What We Are Reading

Jilbert Ebrahimi photograph of a town square

Pattern language – the idea

What It Is:

A pattern language is a method of describing and cross-connecting exceptionally valuable design practices.  Architect Christopher Alexander coined the term in his 1977 book A Pattern Language.   In this view, when great design solutions are discovered, they are validated by recurring again and again, across eras and cultures.   Each such discovery is a single design pattern. Each pattern has a name, a descriptive entry, and examples, much like an illustrated dictionary.  Each pattern explains how that solution relates to others -- up and down, from the most grand to the least -- all of which are important.  Thus, it  especially emphasizes the power of the relationships between design elements, as distinct from the elements in isolation.   E.g., the door knob and the door and the room are comparable to the relationship between words and language.

Why It Is Important:

The Guide Project aims to build on the work of those who have demonstrably succeeded in creating human futures by treating them as a design space.   These pathfinders represent existence proof that it can be done.  Historical examples include the Founding Fathers who created the operating system for the United States known as the Constitution, which is extraordinary for having worked as well as it has for over two centuries.   Contemporary examples include the early 21st-century work of the Urban Libraries Council, spearheaded by Danielle Milam.   When American public libraries seemed doomed to extinction because of the decline of physical books, they were transformed by ULC librarians asking penetrating questions such as “What business are we in?”  When their answer turned out to be not so much “books” as “community” – a process that took more than a year – the modern renaissance of libraries was sparked.   The Guide Project aims to see what these achievements have in common, and how their elements can be placed in a “pattern language” on which others can build.  – JG