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Design Thinking for the Creative Herbalist

Christopher Reiger "More Some Thing From No Thing" 2010

As herbalists, we are naturally using design processes all the time. Working in the plant and human world for the purpose of healing we are constantly dealing in very complex worlds. Plants are extremely complex as beings, as are human (& other animals). To deal with this complexity, we like to learn a tradition and adopt a framework for navigating this wildly colorful territory.

But maybe you, like me, constantly bump up against the fact that these are indeed lenses that we choose in order to understand these relationships and subsequently interact with those around us. From our studies, teachers and experiences we create conceptual frameworks from which we act. That’s helpful and practical, but I want to push you to go past what you know is comfortable and reimagine your practice so you are doing the wildest, most liberating brilliant work that you can. It’s because I care about your work–it’s hugely important! & we, the World, want you to bring your best to us.

A Way-Too-Brief Intro to Design Thinking

Part of my background is in Whole Systems Design. This is where I’m coming from so I’ll explain a little bit about it.

The design of my brainwork space.

Whole Systems Design is just what is says it is—it’s conscious, intentional design with the whole system in mind. It’s about understanding when some problems require technical solutions (like a chain that needs to be replaced on my bike) and those that are adaptive challenges and require design thinking (the unemployment rates in my community).

Design thinking is being conscious and aware of the values that drive the formation of something—a product, written work, clinical practice, whatever. It’s about building from the ground up, from your passions & values. And then the form emerges. But don’t just adopt a form because someone else is using it.

I think of Design as a love child of Science and Art. Design is a culture beyond Art and Science. It requires creative process but also utilizes methods of inquiry so that what is created is relevant and useful. Herbal practice is both and Art and Science. It’s Design.

Botanical Medicine Design

Apothecary wall.

There are infinite amounts of ways to make medicine from plants for the benefit of others. Goodness, just think of all the systems and traditions of medicine out there! With the plethora of spectrums of which to conceive of medicine, we are always making choices. Which plants? Parts? Menstrum? Moon signs and cosmic alignments? How to administer? You get the point. And we learn traditions, practices and methods that give us a working framework to make these choices.

Question of the Moment: What is the framework by which you design your medicines? Can you think outside your own box on your next project? Push your limits, reevaluate your assumptions.

Practice, Clinic and Consultation Design

Practice is an iterative process. Over time, you get to hone the kind of practitioner you and how you interact with clients. You design and redesign your office or clinic. What values drive your practice? How is that reflected in your clients’ experience with you?

Hawthorne flowers, inspiring me to let my work in the world bloom.

What if your consultations were done in your garden? Or during a plant walk? What about home visits? What if plants did the consultations?

For a moment, let your imagination spin and ask: What if?…

Worry about the practicality later.


I love seeing herbalists design creative education programs—ones that go beyond teaching the same forms of medicine at the same herb shops or schools or something. For example, my fellow collective member Emma Rose of the Olympia Free Herbal Clinic taught an intro to herbalism class at the women’s prison nearby last month. Or Sean Donahue teaching the teleseminar series on Herbal Allies for a Changing World. It’s creative and very relevant to where people are now. It’s really inspiring work.

Who are you serving with your work? Are there people whose needs aren’t being met?

Sheer Awesome.

Finally: who are YOU as an herbalist? How do you define or redefine the term? Is there a box around herbal practice? If so, are you pushing those limits? Don’t aspire to be like others. (And please, check out Kiva Rose & Jesse Wolf Hardin’s Diversity in Herbalism series!) Yes, it’s important to learn the domain and follow the teachings of others. We need to always be learning. But be intentional about it and know when it’s time to break the mold. Be strategic with how you interact with the herb world & larger social system. Don’t get stuck in a box. It’s dark and stinky in the box.

I don’t have the answers. But answers don’t matter all that much: it’s the good questions that count. Ask yourself the powerful questions. Question your assumptions, evaluate your frameworks.

Most of all, design who you are from your heart’s passion and values. After all, you’re the creator of your life, legacy & practice.

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Another amazing article! I really like your message. It resonates on a deeper
    Thank you for sharing. I love that “Not all herbalists are hippies” pic. Hilarious!


    November 16, 2011
  2. Alecia #

    Thank you for the beautiful insight and perspective!

    November 26, 2011
  3. Wonderful post!

    The questions and prompts are applicable to all sorts (maybe even all) businesses and passionate endeavors so I shall be sharing the link.

    November 29, 2011
  4. I love this- I was just thinking about it this morning, how the putting together of a formula is a creative process, one that can use a design board just as designing a logo or label would… also how much more fulfilling it is to put all of yourself into it- from the images that are associated with it to the label to the music to the colours to, the plants you choose and why, and then by the time you get to choosing the plants. Because none of these things are REALLY separate, in a way, especially not if you tend towards the creative anyway…

    December 8, 2011
    • Renée A.D. #

      “Because none of these things are REALLY separate, in a way, especially not if you tend towards the creative anyway…”

      I see that as both the challenge and opportunity with herbal practice. Because really, this work isn’t separate from anything. Connection is the cornerstone of our craft–connection to the Earth, connection to people & community. It’s really exciting, but it also makes our work cut out for us because we’re in the business of reconnection.

      And it’s not cut and dry, and following someone else’s pattern isn’t going to work. We’re each building our lives, legacy, practice and inspiration from the ground up, in partnership with our communities & habitat. And I think reconsidering how our values & vision drives our practice is a good thing, and that’s what inspired me to write this.

      Wouldn’t design studios for herbalists be fun?

      December 8, 2011
  5. I think you are really onto something! I have been reflecting about “something missing” in my work and have decided to re-design my office space which I am re-naming…. I think winter is a great time to reflect on our visions and yes, think outside that dang box!! I think we all need to trust our intuitions and re-invent the way we practice herbalism.
    Design studios for herbalists would be great!! Very inspirational. And wonderfully different! You have inspired me!
    Many thanks and many blessings,
    Betty Rinaldi

    January 8, 2012
    • Renée A.D. #

      Really glad that you enjoyed it Betty. Agreed- Winter is the best season to reflect and reinvent. It’s important to build one’s practice from the ground up guided by values, principles and authenticity…

      January 9, 2012
  6. IreneSturla #

    Creative whole systems designs posits relevant dynamic questionsat this point in time as a species, as practicing herbalists. Learning occurs in unique environments and to question the current paradigm allows for a living breathing practice with the beauteous complexity of working with the plant kingdom. Thank you for giving the opportunity to expand and explore new ways regardless of practical matters.

    February 2, 2013
    • Renée A.D. #

      Astutely said Irene. Thank you!

      February 11, 2013

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