Becoming Pattern Literate

November 25, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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(Author’s note: The following is an excerpt from a draft of book in progress, called Pattern Literacy, which is my effort to describe how pattern understanding can help us solve problems and appreciate and grasp nature’s workings more deeply. I wrote roughly 5 chapters of this book and set it aside to write The Permaculture City, but I’m back at it. It’s a little more technical than my other books, but my audience is anyone interested in understanding how pattern literacy can unlock some of nature’s deepest mysteries.)

What is a pattern? What comes first to mind are forms we see around us: spirals in snail shells and whirlpools, waves beating on a beach, the branches of trees and rivers, ripples in sand, the repeating geometric forms in fabrics and architecture, and countless others. We usually think of a pattern as a shape or set of shapes, but it also can be an action that repeats, such as a behavior pattern. The idea of pattern includes variation, too. In most cases, the parts of a pattern aren’t identical. Waves, branches, and behaviors come in infinite varieties, but they are similar enough for us to categorize them under the same pattern name. One part of the definition of pattern, then, is something—an object, process, or event—that repeats in a way that we can see the common features among the results.

The word “pattern” is used in myriad ways. Every dictionary waves a stack of meanings at us. When we look over these long lists, though, the definitions fall into two principal categories. One group of meanings describes a pattern as a single model or archetype, such as a guide or template. The other set clusters around pattern as an arrangement of multiple, repeated parts. In the first category, pattern as a single template, the definitions include:

—An original or model used as an archetype

—A person or thing worthy of imitation

—A plan or diagram to be followed in a construction process

—A sample or specimen

The second grouping refers not to one thing, but to an arrangement, or to the result of a process that is repeated or has multiple parts. In this sense, a pattern is:

—An arrangement of repeated elements

—A motif or decorative design

—A design found repeatedly in nature, such as a spiral or ripple

—A composite of traits or features

—The form and style of an artistic work or body of works

—A configuration, such as of bullet holes on a target

—A route taken repeatedly by moving objects, such as a flight pattern or football pass pattern

—An ongoing event involving multiple objects, such as a traffic pattern

So a pattern can be a single thing, and refer mainly to how that thing is used—as a parent or model—or it can be more than one thing or not even a physical thing at all, but a description of the results of a process, one that contains multiple, repeated parts. These are fairly different ways to use one word, but the common element here is that pattern includes the notion that somewhere, a process is repeated. A pattern, then, can be a guide that tells what to make via a repetitive process, or it can be the result of that process. Pattern can mean prototype, product, or process.

The word “pattern” takes us over a vast territory. Synonyms include template, arrangement, sample, theme, duplicate, rhythm, texture, convention, meme, matrix, stencil, mold, model, sequence, distribution, progression, system, motif, configuration, tessellation (interlocking tile-like pieces), annidation (parts nesting within others), organization, and habit.

So we’re dealing with a word that is stunningly multifaceted and almost alarmingly malleable. And if we think that the dictionary definitions span a wide terrain, just wait till we see how people use the word. Pattern is employed in multiple ways by various professions and contexts, sometimes in terms so wildly different that we barely recognize the common ties between uses. In sewing and industrial fabricating, for example, a pattern is a template or mold that must be rigorously adhered to. In art and music, it may be a recurrent theme that is constantly varied, often so much so that only the cognoscenti or the acutely attentive can pick out the underlying similarities and origin. Architects and other designers use the word in another way. They have begun to speak of “pattern languages” that let them design an infinite number of structures by combining small, useful elements (the patterns) in unique ways, just as verbal languages let us create an infinite number of sentences from a set repertoire of words. Software designers saw the potential in the idea of pattern languages, and have used it to create encyclopedias of what they call design patterns, each being a chunk of programming code that solves a commonly encountered problem. This lets them write complex, lengthy programs using tiny, proven strings of code that can be combined in novel ways instead of writing every program from scratch.

Sociologists use pattern to mean a set of behaviors, such as how a particular group of people chooses spouses or distributes resources. Geologist and ecologists speak of “pattern and process” in landscapes, meaning the mosaics of forms that they observe as well as the forces that cause landforms and rocks, or plants and animals, to be arrayed in those mosaics. To these scientists, pattern can refer to arrangements and processes that occur on almost any scale, from the gigantic, such as major rivers that drain whole continents, to the micro, as in the way a bacterial colony spreads.

Although workers in different disciplines talk about pattern in disparate ways, this hasn’t left them in Babel-like mutual incomprehension. Instead, pattern provides a link that joins geologists, economists, artists, ecologists, and dozens of other specialists. The principles that guide pattern formation have universal features, and they apply across immense differences scale, material, or timeframe, and with little regard to academic discipline boundaries. Pattern provides a common language that highlights the connections among the world’s phenomena. I won’t claim that pattern will give us the much-vaunted “theory of everything,” but it can show how a simple toolbox of principles can build the near-infinite variety that we see in the world around us, and solve design challenges in efficient, elegant ways.

Biologists are finding that patterns provide a fruitful avenue into understanding how life operates. In part, that’s because living creatures have long made use of patterns to solve their problems, and in a dynamic way. Hence I’ll pull many of the examples of pattern use from the living world and the findings of biologists. The forms and processes of organisms have yielded much of the inspiration for the recent burst of interest in patterns, and in this book, living patterns will be the touchstone that I’ll return to often as the basis for good design.

Patrons and Parents

A little word history can tell us more about what a pattern is. The word descends from the Old French patron, which has its roots, in turn, in the Latin pater, or father. The ancient origin of pattern in patron points to one of the ways I will use pattern in this book. A patron is one who supports endeavors that they deem worthwhile and that resonate with the patron’s interests. A patron thus sponsors and stimulates related forms of creativity. So can a pattern. A pattern can be a model, or a parent if you will, that creates and nurtures offspring that have qualities similar to the parent’s. A pattern in this sense is a template that guides a connected process of creation or formation. And because of the structure of this master pattern—the way that it embodies some important essence—a process using this template yields a functional result that we can repeat over and over, confident of a consistent result. A pattern in the sense of master template can be used to guide a mechanical process of reproduction. That’s a simple way of using a pattern, such as in sewing or woodworking. But in a deeper sense, a pattern can embody wisdom or an experience that seems important enough to be passed down faithfully. Memes, mnemonic aids to memory, and even leadership roles such as “president” or “mother” are patterns that capture particular types of acquired wisdom that we don’t want to lose. So here is one more element of patterns: They are generative, creative forms that carry information worth passing on. They can teach us. Many cultures know that patterns contain knowledge. For example, the Islamic concept of tawhid, or the unity of all things, refers to wisdom gained by understanding “patterns within patterns.”[1]

Patterns occur when materials and forces meet each other in a dynamic relationship, as when wind blows across water with enough energy and duration to create waves, or when social or emotional forces propel people into certain actions, such as rituals or repetitive behaviors. So to understand patterns, the way Jay Harman came to learn why the kelp was cork-screwing in the waves, we need first to understand what these materials and forces are.

When we see a pattern, it’s obvious that it was made in some way. Also, the process that results in a pattern being formed isn’t just a one-shot affair. It’s well-defined enough to be repeated, and the definition of a pattern requires that there be repetition. So the convergence of matter and energy that creates a pattern is not just a chaotic smashup. It has order and yields more or less regular results. In other words, the ingredients that make up a pattern come into some kind of relationship with each other, the way wind and water make waves. And the relationship has a particular character that stems from the qualities of its components and of the forces that push them into contact. In the case of waves, these qualities include the densities, relative speeds, and various other aspects of the air and water. Because of these qualities and the way they interact in an organized process, the relationship unfolds in a structured, repeatable way that gives a more or less regular result. Here, when wind and water interact in particular ways, the pattern-forming process results in waves of a certain size, shape, and interval between them.

Now we have gotten a few more pieces of the multifold definition of pattern:

—A pattern can describe the process of, or be the result of, a coming together of forces and matter.

—The forces that drive this interaction are more or less orderly.

—A pattern is usually the resolution of, or the solution to, this dynamic interaction.

—The details of the pattern that results depend on the qualities of the ingredients and on the types of forces that bring them together.

Think of a whirlpool, a snail shell, or even a neurotic tic. These are all ways of resolving a set of interacting forces in an orderly way. There is movement and dynamism as a pattern is formed, but the result of this blending of ingredients is not just a messy blur. It is a predictable resolution, and it’s driven by a set of rules. Any pattern-forming relationship between matter and energy proceeds according to a set of rules that guide it to its end. That’s why it’s not a chaotic jumble. Those animated forces and swirling ingredients, under the guidance of physical laws or a set of instructions, become settled in a predictable way into a fairly stable, ordered configuration. This pattern can be moving, as in a whirlpool, or static, like a honeycomb in a beehive.

The key here is that, in a broad sense, a pattern is what results when particular forces and materials interact in a lawful, repeatable way. In this universe, laws govern how things interact, even if in some cases we don’t understand the rules, or the result is so complex as to look like chaos. And as the new sciences of complexity show, sometimes law-abiding interactions can result in chaos. But often the result is a predictable form or event that stabilizes the interacting parts or resolves the conflicting energies. These solutions can be as diverse as a whirlpool, the branching of a tree, or even human patterns such as Robert’s rules of order and obsessive-compulsive behavior. All these are the outcomes of dynamic interactions. The take-home here is that a pattern can be a solution, a way of resolving interacting forces. One of the things this book will explore is the rules that guide those forces, how they resolve, and how we can use our knowledge of this to come up with good solutions to many kinds of problems.

Patterns are the result of specific processes and interactions, and from this knowledge, we can predict and understand how the colliding forces—processes that we see every day such as growth, flow, and even conflicts—are likely to resolve. For example, there are patterns that result from continuous growth or expansion. These are often spirals, such as galaxies, seed heads, and snail shells. But growth that is intermittent or pulsating, instead of constant, can give a different set of patterns, such as concentric circles or networks of cracks. Other forces, such as friction and shear, can cause their own set of patterns: Two fluids slipping past each other, as when air blows over water, can form rolls and ripples. As the speed of flow increases, the ripples grow into waves, and these can enlarge to form spirals (breaking waves), and finally dissipate into chaotic turbulence. Again, how and when each phase happens depends on the qualities of the particular fluids, such as density and viscosity, and on their speeds.

Scientists have studied fluids intensely in the laboratory and have gotten good at predicting their behavior. This knowledge has uses reaching far beyond the laboratory wave tank. We know that fluids, in one sense, are great clumps of individual particles moving in coherent order, and we’ve learned a great deal by treating other clumps of particles—such as crowds of people or cars in heavy traffic—as fluids, and making computer models of their behavior. The way that fluids form ripples, eddies, and other patterns is well understood. And because crowds and traffic really do behave like fluids much of the time, the patterns they form can be predicted very accurately. The timing of highway on-ramp signals, the layout of big-box stores, and a host of other useful applications are the result of modeling based on the patterning of fluids. But once we gain a little pattern literacy, we don’t have to spend countless hours in the lab or make complex mathematical models to understand traffic flow, incoming surf, or even some types of human behavior. We’re innately excellent at seeing, comprehending, and predicting patterns. We just need a little training, and this book is an attempt to do that.


[1] Kritchlow, Keith (2004). The Use of Geometry in Islamic Lands. Architectural Design, 74(5) pp71-77.


Photo credit: "Atauriques" by Yves Remedios – Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons.

Tags: pattern languages