What is Holistic Design?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Holistic design is an approach to design which considers the system being designed as an interconnected whole which is also part of something larger. Holistic concepts can be applied to architecture as well as the design of mechanical devices, the layout of spaces, and so forth. This approach to design often incorporates concerns about the environment, with holistic designers considering how their design will impact the environment and attempting to reduce environmental impact in their designs.

Incorporating solar panels into a structure may be considered a holistic design.
Incorporating solar panels into a structure may be considered a holistic design.

Aesthetics can also be an important consideration in holistic design. Designers may consider how the design will look as a whole, thinking about different ways in which people will view the design. For example, when designing a structure, the designer reflects on the environment the structure will be built in, thinking about how it will integrate into the existing environment, and also about how views of the structure may change depending on angle, time of day, and other factors. In addition, the designer considers how the space will feel from the inside, and what kind of messages should be sent with the space.

The integration of a consistent look and feel is an important aspect of holistic design. Jarring design elements can throw off the aesthetics of the entire design. Holistic designers try to design spaces with future needs in mind so that additions which change the nature of the space will not need to be made. Designers try to make spaces flexible and easy to maintain to reduce the need to make major changes in response to changing needs.

This approach to design can also consider how other things in the same design family will fit. A designer of computer peripherals, for example, would want to design them in a way which meshes well aesthetically as well as functionally with the computers they are designed for. Some companies are especially famous for the beauty and harmony of their designs, with users appreciating that any product from the product line will look and work well with other products.

Holistic design also heavily incorporates sustainability, as discussed above. Designers may try to work with materials which are sustainable, and to design efficiency and environmental friendliness into whichever system is being built, whether it is a computer or a high rise. Sometimes making small changes during the design phase can have a big environmental impact, and this is an important consideration in holistic design. The designer may consider everything from passive systems to reduce energy use to active systems which are designed to make a structure's carbon footprint smaller.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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A good friend of mine's wife is a holistic practitioner. She mostly does stuff with health and wellness but I know that she has offered interior design advice to a few of her clients. She talked to my wife about it some but my wife is a pretty skeptical and I think she just smiled and forgot everything that was said.


I attend classes on holistic design at a holistic wellness center and it has been an enlightening experience. It is unlike any design class I have ever taken. I was trained as a graphic designer and most of my schooling involved learning techniques and programs. It was surprisingly not abstract.

My holistic design class has almost been more of a philosophy class than a design class. Design is always at the center of everything we do but the discussion and instruction ventures out into areas I never would have expected. It teaches you to incorporate the entire world into your designs. I really like the way my work is changing as a result of the class.


It is hard to give an accurate description of holistic design because everyone's interpretation of holistic will be different. It is a very personal and subjective thing and not something you can set down in concrete.

But this is also the best thing about it. Since it is not rigid there is a tremendous amount of freedom and the room for personal expression. So much of western designers are very stuck up in tradition. Holistic designers can follow their inspiration wherever it may take them.

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