Using Principles of Permaculture in Design: How Mother Nature is the Best Designer

Using Principles of Permaculture in Design: How Mother Nature is the Best Designer

permaculture design

In 2013, I worked on a farm in Brazil that practiced Permaculture, a philosophy (coined by Bill Mollison) that seeks to apply nature’s approach to the way we live. This farm I lived on was entirely self-sustainable. They caught rainwater in an apparatus on the roof that was filtered for showers. Plants grew in every corner of the property, and food scraps were composted or fed to the chickens who gave us eggs. The give and take was full circle. We needed nothing but what we had on that farm and the “work for food” process was extremely direct. Permaculture: permanent agriculture, no need for outside resources.

There are twelve design principles of permaculture and while some are specifically for farming, the idea of efficiency and observing what naturally works can be applied to design and in all areas of our lives. Yay Mother Nature!

Let’s use the natural world to create our worlds, businesses, and lives more efficiently and more beautifully. Nature is our best designer.

Design Principles of Permaculture

(underlined principles applicable to business)

# 1 Observe and Interact:

By taking time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.

Application: Get to know your industry, your audience, your market and cater your solution to fit those needs.

# 2 Catch and Store Energy:

By developing systems that collect resources at peak abundance, 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.

Application: Don’t continue with a ceratin way of working if results are not worth the work.

# 4 Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback:

We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well.

Application: Have frequent discussions about what is and isn’t working. 

# 5 Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services:

Make the best use of nature’s abundance to reduce our consumptive behavior and dependence on nonrenewable resources.

# 6 Produce No Waste:

By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.

Application: This applies to your own energy as well. Use all available resources before putting you or your business into overdrive to prevent burnout.

# 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.

Application: Start out with a sketch of what you see in your mind. Every project starts with a good skeleton.

# 8 Integrate Rather than Segregate:

By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things, and they work together to support each other.

Application: This is a key to great UX. All things are integrated and build off of each other.

# 9 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.

Application: Bring in minds of all types to collaborate on design to get the best results possible.

# 10 Use Small and Slow Solutions:

Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and producing more sustainable outcomes.

# 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.

Application: Our working environment and tastes in design are constantly changing. Keep aware of what is on the rise by observing. Then respond accordingly.

Permaculture design in practice


First image from:

Second image taken by author, Heather Hasselle

Design Defined: What it is and How it Applies to your Website

Design Defined: What it is and How it Applies to your Website

William Morris wallpaper

What are we talking about when we talk about design? Paul Rand (an American graphic designer–best known for designing the logos of ABC, IBM, UPS and more) says,



Design is the method of putting form and content together. Design, just as art, has multiple definitions; there is no single definition. Design can be art. Design can be aesthetics. Design is so simple, that’s why it is so complicated.



Design can mean any of the following:

  1. (v.) to indicate with a distinctive mark, sign or name.
  2. (n.) purpose, planning, or intention that exists or is thought to exist behind an action, fact, or material object
  3. (v.) to decide upon the look and functioning of an object (typically through a detailed drawing)

And these are only a few of the definitions. Design is simple. Design is complex. Design is a plan of intention. It is the idea before the product. It exists first in the mind and then in the senses. The designer creates an experience. Design (especially web design) refers to both a function and an aesthetic.

Ferninand A. Porsche (German Designer, best known for the Porsche 911) agrees. He says,


Design must be functional, and functionality must be translated into visual aesthetics, without any reliance on gimmicks that have to be explained.



Design can not exist alone as a function, as how something works (though certainly it is that); however, it must also, if we’re doing it “right,” lean toward form–how it looks, feels, etc. And as we live in a time of efficiency, of fast streamlined production, it is important that we not lose the importance of art in design. That we focus on both what it it looks like and how it feels (how it works).


Porsche 911
Porsche 911

With a medium so complex and vast as web-design, it might be useful to remember this when formulating an idea for design:


Keep nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.



William Morris, British artist, designer, writer in the 1800’s, said this. The same can be said for design. Design combines use and beauty; it is art with a purpose.

A well-designed site allows us to accomplish our intended task online easily and with pleasure. And if pleasure is what we most seek in life (if Freud is right, and I think he might be on this one), it only makes sense as designers, as marketers, as business owners, that we add pleasure into the aspects of function. And why not be a pleasing experience, when after all, 72% of Millennials do online research before buying in store (Forbes). With that much time spent online, we want to have fun doing it.

How do you keep us coming back?

We are impatient creatures, and sensitive to time. So sensitive that if a site takes more than three seconds to load, 40 percent of us will leave the page, making load time the most important factor in site traffic. This is where back-end design comes in–the “how it works.”

Visual design comes in second in importance of maintaining site traffic, specifically color theme. It comes as no surprise that the color we most prefer is the most pervasive color in the natural world: green, with blue not far behind; followed by purple, orange, and yellow (respectively), and then red which actually is aversive, causing sites to lose traffic (-1.35%).

Usage is also affected by layout and whether or not a site uses html (html increases traffic). But perhaps the most important reason to put the effort into building a well-designed site is to maintain the trust of your readers/users. After all, 94% of people cite design (or lack thereof) the reason they do not trust a site.

The Formula

Let’s say a formula for what good design can bring us looks something like this: art with purpose (design) creates a pleasurable experience and trust (increase in site traffic) creates wealth (sales). A win-win-win situation, if you’re asking us. And if you are, we can help you make it happen.

Don’t Burn the Pizza: How to Work Effectively with Creatives and Developers

Don’t Burn the Pizza: How to Work Effectively with Creatives and Developers

A developer and a designer walk into a bar.  The developer complains about the layout of the bar while the designer complains about the style of bar stools and the color scheme.  The bar quickly empties out because no one wants to be around either one of them.

With the joke introduction to this post out of the way, let’s get to the point.  Developers and designers are different breeds that spend the holidays together.  They rely on one another at times but can’t wait for time away from each other.  There are those that claim to be both a developer and a designer, but the greats in either field will only claim to be one or the other.  A great chef will never tell you how to run a restaurant because his priority, his passion is the food.  Just as the best maître d’ would never tell the chef that the gazpacho needs more smoked paprika.

Despite the different roles that developers and designers have, you will always need them if you want to take your website to the next level.  You can’t do their work just like they can’t do yours, so don’t waste time and resources trying to do it yourself.

Before deciding to utilize a developer and/ or a designer, never forget the single most important rule: DO NOT GIVE THEM FREE REIGN.  Giving either one of these professionals the ropes while you take a seat in the back of the wagon will result in a nose dive off a cliff.  Your business, your website belongs to you and you have too much to lose by taking a hands-off approach when hiring developers and designers.  There’s no scientific process that should be used, but there are some fundamentals to follow when the decision has been made to hire out.

Consider the following 4 points:

# 1 Take the time to determine exactly what you need and why you need it.

It’s a basic rule to always follow. Understand the problem so you can define it.  If you don’t know what your problem/need is, how will you know when there is a solution or the correct result is achieved? “Trial and error” is a great method when you’re in school, but this is business.  There’s no time or resources to waste in business.  It, whatever “it” may be, needs to be done correctly the first time.  Whether it’s streamlining your website checkout process, adding additional product pages, or creating a new page layout, you have to be able to explain it in as much detail as possible. Don’t be afraid to load them up with as many examples as you can find.  This will narrow the scope for the developers and designers and will keep them on track and focused on what you ultimately need.

#2 Maintain oversight.

The sacred ritual of cooking pizza requires constant peeps into the oven to ensure even and thorough baking to prevent the dreaded of all nightmares, burnt pizza.  If you use a microwave, I hope you find forgiveness in your life because I have none for you.  Even though you have given your developers and designers a detailed scope of work, you need to request constant updates and schedule reviews to ensure they are on the correct track and haven’t strayed.  Failing to schedule periodic updates and reviews can potentially delay your project and increase the costs of the project.  Of course, it may be challenging to review developers’ and designers’ work given the nature of what they do, so consider outlining ways in the initial work-plan that are to be used to achieve this.  Request sketches, wireframes, and any other work with the necessary explanations to ensure that your project is on track.  By staying in the loop, you can catch mistakes early and avoid getting “burned.”

#3 Keep up clear communication.

Yes, everyone knows the importance of communication, but there are endless reasons why we sometimes fail at it.  Two of the more common reasons are egos and failure to see perspective.  In the first case, there are no simple rules to handling others’ egos.  Some people are able to put their own aside when dealing with a challenging one, but others cannot.  The only advice I can offer is to try to stay focused on the desired goal.  If a man wants to be called a sandwich artist, I’ll do it for an extra slice of cheese even if the only artist I recognize is the one formerly known as Prince.  In my heart I know what an artist is, but I can’t let my ego get in the way of an extra slice of cheese.  Let people have their pedestals and boost them up at times, you’ll get more from them and might be surprised by what they do in return.  As far as understanding perspectives, remind yourself that you don’t know it all.  If you think you do, well, that’s an ego I’m not touching.  Ask questions and try to understand where the developer and/ or designer is coming from if there is a problem.  You’ll be in a better position if you understand both sides of the issue, and your project stands to benefit.

#4 Make harmony between ebony and ivory

If you have brought on a designer and a developer on the same project, you need to follow the above steps three times over.  Make yourself a quasi-project manager, and keep yourself informed with their progression.  The designer-developer relationship is like a hot air balloon.  You have fire, a wicker basket, and you’re dangerously high off the ground.  If you can define the scope of the project, maintain an active review of the project’s progression, and ensure open and clear communication is being utilized on all fronts, then you can avoid a fiery crash back down to the hard, unforgiving ground.

Developers and designers offer value and can be used to bring your website to the next level.  But never forget that it’s your business they are working for and so always remain actively involved in the projects that they’ve been brought on to handle.

Shuhari: Follow, Break, Transcend–A Guide to Mastery

Shuhari: Follow, Break, Transcend–A Guide to Mastery

We’ve all heard that practice makes perfect, but maybe it’s a little more than that–or a little less.

The way to excellence is to learn the rules and then toss them, letting our inner creative compass guide us.

This is the lesson of Shuhari–the martial arts concept that describes the stages of learning toward mastery. To understand the full meaning of Shuhari, we must look at its three components: Shu, Ha, and Ri.


Shu: This is the first stage of learning in which you must learn all the rules. You must come to know them by heart, so much so, that they are internalized into second nature. They become so ingrained that the movements are mere muscle memory.

Ha: This step involves breaking the rules which you have become so familiar with, not just thoughtlessly, but with a focus on self-reflection. This is the search for your individual potential and goals, asking yourself which techniques are the best fit. In which areas do you as an individual excel? This stage is about innovation and customizing the rules to fit you.

Ri: This final stage happens more subconsciously, as the other steps have been internalized. It is “form without being conscious of form.”

It is the intuitive expression of technique, creating through inspiration instead of guidance.

Once you have been given the proper tools and know how to use them and have searched within yourself to find your own, you then transcend–becoming the only tool necessary.

The concept of Shuhari can be applied to business, art, theater, poetry, web design, etc. To see it more clearly, we will look at Shuhari applied to the art of figure drawing (drawing the human body):

To draw the human body, you would first need to become entirely familiar with both the body and with the act of drawing–learning, for example, exactly how to draw an arm, practicing it over and over and over. Then doing this with each part, with precision of your tool (pencil, charcoal) knowing exactly how to wield them to get the look you desire. This is Shu.

Then once you’ve reached the point in which you are able to successfully depict a person in their physical likeness, you must then break from these rules you’ve learned (Ha), trying different drawing techniques—(mis)using your tool, using an entirely different tool, drawing quickly, using your fingers to smudge, etc. So that with experimentation you progressively move in to Ri, in which your instincts guide you. So that you would not only be able to use the foundation of the basic rules that have become instilled in you to draw a person, but also able to pick from a variety of methods which feel most natural and inspiring. Then moving and acting not from a feeling of what has been learned, but by an internal guide of inspiration, so that you end up conveying not just the human body, but a person, and their essence, and within that, as an expression of yourself, the artist.

shuhari (1)

So let us, in this time of the rise of the creative mind and individual expression, apply Shuhari to our work, our art and ourselves–forever becoming closer to pure inner inspiration and mastery.

Hiking,, and Bad UX: A Case Study

Hiking,, and Bad UX: A Case Study

Designing a website with great usability is an intricate process and can be accomplished in many ways, but in its most basic form, a well-thought-out website boasting solid user experience should accomplish one thing.  It should provide clear direction that allows your user to navigate the website resulting in no “dead ends” or uninformed decisions.

Being an outdoorsy person who enjoys hiking, I like to relate the user experience to a trail map. An inaccurate map causes a hiker to lose confidence in its value very quickly. The same goes for a website.  With both a trail map and a website, you have to assume the user knows nothing and has never been there; therefore the two things you want to avoid are the user coming to a “dead end” or the user becoming lost and confused.

When I refer to a “dead end,” I am talking about a situation in which the user comes to a point on a website where he can’t accomplish the task he set out to do because the user interface is not giving him a clear option on how to navigate to the next step or, even worse, the next step does not even exist. More often than not this results in a user leaving your site or calling customer service, both of which cost you money and potentially, your customer’s happiness.

A dead end is bad, but even worse is when a user becomes lost and confused.  Go back to the hiking analogy. A lost and confused person on a trail, using an unreliable map, does not know if he is continuing down the right or wrong path and could eventually tire himself out to the point of exhaustion walking in circles. The same can happen on a website.

We don’t claim any political affiliation here at Xtra Mile Media, but we think one thing both sides of the aisle can agree on is that a poor user experience is frustrating at the least and very costly at the worst, especially when it comes to important issues like health care.

Case Study:

Let’s take a look at, a beautiful website with a clean appearance.  After spending just a little time on the website, you will begin to see that the UX was secondary to design when this website was being developed.  We will cite a case study or “user story” of a user who wants to reset his password.


Lost Password on

User Story:

User should easily be able to reset his password.


The User lost his password and was sent a password reset email.   The email had a link that redirected him to the website, where his goal, of course, is to reset his password. Sounds simple enough, right?  Well, you would think, but this objective obviously was not tested for optimal usability.

Step 1

He is asked to enter the answer to three security questions.

Step 2

He enters the three answers

Step 3

He enters his new password info.

Step 4

He is returned an error message that tells him 1 of 2 things could be wrong and gives him the option to return to the login page.   Time to start over.

Problem Solved:


User story accomplished:


Analysis :

First, he feels confused. Second, he is not confident that if he proceeds and spends additional time on this site that he might be able to solve his user problem. Does he want to keep heading down the wrong path and invest more time into this?  Probably not.   Most users will probably pick up the phone and call, or they will leave the site.  Either option probably results in a frustrated and angry user.

What’s the main issue here? does not define a clear direction or solution to the user.  Instead, the error page gives him two different things that could be wrong:

    1. One or more of your three answers to your security questions could be wrong. (Once you return to the login page to start the process over again, you have very little additional information with which to solve the problem on the 2nd time around.)

2.  You didn’t provide a new password.


Start with option one: It’s a little more complicated than it seems because you could have one, two, or three of any combination of the answers wrong.  Let’s take a look at the possible combinations of answers: use w for wrong and r for right.

www, wwr, wrw, wrr, rww, rwr, rrw, rrr

That is 8 different combinations of possible right and wrong answers that you have to play a game of memory with until you get them right, each time navigating through the entire loop to get to the final screen telling you if you got them right or wrong.

Then there’s the second error message. It is just absolutely unclear.  If the user didn’t enter a new password (which he did), then why the heck is it even suggesting that he did? Plus, he clearly did because he had to enter one to progress to this step.


The solution here is fairly simple and could be solved with a little bit of thought accompanied by a few extra lines of code from the developer.

On this screen, the user should immediately be told which questions are wrong and not allowed to proceed until they are right.

If there is a password issue, he should be told that issue on this screen

With a little bit of testing and these few tweaks, you have provided clear direction for the user and enhanced a beautifully designed website with a beautiful experience.

User Experience should always be the primary concern of your product design and development team.  Often, people get art and design confused. Exceptional design can be great art, but unlike art, good design must provide clarity and direction to the user.

Ignoring usability on your website could limit your beautifully-crafted work of art into being just that, a work of art.

SEEK & FIND: The Importance of a Search Feature on your online store

SEEK & FIND: The Importance of a Search Feature on your online store

Search feature

There  is no confirmed percentage, but most e-commerce experts will agree that customers browsing a particular online marketplace have a general idea of what they are looking for.  If it’s not a particular item, it’s in a definable realm of products.  The beauty of online shopping is that within moments of realizing that you want something, you can be browsing virtual shelves displaying the exact product you seek.  There’s no having to take a shower, or having to change clothes, or dealing with traffic, or parking, or annoying crowds.

If a customer enters your virtual store, then they most likely understand that you are carrying, or potentially may carry, the item they desire.  But how easily is it for them to find that item?  Is your site easy to navigate? Are your products placed in clear and concise categories? Can they find that velvet turtleneck within three or four clicks?  Of course they can. You did your due diligence, and you understand that to get that item in your customer’s cart, they have to find it first. Your practical and logical navigation features are simply perfect.  So we’re good there.

But not every customer browses online stores the same way. There are people that shop with a precise efficiency and determination. These shoppers take a different approach, and they know exactly what they want. They do their research, and they want to give you their money.  The only catch: they want to use the search tool, and if yours is hard to find or tucked away in a corner they will be a “gone pecan.”  (Southern phrase that translates to something having to do with leaving.)

All online stores should include a search feature.  The feature allows a customer to bypass the stroll down the aisles and go directly to the product or item they are seeking to find.  Your site needs the search tool just as I need my walkman playing Darius Rucker in order to fall asleep at night.  But how obvious is your search tool?  Is it placed in an obvious spot?  Are you using an icon that is easily recognizable?  Will it lead a customer to the right item?

The search feature can sometimes be an eyesore in an otherwise beautifully designed landing page.  Its mundane and common appearance gives it an unoriginal quality that just bothers you.  Too bad, this isn’t about you.  It’s about your customers, and customers will use it, so you have to have it.  An intelligent and creative designer can make it fit.  Regardless of your feelings about the search bar, consider the following three questions when incorporating it into your sight.

Consider the following 3 questions:

# 1 Is it in plain sight or can it be found within a second or two?

The search feature is an integral way for your customers to find the goods that fill up their carts.  This fact should make you drop any qualms you previously held against the “search.”  You should view the feature not as a hindrance but rather a feature as important as the navigation menus you’ve worked so hard on.  Placing it where it can be easily spotted near the top or close to your menu bar will ensure that the customers that intend to use this feature don’t click away because they can’t find it.

#2 Is there text already sitting in the search box?

Some search boxes already have a word or phrase sitting in the box.  The purpose I’m sure is to inform the page visitor that this is where they type what they are searching for.  Although useful, online shopping and surfing the web in general have now become routine activities for most of us.  Don’t waste your customers’ time by forcing them to erase pre-existing text in the search box.  Customers should be able to click in the box and begin typing immediately.  Having to delete words that they did not fill in is annoying, and although it’s trivial, in the big scheme of the shopping process, why allow yourself to be the one store behind the curve?  No major online marketplace does it, so why should you?  “So for now, for your customer’s sake, for your daughter’s sake,” (Chris Farley, Tommy Boy) you should avoid it.

#3 How can customers use your search feature?

This can quickly become a time consuming and drawn out process because it may require adding additional descriptions to your inventory. But because every sale matters, you’ll decide to do it. Some customers may search by SKU number, some by product descriptions, some by obscure references that don’t relate. How have you identified and tagged each product? You’ll want to be sure that no matter how a customer tries to search an item, it finds its way onto the search results. One of the best ways to handle this is to examine a competitor’s site and perform a search for a product using a variety of references. Then do the same to your site. What differences do you encounter? This will not only allow you to analyze a competitor but will also show you some better tags to use for your products or give you other additional ideas.

It is undisputed that a search feature is necessary for all online stores. The only question to ask yourself is which category of online store you fall in: stores utilizing their search feature for their customers’ benefit (and ultimately to boost sales) or online stores that are allowing it to sit under-utilized.