On the usefulness of design recommendations (such as ‘patterns’)

Related to the proliferation of ‘pattern language’ adaptations in many domains other than the built environment for which C. Alexander developed the original Pattern Language, a question arose about the usefulness of many pattern descriptions; and a challenge to select one or two pattern specifications that do not appear very useful for more detailed discussion.

I am not familiar enough with the specific intentions and expectations of the developers of other pattern language projects to properly judge the appropriateness or usefulness of such patterns, and I have not arrived at a sufficiently thought-through conclusion about whether I am ready to adopt the pattern concept, to spent time on work on patterns for the kinds of concerns I am interested in and have some qualification to make contributions. So rather than offering critiques of others’ patterns, I suggest to look at some aspects of usefulness for a narrow understanding of pattern intent that I would prefer to call ‘design recommendations’ or ‘rules’, for the time being, on the assumption that they may of partial relevance for actual bona fide pattern work as well.

1 Recommendations as practical guides for action.
The first assumption I am making to narrow the field is that of looking for rules or guidelines for design or planning tasks, that is, activities aiming at the production of a plan, a set of agreements about some intended actions to effect changes in what we perceive as the ‘real world’. In this, I am following the original concept of ‘pattern’ as stated by Alexander, as recommendations for specific arrangements in the built environment that are aiming at remedying certain problems (or arrangements that in themselves are seen as remedies for problems that are perceived to occur in the built environment, given certain specified context conditions.

2 Adequate detail of description
Such a recommendation will be useful to the extent it describes the context conditions, the problem, and the recommended action in sufficient detail for a user to recognize those conditions and problems in the design situation at hand, and to apply the recommended action or arrangement. This means that the recommendation must take the form of one or more coherently expressed sentences connecting the three parts of the recommendation. The mere listing of single concepts, goals, ‘principles’, qualities etc. would not meet this expectation, nor would the statement of only one of the three components, e.g. just a ‘problem’ — no matter how significant the problems and imperative the implied admonition to do something about it.

3 Limitations of applicability
The above first description of design recommendations is useful only within a narrow range of situations, for several reasons.

a) A first limitation is implied in the validity assertion of the original patterns themselves: the fact that the problem is ‘recurring’ under the specified conditions, and that the recommendation or ‘solution’ has proved to be reliably remedying that problem in the past: ‘timeless’. Its usefulness is based on precedent experience. This is unquestionably useful, and there are certainly many such situations. Even in the specific dealings with problem situations for which there are no precedents (and therefore no known, proven remedies) many individual activities will rely on such rules and experiences — but the ‘pattern’ and implied guarantee of the recommendation ‘if context and problem then solution’ obviously cannot be stated. For problems of the ‘wicked’, unprecedented kind, there are no simple, basic recommendations that guarantee success.

b) The first simple understanding of design recommendation assumes that there is sufficient agreement among the parties involved as to the nature and definition of the ‘context’, the ‘problem’, and the adequacy of the proposed ‘solution’. This assumption does not apply to most situations that call for collective design and planning. Most such situations contain conflicts between the parties involved; and even the most cooperative projects will incur the allocation of resources — usually called ‘costs’ in the pursuit of achieving the ‘benefits’ of the remedy-solution — and in all but the rarest cases a distribution of costs and benefits that is perceived as equally fair, equitable, acceptable and satisfactory by all parties affected by the problem and its proposed solutions. The ‘costs’ are ‘benefits’ to some, and the benefits can often be seen as costs to others. The simple statements even of the most intuitively appealing Alexander patterns blatantly ignore this, by postulating some overriding, absolute (even, in Alexander’s view, ‘objective’ and thus indisputable) ‘value’. The claim that the pattern will achieve ‘aliveness’ of the resulting environment — a ‘quality without a name’ — is a similar postulate removing the recommendation from any discussion: it cannot be described, and must be accepted on faith. Any adaptation of this feature in other domains is likely to generate questions and opposition and cause unnecessary conflicts.

c) The relative vagueness of the pattern recommendations — even such rules as ‘light from to sides’ in rooms — that obviously don’t specify any parameters or dimensions of details such as whether the windows should be high up on the walls or reach down to the floor, etc. permit Alexander to claim that the pattern can be used ‘a million times’ without doing it exactly the same way twice and is therefore open to almost unlimited participatory modification by the designers / users — but that this modification must not be allowed to extend to violating the basic pattern itself. This restriction would be unacceptable to many humans who are driven to ‘make a difference’, to do things ‘their own way’ — to break the rule just because it is stated as a rule: a potentially ubiquitous pattern – problem for which the ‘remedy’ is violation of the rule, by definition?

d) The recommendations do not include any consideration of ability, affordability, of the resources needed to apply the prescribed solution, not of the potential consequences of the solutions if, for example, applied at a large scale.

4 Relationship networks
The recommendations (again, following the original pattern descriptions) cannot be applied in isolation, but must form a network of relationships. Like a meaningful (scientific) theory, the statements or individual descriptions must be mutually supporting. The relationships claimed in the original PL are often merely the ‘part-whole’ relations: each pattern is part of a larger pattern and consists in turn of smaller patterns. There are undoubtedly other types of relationships that can or should be considered in constructing a whole plan — the point is that for a plan that will hold together, or a ‘language’ to allow the telling of a coherent story — the relationships must be described, again, in sufficient detail to allow a user to apply them ‘properly’. Should there also be room for the creation and definition of ‘new’ relations that will make a new kind of network and language?

5 ‘Secret’ or user ability to discover, construct / reconstruct meaning?

Getting into a bit of unexplored territory here, the recommendation might have to address the question of how its ‘solution’ interacts with the perception and understanding of the viewer/user. Many recommendations implicitly or explicitly hint at a ‘secret’ behind the recommendation that lends validity to the resulting design — but remains silent about how that promise of validity is perceived by the viewer. We are just expected to intuitively accept it as ‘alive’, ‘timeless’ etc. Is this enough? I have a hunch that beyond the immediate perception of a design / environment as ‘appealing’, ‘alive’, ‘beautiful’, there needs to be the opportunity for a viewer to begin to explore the setup, to unravel the ‘secret’, to discover what makes it work — that is. what makes it work not only on a general level (the ‘absolute truth’ level Alexander is emphasizing) but also for individual viewers and their different backgrounds, preconceptions, concerns, sensibilities; their ability to discover how the design connects with those personal concerns. ‘Constructing’ the personal meaning from what is there, not only ‘reconstructing’ the meaning of the general context-problem-solution structure of the ‘pattern’ the designer put there. I have tried to explore some of those relationships with the concepts of ‘occasions’ (of the life of the individuals using a place) and the ‘image’ connotations evoked by the design about ‘who we are’ in the users/viewers. (This issue of personal reconstruction also applies to the use of scale and proportional arrangements in a formal environmental design; ‘discovering’ the ‘secrets’ of the proportion and composition devices the designer used to make the solution so ‘appealing’ both at first sight and increased familiarity. The ‘new’ exciting forms of much current architecture, for example, that don’t reveal anything more to the curious exploration after the first few encounters will soon become obsolete and annoying.)

6 Recurring versus unprecedented problems.
The process of use of design recommendations or rules should be open to the question of whether it applies to the given situation — whether it can be adequately described as containing a ‘recurring’ problem for which the timeless ‘solution’ has been adequately proven, or whether it is an unprecedented, ‘wicked’ problem, for which a different approach with different tools should be applied. The reminder ‘wrong question?’ — repeated on the bottom of each page (in addition to the Jessie’s good suggestion of ‘what might you add?’ question ) is a first necessary point of clarification to prevent the perhaps ‘efficient’ but possibly ultimately dead-end application of inappropriate remedies. It may be necessary to give potential users additional hints and suggestions to recognize such conditions — for each proposed recommendation. Each collection or rulebook of design prescriptions (pattern languages?) should contain a section of suggestions for useful steps to take in situations where the context contains elements that make the problem ‘unprecedented’ and calls for a different approach.

7 Specialized vocabulary: jargon?
For design and planning projects that call for wide participation of users or citizens in general, the description of recommendations in a special vocabulary or ‘language’ will become a ‘usefulness’ issue. Understanding and mastery of that vocabulary as a prerequisite for meaningful participation in the discourse, will inevitably become a barrier for participation. The flow of essential ‘distributed’ information about context and the way the problem and its proposed solutions affect different parties will be restricted, with potential repercussions for general public acceptance of solutions. So a general ‘meta-rule’ for such projects might be to express design recommendations in as general conversational language as possible.

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