The Living Design Method + Approach

Systems Thinking is radically changing our view of the world.

The Living Designtm Method + Approach

A new way of thinking about the world has been emerging over the past 30 years and it’s having a profound impact on our collective approach to design.

Systems thinking, and more recently living systems thinking are on their way to balancing the powerful, but limited perspective of reductive + mechanistic thinking that has guided human creativity and activity for almost 400 years. We think of this balanced world view, in which four forms of thinking: systems (living), reductive (mechanistic) and integrative are combined as the “living design approach.” Pattern thinking (here, here, here + here) is  the essential fourth form of thinking. It provides the perspective, vehicle and method that underlies, integrates + structures the approach to combining (and utilizing) the first three forms of thinking.

The most powerful aspect of the living design approach is its capacity to simultaneously provide vision + method to human creativity, because pattern can integratively carry both. We believe that widespread use of this approach could bring forth a world that is much more alive, more equitable + more sustainable than the paradigm of reductive knowledge, narrow self-interest and over-specialization that is prevalent throughout our social and mental landscape today. It could bring about a world centered on fostering the profound beauty of life in all of its forms.




The Shift in Creative Perspective

A shift in perspective from reductive, mechanistic thinking to inclusive, living thinking results in a new approach to problem solving. Unlike a reductively driven approach that strips the world and our problems of complexity, living design accepts and works with complexity as an essential ingredient to effective problem solving. However it’s not about throwing out reductive thinking. Living design actively weaves reductive thinking into the relational matrix of dynamic, living systems thinking in a way that effectively elevates our creative potential by mixing the two together.

The process of  Living Design is an emergent and iterative approach inspired by ecology, engineering, science, the humanities and the fine arts. Living design is emerging through the pioneering efforts of restorative, resilient + regenerative thinkers who are creating a new story for the world. The ideas  imprinted  by  Christopher Alexander (A Pattern Language), Fritjof Capra (The Web of Life) and Lewis Mumford (Technics and Civilization) are central to its expression. 

Authentically engaging with the complexity present in a living world is inspiring and evocative. Living thinking challenges everyone’s design and problem solving skills and in many ways, it requires new perspectives on how we interpret the world around us. Living design requires inventive ways of organizing our thoughts and generating order. We’d like to share our perspective on living order as it may be a helpful mental tool for those exploring living design.

Our essential perspective on living design is adapted and expanded  from The Nature of Order, Book I, The Phenomenon of Life, C. Alexander.

Outline of The Living Design Perspective

  • Life implies a functioning “wholeness,” which may be more or less complete.
  • Functioning wholes are comprised of influencing “centers.”

Some centers are “explicit, obvious <but> they are not all spatial. Other centers, some hidden, some hardly visible in the space, but latent, or biological, or social, also control the behavior of the world.”  (Alexander)

  • An influencing center is defined as a coherent entity.
    • A door
    • A kitchen sink
    • A tree
    • A building
    • A forest
    • A city
    • A policy
    • A Community

Three Attributes and types of centers that create wholeness (Pierce):

  • Spatial – 2 Dimensions, 3 Dimensions, 4 Dimensions – time
  • Flows – Thought, energy, water, materials, social relationships, etc.
  • Realms – Collections that inform or describe a center or whole

Core Principles of the Living Design Perspective

  • A center can be a whole, in turn a whole can be a center nested within and contributing to ever greater wholes.
  • As a general principle of life (wholes) are more complete and more vital when more (not fewer) centers are woven together.
  • As a general principle of life, centers must provide a net positive influence with other centers and wholes in order to extend vitality or life. Otherwise they are a net negative and contribute to decline or death.

Structure + Method

The C3 Living Design Project (C3LD) is actively  imprinting this new approach by collaboratively creating, connecting and curating the patterns of life. Inspired by the concept of eco-system scales, we are organizing the living world of ideas and patterns into nine scaled categories or ‘Channels’ and three classes or ‘Dimensions.’ From here, the information is used to inform + inspire the development of living patterns, concepts, indicators and metrics. For ease of communication, we frequently refer to all of these simply as ‘patterns.’  The patterns are then used as the ‘structure’ to catalyze an emergent whole systems design solution that is in itself, an integrated pattern.  Our website includes a Pattern Library drawing extensively from existing patterns developed by a wide range of organizations and individuals. It also houses new patterns that we are collaboratively developing through our C3LD Incubator and our field work with real-world projects, universities, organizations + individuals.

Consider each pattern to be adaptable and blendable with other patterns that have already been developed or with patterns that are unique to your project and need to be created.

You may participate or enter the the living design approach + dialogue at any scale, channel or dimension that fits your project, your skills or your interest. You can work up, down or laterally from there. We often find that looking through one scale beyond your point of entry, in both directions (larger and smaller), is the minimum amount of scale jumping needed to bring out the active relationship dialogue inherent in living thinking.

Like the compounds in a chemistry set, living patterns are reactive with other living patterns and combining them spins-off new compounds or new patterns.

Unlike a tried and true chemistry formula, the results are not predictable. They are the result of creativity, imagination and integrative thinking. Selecting and combining patterns that are alive with collaborative energy and vitality is essential to creating living designs and living solutions. Dead patterns are ultimately non-collaborative and they expand the anti-vital forces at work in the world leading to stagnation and sterility.

C3 Living Design Project scaled Channels

  • 01  DT | Design + Thinking
  • 02  LP | Life + Planet
  • 03  RB | Region + Bio-region
  • 04  CW | Community + Watershed
  • 05  NS | Neigborhood + Site
  • 06  OF | Organization + Facility
  • 07  PM | People* + Products
  • 08  SW | Soil + Water
  • 09  ME | Matter + Energy
*Includes Animals + Insects
C3 Living Design Project panoramic Dimensions

Society + Equity Nature + Environment Capital + Economics


Vision + Method through Pattern Thinking

Through the use of pattern thinking, the C3LD project seeks to integrate vision + method into a seamless stream of action and results.

At its core, the C3 Living Design Project (C3LD) has embraced a pattern thinking approach because it uniquely and simultaneously embodies vision and method. In pattern thinking, vision and method become fundamentally inseparable.  The combination works like this: Patterns describe actions, solutions and ideas (vision). Multiple patterns are created, combined and adapted to solve problems across multiple scales and issues (method). The method of creating, combining and adapting patterns can be used to develop unique, wholistic design solutions, generating new and ever larger patterns (vision). Because the knowledge embodied by a pattern can be easily made available to others, the pattern (vision) can be easily shared (method). Documenting patterns and sharing them represents a form of collaborative vision sharing and the vision(s) represented by patterns, as noted previously, can be be blended and adapted to a specific context (vision and method).

The theoretical basis of the C3 Living Design Project seeks to integratively bring together living systems thinking + mechanistic reductive thinking

As discussed above, simultaneously applying living systems thinking and mechanistic reductive thinking + integrative thinking can create an empowered design approach that elevates the human potential to create and to solve problems of ever increasing complexity with elegant solutions.

A Fundamental Shift in Human Perspective – From Mechanistic to Living

Over the past 1,000 years, technological, mechanistic thinking has been become the dominant vehicle our society uses to channel the human capacity for creative enterprise. Mechanistic thinking has captured our minds and structures our society. Through the dominate use of mechanistic thinking, with little or no inclusion of living thinking, humankind has become an overwhelming influence on planet earth. Unfortunately our focus on mechanistic thinking has biased our development as a species towards dis-aggregated solutions that are degenerative to living systems. Our mechanistic worldview is void of significant purpose, beyond consumption, as the means to maintain a mechanistic economy based on extraction and exploitation.  It is essential that we rapidly develop the intellectual and societal capacity to organize + manage our reductive, mechanistic capacity for tool-making, artifact development and manipulation of the landscape for the betterment of the present and the future. While mechanistic, linear thinking is considered an important part of living design, it is recognized that it must reside in dynamic, integrative balance with living systems thinking. We must error to the side of life and vitality, not to the side of machines and spiraling degradation.

We consider Living Design to be a shift of emphasis from the mechanistic, object oriented thinking that dominates our current mental lens to one that is primarily informed by  living systems oriented thinking and the frequently intangible, emergent properties that are created by interactive relationships

This represents a fundamental reorientation of our ontological perspective, our view of the world and the way we solve problems. As noted above, the Living Design Approach embodies the conscious use of (3) epistemologies to inform thinking + problem solving:

Ecology + Systems (Complexity)

Science + Analysis (Reduction)

Integration + Polarity

A New Story for a Living World is outlined in the “About the C3 Living Design” page.


Our world, which is now influenced heavily by human ingenuity and creativity is a clearly at risk. It is imperative that we re-channel our native capacity for creativity, adaptation through technology + physical objects to be in balance with the whole of life. Our approach to designing our world is need of deep transformation.

We believe the design + thinking tools above can be part of that transformation. All of the thinking approaches have overlapping characteristics, some more than others.  They can be highly compatible if approached with an adaptive, integrative attitude. With practice, their blended use can result in a creative process that embodies grounded vision + inspired method. When combined with the stock of available green design patterns, good research skills and an attitude of innovation – a single designer or an entire team can develop inspired + purposeful living solutions that go well beyond the visual manipulation of form, space, texture, color and light that are the central preoccupation of modern design.

 **We define Natural Design as the evolutionary process of life that creates and recreates our world on a daily basis.

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Translating Ideas Into Action


C3 Living Design Project