Design Patterns are valued by software designers, usability experts, and architects—both technology architects and building and landscape architects. Patterns tell us how to design a construct so that it works effectively and efficiently to achieve its end. Patterns are esthetically pleasing as well. Simplicity. Form meets function.
I believe that good patterns emerge from the confluence of three things:
1. Watching what people do and noticing what works and what pleases them.
2. Discovering what people want to do but have difficulty doing.
3. Thinking carefully about, and testing, designs that make it easy for people to accomplish their goals (both tangible and emotional goals) in a pleasing manner as efficiently as possible.
Skip Walter turned me onto design patterns in the 1980s. At the time, Skip was the product manager for Digital Equipment’s very successful All-in-One office systems. He was also an early practitioner of customer-led innovation. The design of All-in-One arose from customer co-development to meet the needs of a small group of customers in the field.
When Skip told me about design patterns, he referred me to the works of Christopher Alexander, who published The Timeless Way of Building, in 1979, A Pattern Language: Towns, Building, Construction in 1977, and, in 1975, my favorite, the small gem of a book, The Oregon Experiment, in which Alexander and his co-authors describe their work with students, faculty, and community members in redesigning the campus of Oregon University in Eugene. in 1977, and, in 1975, my favorite, the small gem of a book, in 1977, and, in 1975, my favorite, the small gem of a book,
Christopher Alexander’s pattern language is very complete (although I imagine it has been evolved and extended since the mid-70s). His original book includes 250 design patterns. There are big picture patterns:
- The distribution of towns
- Agricultural valleys
- City country fingers
- Lace of country streets
- Web of public transportation
- Network of learning
- Web of shopping/p>
There are indoor patterns:
- Closets between rooms
- Sunny counter
- Child caves
- Waist-high shelf
Dipping into any of these patterns is a treat. They inspire. Here’s an
example (each of the numbers refers to a potentially interlinked
“73: ADVENTURE PLAYGROUND: Inside the local neighborhood, even if there is common land where children can meet and play—COMMON LAND (67), CONNECTED PLAY (68); it is essential that there be at least one smaller part, which is differentiated, where the play is wilder, and where the children have access to all kinds of junk. A castle made of cartons, rocks, and old branches, by a group of children for themselves, is worth a thousand perfectly detailed, exactly finished castles, made for them in a factory….Therefore, set up a playground for the children in each neighborhood. Not a highly finished playground, with asphalt and swings, but a place with raw materials of all kinds—nets, boxes, barrels, tress, ropes, simple tools, frames, grass, and water—where children can create and re-create playgrounds of their own…. Make sure that the adventure playground is in the sun—SUNNY PLACE (161); make hard surfaces for bikes and carts and toy trucks and trolleys, and soft surfaces for mud and building things—BIKE PATHS AND RACKS (56), GARDEN GROWING WILD (172), CHILD CAVES (203); and make the boundary substantial with a GARDEN WALL (173) or SITTING WALL (243)…”1
For any project, you select the appropriate patterns, typically starting from the largest in scope down to the smallest. As Christopher Alexander explains, you can pick and choose; you can string them together in a variety of ways. For each project, you construct your own appropriate pattern language. The value of the predefined patterns is that they are well thought-out, comprehensive, and tested in the real world. They also fit together well with the other patterns. Of course, you can and should improvise! Chris Alexander’s idea seemed to be that each community should form its own pattern language and evolve it over time.
1) A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction, by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein with Max Jacobson, Ingrid Fiksdahl-King, Shlomo Angel, Copyright 1977, Oxford University Press, 73: An Adventure Playground, pp. 367-369.