one client ask me to record the species of every tree on a map for them. I used google maps along with the surveyor map with contour lines and jotted nearly 95% of the trees down that I recognized in the field and then on the map.  I must have looked quite funny in the middle of nowhere central Portugal walking around holding my laptop adding these details with my predawn maps and predawn graphics.  Finally, the nuances of site will dictate how you deal with the complexities of any given landscape all the while joining that with the expressed demands of the client including abstract factors like time and budget.

Take photos to help remember certain aspects of the design

I am someone who really tries to get through the consulting phase of a design very quickly since that is my highest fee within the design and implementation process.  So I come prepared, as stated above, and at the site I always take pictures.  This helps me to get out of the consulting phase as quickly as possible.  Some would say that is folly since you are getting paid well to do such a step, yet I want the client to have money to implement! I look back at the photos as I record the particulars, insert some of them into the design document, and they help with spatial determination once the final design comes around. Also you may want to ask clients to send pictures from different times of the year that they have recorded. For example one client showed me a video she took with her phone the vast amount of water that flowed through her land in a rain storm the year before which helped immensely as when i came to the land it was dry and sunny. Systematically every designer will see how photos help them and how they leverage them in design communication with the client.

Create the base map

Base maps are essential to knowing what is there already so you can propose what is to come.  See the article on mapping to read in much greater depth the process of recording what is currently at a site.  Moreover, base maps are often created for the whole property and then broken into several different spaces.  The bigger the land the more base maps will have to be created as the detail is expressed with different scales.  If your client wants lots of detail then you will be making numerous base maps for various sections of the land because the design influences are laid over that, then idea generation occurs, then the final design through refinement finishes the process off.  Sometimes we skip base mapping to save time but in the end it really should be done well as to make the rest of the process easier and more thorough. It also can help you document the progress and evolution of a site later on down the road once successive phases of implementation and management occur.

Process client vision and wish list

Yes as a permaculture designer you are working mainly with environmental factors.  However what comes through in the client interview and their proposed wish list is indeed paramount.  A designer must remove ones ego out of the equation of what you would do and rather design for what you would do with the clients vision and realities.  It’s subtle and I have made the mistake before of entering too much of my own projection of how I would want my own project to be and I didn’t design well enough with the constraints of the land and the social and economic factors.  So when you do the client interview, listen to everything, record as much as possible, and in the design portfolio display those things so the client also understands where you are working from. (read the article on Vision and Assessment to understand what the client interview/ land assessment looks more like)  In the time it takes you to process this info and design, say one week, the client will have already had revelations because of the consulting process and the nuances you pointed out in consulting.  Unless the client has expressed revelations in their vision or wish list, you are working from that moment in time and to ensure you have done the due diligence, create slides with the client interview, vision, and wish list.

Research zoning, planning and any other legal, social or economic invisible structures that will influence the design.

Some of this research may be done before the consulting phase or it might be communicated during the client interview.  For example in the states and in the county where my families land is, Boone County Kentucky, we are designated A-1 in terms of zoning.  You can see that in GIS maps or a client may tell you the designation once on the land or ask before you ever arrive.  It’s important for you to then look up or contact local officials on what that A-1 zoning allows freely, what it allows with certain permits, and what it doesn’t allow.  Moreover, my friends further south in Kentucky, near Berea, have no zoning nor any building codes.  This creates two totally different designs because of those parameters.  However in Kentucky, I live closer to a bigger market due to the large population size.  Economically, however, it all depends on if people are willing to spend their disposable income on something like organic apples. Different regions will value locally produced food more than others or even education services.  This step really takes research and one can build that into each quote for how much time the design will take.  You may draw for eight hours but quote for 10 because you know it will take two hours of research along the way.

Boone County Kentucky screenshot of the zoning description of Ag-1. The zoning for Treasure Lake, KY, USA

Create sector analysis

One tool that the founders of Permaculture expressed to catalogue observations and clues provided by clients is the sector analysis.  It is one tool and surely not the end all be all of processing information into a graphic that allows for the designer to make decisions and the client to understand a bit of the why.  I do find the sector flow map helpful and do it often but sometimes it is very limited.  Thus I recommend doing a combination of a sector and flow, analysis which is described below.  For sector mapping I focus on the summer and winter sun, wind patterns, noise, pollution, views, and wildlife. Details about anyone of these can be recorded in the flow analysis or other ways referred to myself as particulars of a design. For example, in Kentucky and in that bioregion, one can assume that the wildlife sector will be a 360 degree complete circle instead of a pie shape from one direction like a winter wind pattern.  However on a flow analysis map you can specify particular trails that you see deer taking all the time.  When you get into the idea generation design in conceptual planning, you will have to deal with sectors and flows in a variety of ways such as block, channel, or open up. That is why we do this step, so the design matches the realities of a site.

Sector analysis, Bill Mollison tool

Create flow analysis and record particulars

The flows I record the most often are water flow, nutrient flow, and people flow with thicker arrows indicating more intense flows.  All of these are virtually impossible to communicate via a sector analysis.  Even a wind pattern might be funneled through a particular spot on the land because of topography, vegetation, or buildings, which is impossible to communicate via a sector analysis.  It can be recorded in the flow analysis or just jot down as a particular.  I learned this technique from Dave Jacke’s diligent design process.  He is a landscape architect turned permaculturist making his design process very systematic and exhaustive.  He has influenced many around the world to express particulars because those are what really captures the essence of permaculture philosophy of turning a problem into a solution or least change for the greatest effect.

Divide observations in a systematic way, either by spaces or types such as water or soil

Once you record what has been seen and expressed by the client as well as further research on topics like climate, it is the role of the designer to systematically articulate the design parameters to the client.  You can be the best designer in the world artistically and functionally, yet there is a communication aspect that must come through for a lasting effect for the client and project.  Depending on the project I work both with analyzing and assessing different spaces and/or different topics.  You can do water flow mapping for either the whole property but often when it comes to defining a certain space you have to zoom in and do another flow analysis for example.

Context building and conclusion

What all of this is meant to do is to build a context as to design with the patterns of nature in mind.  All designers build context but collectively Permaculture designers must excel at this as to heighten the standards of design across many different fields.  And this is one of the gains I do think this Permaculture movement, that is now over 40 years old, has done quite well.  As society pulls more towards a regenerative system, Permaculture’s toolbox has influenced many.  Yes, it’s not a dominant philosophy yet, and maybe never will be, but its dispersion has occurred as seen in the overall green movement.  Thus we must continue with this trend and heighten our standards and a concrete way to do that is delve really deep into context building as to create the most site and client specific designs we can.  And as always things change, things evolve and we must design flexibility, resilience, and redundancy to adapt to the changes that are inevitable.

Written by Doug Crouch


Mollison, B. & Slay, R.M. (1991) Introduction to permaculture. 2nd Edition. Sisters Creek, Tasmania, Australia. Tagari.