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Learning A Pattern Language [Design
Posted on June 21, 2016 @ 04:49:00 AM by Paul Meagher

In a previous blog called Wholistic Design I pointed to some recent discussion of Christopher Alexander's ideas on the nature of design. For anyone interested in the nature of design you will eventually cross paths with Alexander's pattern language work, in particular, his book A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction (1977).

I purchased this book many years ago and did not get very far into it because it is 1171 pages long plus a fairly extensive prologue that is not included in this page count. I don't have the luxury of sitting down to read a book of this girth and when I dipped into it, all I found was some weird discussions of different architectural ideas that didn't make alot of sense to me.

The problem was I didn't read the prologue that provides more guidance on why the book has the structure it does, how the discussion of each pattern is structured, and what you are supposed to take away from reading about each of the 253 patterns discussed in it. Once you get the basic idea on how the book works, you can read it like a car manual where you only read the sections that you find relevant or interesting. Like a car manual, you may find that reading about one aspect of your vehicle leads you to reading about other aspects of your vehicle to get a deeper understanding of your problem and possible solutions. Each pattern in the pattern language book provides references/hyperlinks to other patterns so that you can see how the pattern relates to patterns above it and below it. Reading the book becomes a process of jumping from one pattern to another to see how it might complete a higher level pattern or be completed by using a lower level pattern. A pattern language has a syntactic structure with pattern elements related hierarchically to other elements.

A book on towns, buildings and constructions written in 1977 is bound to be a bit dated in some ways, but is irrelevant because the true task of the book is to teach the reader what a pattern language is by giving the reader 253 phrases/patterns in that language. Like any language, you can't learn it or become fluent in it in one sitting. You should keep consulting the book for patterns as you have time, relate them to your experience, and eventually you will start to pick up the language.

One way in which Alexander's work has evolved is that there are now pattern languages for other domains than the domains Alexander devised his language for. Alexander's pattern language was for "towns, buildings and constructions", but there are now suggested pattern languages in the Permaculture literature for domains of market gardens and edibible forest gardens.

Is it possible to develop a pattern language that might apply to starting a business or investing in a business? David Jacke and Eric Toensmeier, in book 2 of Edible Forest Gardens, offer some guidance in the form of a 3 step process:

If you find yourself in a specific garden or other place that "works", that feels alive to you, that you want to use as a basis for abstracting a pattern, you must do three things. First, define the physical feature(s) of the place that seem worth abstracting. Base this judgement on your own observations of the space, its features, and what makes it so special. What is the essence of what makes the place work so well? Second, define the problem the pattern solves or the field of forces this pattern resolves. Finally, define the range of contexts where this problem or field of forces exists, and where this pattern might therefore be useful.

A preexisting pattern language is a good guide to what a pattern is and how to define one for yourself. Ultimately, though your inner senses will be the best guide to this work. Pay attention to your innter voice as you go through the process, for wwhen you experience an "aha" moment you will have found something worlthwhile. The key points to remember are that the best patterns generate a sense of alivementess, and that patterns solve problems.

I would add that patterns solve problems worth solving because the pattern feels good, generates a sense of aliveness, and solves a problem (i.e.., resolves a field of potentially conflicting forces).

The purpose of this blog is to suggest that it might be worth learning one of the pattern languages out there, starting with Alexander's one seminal discussion of them. You might want to read Kevin Kelly's introduction and endorsement of Alexander's book and how he used a pattern language to successful design his own property.

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