Monday, 5 December 2011

The Charles Eames Design Diagram

The Eames Design Diagram, aka 'Statement of the Eames Design Process' as displayed in the 1969 Exhibition Qu'est-ce Que Le Design? (What is Design?) at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. 

According to this diagram, the design process can only be successful when it identifies the overlapping needs of the designer, the client, and society "as a whole" and when it develops products that serve all three.

I've been thinking about this in terms of permaculture design, and ecological concerns (Carl Hastrich has thoughts in a parallel dimension in his piece Biomimicry and Design Definition). The first thing that stands out to me is that apparently innocent phrase "the concerns of society as a whole", how are we to understand this? It seems that there are two main ways we could interpret this. The first would be a political interpretation, following Otto Von Bismarck's description of politics as the "die Kunst des Möglichen" (the art of the possible). This interpretation recognises cultural limits around the type of design outputs that would be acceptable to wider society and accepts these as design parameters. The second interpretation would be an ethical accounting approach, one that might address society's concerns through techniques such as 'triple bottom line' criteria.

The second interpretation provides a meeting place for permaculture design, through the application of permaculture ethics as our accounting criteria. According to our permaculture thinking therefore, the concerns of society as a whole would be reflected by an area of activity in which care of the earth, care of people, and an equitable distribution of resources were recognised.

Permaculture Ethics: Earth Care, People Care, Fair Share

 Directly layering the permaculture ethics venn onto the Eames design diagram venn, is somewhat problematic, reflecting the true complication of the world. Finding a meeting point in which the intersections of both collections of sets overlap becomes more difficult.  There are surely instances for example that would fit within the interests and concerns of the designer, the interests of the client, and meet the criteria of earth care and people care, yet do not address the issue of fair share. 

In fact as we think about our situation as permaculture designers, this is obvious as we frequently find few opportunities to work with clients on projects which satisfy their expressed needs, realise permaculture and reflect our own interests and concerns (financial, intellectual, emotional etc.) in a way that allows us to work with conviction and enthusiasm. While we live in a 'destructoculture' world, design opportunities will tend to largely fall into business-as-usual frameworks that dictate the shape of acceptable outputs. This of course is the same factor discussed above as the political interpretation of "the concerns of society as a whole".

So we might divide "the concerns of society as a whole" into two sets: that which mainstream society deems as fitting its needs, and that which fits the ethical needs expressed within permaculture. This does not ease the difficulty of finding a meeting point in which the intersections of all sets overlap, but it does identify more clearly the nature of their misalignment. This is also a way in which we can identify projects in which we can be effective and those in which we cannot, and therefore concentrate our efforts in the former. A tool for recognising that sub-set of everything we are concerned about, that is amenable to our influence.

In his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey describes the problems, challenges, and opportunities we face as falling into two areas: our 'Circle of Concern' and our 'Circle of Influence'. In concentrating on our circle of influence, where our energy is used most effectively, we tend to find that we expand our edge, widening our influence over more of the area of our concern.

The edge of our circle of influence in this design context, will often also be the place where the set of activities which mainstream society deems as fitting its needs rubs up against the set of activities which fit the ethical needs expressed within permaculture. So as we concentrate our energies on our circle of influence, we will tend to find our most productive activities happening right on the edge of that circle. Here where the forest of permaculture thinking keeps dropping its seeds into the surrounding fields is the creative interface with "the concerns of society as a whole".

What is Design?
Permaculture Principles
Stephen R. Covey The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People


  1. Another idea, I didn't manage to squeeze in here Gaia follows the line in the Eames diagram about putting more clients into the model. Permaculturalist Darren Doherty speaks about Gaia being his 'primary client', with the ostensible client of a design just happening to be the sponsor of an opportunity to engage in regenerative design. If we take the permaculture ethics to represent a Gaian approach, the model proposed in this post effectively follows this process.

  2. More than a Venn diagram this is a Euler diagram I guess. Venn diagrams are usually consist of max 4 intersections as I know.

    shalin @ creately