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Types of Design [Design
Posted on July 26, 2018 @ 07:45:00 AM by Paul Meagher

When we think about design, we perhaps think of it as one type of mental process or activity. A recent article called Positive, Negative, and Neutral Design argues that we can engage in landscape design by adding, subtracting, or doing nothing to the elements in the landscape. Often we think about design as coming up with a plan and then implementing that plan by adding the elements in our plan to the landscape. Another way to approach landscape design is to remove unwanted elements from the landscape. This is called negative design. It is often less labor and resourse intensive than positive design. An example would be to create a pasture for animals by selectively cutting away trees in a forest. This is the way agriculture would have spread in the beginning. Neutral design involves "doing nothing" by letting the landscape evolve on its own. The basic idea is to approach landscape design with a combination of positive, negative, and neutral mindsets to come up with a landscape design that works.

The author advocates an approach to landscape design that involves letting many flowers bloom and then culling what you don't want. In other words, plant many seeds/seedlings without alot of regard for whether they will survive or not, see what grows and what doesn't grow, and then cull out what you don't want. He calls this a weakly positive approach combined with a negative approach. It is often how new farmers begin their farming careers by trying out different things, seeing what works and what doesn't work, and then focusing resources on what does work and less or no resources on what does not work so well.

My wife is trying to get my son to get rid of clothes he no longer wears from his room. We are essentially asking him to engage in negative design - remove the unwanted elements from his wardrobe. I suggested that perhaps my wife would have to do the negative design for him and leave him with the positive design aspect of picking out the elements he does want from what was culled out. The point here is that a negative design problem isn't necessarily more easy than a positive design problem and that we can approach the same objective (remove unwanted clothes) from different mindsets [negative (son) OR positive (son) + negative (mom)]. My sons mindset is probably a neutral one - leave things as they are, its my room and I don't have a problem with how things are right now. That mindset will not survive my wife's desire to remove clutter so she can take more control of the room when he leaves again for university. So the neutral mindset will have to go.

The article discussed in this blog was posted on the website, Making Permaculture Stronger, where an inquiry into the merits of different approaches to landscape design has been going on for awhile now. The four approaches under consideration are winging it, fabricating, hybrid, and generating. In the 22nd post in his inquiry, Dan Palmer arrives at the conclusion expressed in this diagram:

Essentially, Dan is arguing that the traditional fabricating approach that involves designing all the elements up front and then implementing that design does not work very well in practice. One better approach, the hybrid approach, is to do the high level design so you are guided at the macro level, but to do the detailed design in stages as you implement parts of the high level design. This allows you to incorporate feedback as you proceed to the next part of the design, while maintaining the overall structure that you want to impose. I would argue the diagram is incorrect in that imposing and unfolding boundaries should meet in the center above the hybrid approach. The generating approach is a bit more radical in that even the high level design has the potential to be altered in light of feedback from the low level design.

The purpose of this blog was to consider whether design is one type of mental activity or process or whether it actually refers to a multitude of mindsets and approaches. My conclusion is the latter. There are multiple mindsets that you can use when engaging in a design - positive, negative, and neutral - and there are multiple approaches you might adopt which include winging it, fabricating, hybrid and generating. In contexts with alot of uncertainty winging it might be appropriate and it seems to me that engineers are often asked to use a fabricating approach. That same engineer might use a hybrid or generating approach when it comes to their home landscape design because they have the luxury of doing it that way. Sometimes you are given more creative leeway to work with the landscape.

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