Friday, June 16, 2017

Identifying patterns and pattern languages

I have a growing interest in something called pattern languages. Begun in architecture through the work of architect Christopher Alexander and his book A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction, pattern languages were quickly taken up by software programmers and mathematicians. These kept the idea alive until it gradually seeped into other disciplines.

An excellent example of this is Group Works and their GroupWorks deck, a deck of cards--patterns--that are used in facilitating meetings and social gatherings.

Group Works has a definition of what makes a pattern that I quite like, and I have lifted it wholesale from their website. They call it the Hallmarks List, and it is as follows:


The following list of questions are here to help guide the pattern writing and editing process. While it’s not required that every pattern necessarily be able to answer yes to every question on this list, these are hallmarks that have been noted across many of the patterns.

Does it further the goals of the project?

  • Support purpose-driven design
  • Deepen the skills of those who serve as group process guides
  • Serve as a resource for those who are teaching others
  • Increase process literacy among people who are users of process(es)

Does it point us toward “the quality that has no name”? Does it describe a feature that shows up repeatedly in group processes (link is external) that result in “deepening, connection, and a fulfillment of purpose”?

Does it feel resonant? Is it evocative? Does my gut respond to this with a sense of recognition?

Does it happen across methods/approaches? Is it a common piece underlying multiple methodologies? This is like stacking functions in permaculture, where one element contributes to many yields.

Can it take a large variety of forms? "Each pattern describes a problem which occurs over and over again in our environment, and then describes the core of the solution to that problem, in such a way that you can use this solution a million times over, without ever doing it the same way twice."--A Pattern Language

Is it fractal? That is, does it show up at more than one scale (such as within one item of a meeting and again within the meeting as a whole)?

Is it a distinct creature? That is, once grasped, it stands out as its own thing, coherent, and not merely a result of other aspects of process. While it may take a while to first “see” a pattern, its essential “shape” should be easy to recall once understood. Is it unifying? It may bring together what previously seemed like separate aspects of group process.

Does it describe an action that can be consciously undertaken by convenors and/or participants? Rather than, for instance, a dynamic to be passively observed. Does knowledge of this pattern increase the skill of practitioners?


For more information

Reading and Websites

Nikos A. Salingaros. The Structure of Pattern Languages. Architectural Research Quarterly volume 4 (2000) pages 149-161.

group works. What is a pattern language?

Christopher Alexander's website.

Ola Möller. Pattern languages and Generative Codes.

Design Matrix. Anatomy of a Pattern Language.

Dan Greening. How to Read and Write Pattern Languages.

Werner Ulrich. A review of The Art of Observation: Understanding Pattern Languages. (Journal of Research Practice Volume 2, Issue 1, Article R1, 2006).

Michael Mahemoff* & Lorraine J. Johnston. "Usability Pattern Languages: the "Language" Aspect"

Michael T. "Patterns Are Not Building Blocks.

YouTube Videos

"Spaces for the Soul:A documentary about the Architect, Mathematician Christopher Alexander"

John Athayd. "The Timeless Way of Building" (lecture w slides)