Two of the most important books I've read so far this year has been The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander.
The two subjective criteria I use to judge how important a book I've read is to me are content, and connectivity. If a book has quality content, I know I'll want to reread the book in the future. Connectivity is the extent to which I find myself drawing connections and parallels between the book in question and what author Italo Calvino calls the "One Book": the very individual meta-book, accessible only by you, made up of everything you've read, learned, and lived up to that point.
These books have fulfilled both of those. They've enriched my thinking about the principles of good design, and how good design works to empower the users of the design. They've also equipped me with a useful framework for organizing and applying knowledge in a way that enables both creativity and quality outputs.
And to the second criterion, I've found myself thinking about how some of the patterns in the book treat and solve fundamental tensions in our lives. I'll illustrate that in a post tomorrow by examining a very poignant pattern in Alexander's works, the Zen View.
A pattern in the way that Christopher Alexander uses the word is a contextualized, repeatable solution to a problem. They are essentially rules of thumbs and heuristics: memorable and easy to apply. A pattern language is a collection of patterns that, as a whole, guide one's behavior. If the pattern language in question is based on universal, timeless principles, then the construction will have what Alexander calls the quality without a name.
The search which we make for this quality which has no name, in our own lives, is the central search of any person, and the crux of any individual person's story. It is the search for those moments and situations when we are most alive.
Well-built designs following good pattern languages not only possess this quality of aliveness and timelessness, they also empower the users with this nameless quality, allowing them to step into their ideal selves.
In A Pattern Language, the various patterns are organized by type, which in Alexander's pattern language includes urban planning, the design of individual buildings and building complexes, and the actual construction of a building. Within each of these applications, the patterns are arranged hierarchically. That is, you begin with the most important patterns that influence the siting, location, and orientation of the building. As you move through each successive pattern, you build on top of what you've designed so far. You don't worry about the location of the windows in the rooms until you've arranged the rooms in the house in a way that captures the quality without a name. And you don't arrange the rooms until you've decided where, exactly, the building will go in relation to the environment and other buildings around it.
This intuitively makes sense. The power of a rich, expressive pattern language is in the structure it provides for us to work through the problem of, for example, How do I build a house for my family? A good problem-solving structure doesn't constrain creativity, it enables it.
Says Chip and Dan Heath in their book, Made to Stick (p.22):
In 1999, an Israeli research team assembled a group of 200 highly regarded ads- ads that were finalists and award winners in the top advertising competitions. They found that 89% of the award-winning ads could be classified into six basic categories, or templates [read: patterns]... When the researchers tried to classify these 'less successful' ads, they could classify only 2% of them. The surprising lesson of this story: Highly creative ads are more predictable than uncreative ones
In the case of Alexander's pattern language, if we know that any room should have natural light from at least two sides (pattern 159), and we know there's a good reason for this- rooms that follow this pattern are comfortable, rooms that don't follow this pattern tend to be harsh and to oppress us- then the creative challenge becomes, how do we arrange the rooms and windows in such a way that we can fulfill this pattern? We don't have to reinvent the wheel and rediscover with each new building how to make the rooms comfortable and naturally well lit. A pattern language, with its collection of heuristics and rules of thumb, lends itself to transmission and teaching. If we can believe that the pattern is useful and true, then we can focus on applying it, creatively.
As you can tell, this book was inspiring to me on many levels. I've always been fascinated by architecture and construction, even though I have zero experience in the field. My dream one day is to build my own house. This book convinced me that for any space to be alive, the end users must have a role in the design process. Written in the early seventies, this message echoes a lot of modern design movements, such as Human Centered Design (HCD). Simply put, HCD is the idea of designing not just for someone, but with someone. My startup team and I at Levate have been using HCD extensively to develop our wheelchair lift. Essentially, the idea is to work with the end user while iterating quickly on your team's proposed solution. You have the user try out or play with the prototype, and give you feedback. You incorporate this into your next quick prototype and repeat the cycle.
Since reading Alexander's works, I've been thinking about other skills and crafts that lend themselves to expression via a pattern language. For example, from my year working at the University of Oklahoma Center for the Creation of Economic Wealth (CCEW), I realized that we had a vibrant pattern language that we used to quickly bring our student interns and team leaders up to speed at the beginning of each semester to attain peak performance. Having a consistent institutional language is essential for any organization, and all the more so for CCEW since the internship program only lasts four months. We didn't call it a pattern language, but it was exactly that: a hierarchical collection of rules of thumb and principles of behavior and thought that guided the CCEW staff and interns in the daily challenges and tasks that we faced. On a larger level, these patterns also defined the CCEW organizational culture.
Tomorrow, I'll talk about one pattern in particular: the Zen View.
Dillon Dakota Carroll
...sees much and knows much