by Laura Kaestele, Master of Science in Integrative Ecosocial Design

During my permaculture design course and the Gaia U online orientation I was first introduced to design theory and practice as a tool used to create innovative solutions to our most pressing human challenges. From the very beginning, the concept of design struck a chord in me. Something about the potential to liberate and integrate my own creative, analytical and intuitive thinking to create world-changing possibilities felt meaningful and empowering. It ignited a curiosity that propelled me toward a learning journey to acquire knowledge, experiences and skills about applying design thinking in all areas of life and is still driving my passion and practice today.

What is design thinking? What is the essence of design? What are the core skills of a designer? What are useful design models and tools? What role does design play in human transformation? These are some of the many questions I started with and they have fueled a collaborative design project with Jennifer Morgan initiated back in April 2015. With both of us being passionate eco-social design practitioners and inspired learners, we began a stimulating conversation thread exploring the complexities of design during bi-monthly calls. For me, it was a calling to increase my capacity as a designer and gain more professional skills, while the project evolved into a joyful, inspirational and creative learning relationship.

Designing for Collaboration

We have designed our project using emergent design thinking, a model of non-linear learning and the basic design pattern of divergence, emergence and convergence described in more detail later on. The decision to use the three aspects of non-linear learning research, questions and feedback guided our process and activities in an emergent, integrative and co-creative way. The meetings themselves have become a point of convergence to share and bring ideas back together, after exploring and researching individually and allowing fresh insight to arise. In addition, we have included regular loops of evaluation, feedback and adaptation throughout our teamwork in order to connect to the present moment and dynamically navigate the project’s development.

The goal is to support others to unfold and enhance their inherent, intuitive design potential into a conscious, skillful practice to intentionally design, engage, build and transform. Particularly for fellow associates to learn, apply and document their pathway, output packet, and project design. Through the results of this design collaboration, we want to advance the collective design competence within Gaia U and grow as a leading-edge community to add value to the design thinking and ecosocial field. Planned outcomes include the documentation of our process, research and conversations, hosting Gaia Radio Calls, developing an online page on the Gaia eLearning site as an emergent design hub and writing articles or other publications to share these outcomes. Here are some highlights from our collaborative research and learning journey so far…

Brief Historical Context

First notions of design as a concept can be traced back two millennia, when there were debates of ancient Greeks like Cicero over design in nature and whether the universe is governed by an intelligent designer. These philosophical discussions continued exploring a universal creator as well as the human ability for conscious decision making, intelligence, and purpose. Revived in the 1800s, Charles Darwin promoted that design in nature could occur without divine intention and through small chaotic evolutionary steps. Here are two articles on the history of design and design thinking for further reading.

In the 19th to the 20th century, the focus on design thinking shifted towards humans creating objects and what is called artificial design in built environments. In the past few decades, design went through a great evolution and expansion into fields of industry, engineering, architecture, landscaping, urban planning, art, fashion, technology and entrepreneurship. Since the 70s and 80s, design thinking has been used to tackle social and environmental issues. Permaculture has developed out of this as a design field where humans interact with ecosystems creating designs to mimic and regenerate nature.

Design Thinking

Design thinking is very integrative in that is uses both cognitive and creative processes to develop solutions which lead to world-changing innovation. It is both a mindset and method of conscious engagement where an intervention is intentionally made within a system. The purpose is to generate and track the outcomes by following a process appropriate to its specific context. It combines contextualizing challenges, generating insights, developing plans and executing solutions by applying a recurring and interrelated design process. Design is a natural way we interact with the world around us. It’s how we make decisions.

Design Principles

The following collection of design principles is an adaptation and integration of the work of Christoph Meinel and Larry Leifer on design thinking (for more details please refer to their book “Design Thinking: Understand – Improve – Apply”) and Tim Brown’s (, design thinking blog and his book “Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation ”) model of human-centred design.

•    Design is human-centered – all design activity is ultimately social in nature
•    Learning by doing – practical action with focus on building to think
•    All design is redesign – design is by its nature recurring and cyclical
•    Experiments speed up the process of innovation – test and evolve ideas with feedback
•    Use integrative thinking – explore and integrate opposing ideas and constraints to create new ideas
•    Encourage active co-creation – active engagement for productive, meaningful work
•    Everyone is a designer – design is too important to be left only to professional designers

The principles of “encourage active co-creation” in application may mean finding creative ways to work with the client, by conducting interviews or engaging a whole community in participatory conversation and discovery.

Basic Pattern of Design

Building on my research and learning journey up to now, I would say that the most basic design pattern mimics our natural breath cycle. A process with three different and complementary phases and ways of thinking and doing that can be linked to the three stages of breathing:

•    Breathing in (lungs expanding) – expansion – divergent thinking – analysis
•    Gap in breathing (lungs holding) – nothingness – emergent thinking – creativity
•    Breathing out (lungs contracting) – contraction – convergent thinking – synthesis

The breath is at the heart of process design and can be used as a holon to build any design model, going through several such breathing cycles. In design frameworks, these three phases can be described with various names, for example, planning, implementation and evaluation or for decision making, creating (diverge), processing (emerge) and making (converge) choices. I have successfully used the design breath pattern as a foundational building block for inventing, articulating and applying my own design processes.

Design Capabilities

I feel inspired by Linda Hill and her TED talk titled “How to manage collective creativity” presenting the field research and pattern observation of her work on collaborative problem solving and leading innovation. Below is a summary of Linda’s insights on the capabilities that enterprises and communities need to cultivate in order to manage innovative design.

•    Collaborative possibility creation – hold space for community, diversity and interaction where people actively participate – listen, discuss ideas, inquire, exchange feedback – and spark innovation for creating possibilities, instead of the problem-solution bias
•    Discovery-driven learning – run active experiments and rapid prototypes, iterate the process to test, reflect, adjust and refine ideas, use curiosity, playfulness, design thinking and feedback loops to learn from doing and make new discoveries
•    Integrative decision-making – combine even opposable ideas and constraints to reconfigure them in different combinations and create new possibilities and choices, develop holistic, dynamic, inclusive decision making to let “both and” solutions arise

These capabilities are especially important as guidance and training practice in groups of people designing together, where social interaction can be either the greatest block or catalyst for innovation.

Continuing the Work

In the current phase of our design collaboration, Jennifer and I focus on developing a page for design knowledge on the Gaia U eLearning website. The intention is to create an accessible space to collect and share valuable knowledge, concepts, tools and resources about design thinking. This includes the design module of the online orientation, extensions from our research, a glossary of terms and best practices, links to further resources, calls, tools, publications and a variety of forums for exchange of knowledge and peer to peer support. The first version, which we are expanding and enlivening now, was released during a Gaia Radio Community Call on participatory emergent design in October of this year. We invite contributions, collaboration and feedback to continually evolve this space.

After all, in times of change we need new ideas and choices, as the old ones become obsolete and even destructive. Design thinking can spark new possibilities and empower us to face the challenges and co-create a regenerative, thriving future. This is how I became enamored by design thinking and it has supported me to become more conscious, strategic and pro-active as a change agent. I love design because of its integrative, collaborative and creative qualities, it fills me with enthusiasm and a sense of endless possibilities. I deeply appreciate the opportunity this design project offers and want to express my gratitude to Jennifer for her inspiration, wisdom and friendship, all other contributors for the support and Gaia U as the transformative learning community, which introduced me to design.