This is an introduction to a series of blog posts on the “Nature of Beauty.”
Christopher Alexander was an architect and city planner. In his MIT dissertation, Alexander took a very mathematical approach to design. In our studies at IBM Research on the “Psychology of Design” I first ran across that work (Notes on the Synthesis of Form). Later in his career, however, he took a quite different approach to design. With an international team, he visited many different parts of the world to see what “worked” in terms of architecture and city planning. The results were documented in the form of a “Pattern Language.” In this sense, a “Pattern” is the named solution to a recurring problem. A “Pattern Language” is a connected lattice of Patterns that together, “cover” a field.
Others (including me) have emulated his approach for other fields such as pedagogy, organizational change, object-oriented programming, software development processes, and human-computer interaction. A few years ago, I suggested such Patterns for collaboration and teamwork. Here’s a link to the introduction of that effort. Here’s a link to the index of those Patterns.
Still later in life, Christopher Alexander embarked on a project called The Nature of Order. This work is documented in a series of four books. In the first book, he proposes fifteen properties of good form in nature — and in beautiful artifacts. Explication and example will be needed to appreciate what these properties mean. In this post, I list the fifteen and will attempt to explain the first one with respect to UX and Human Computer Interaction.
First, you might be wondering what relevance these fifteen properties of nature might have to interface design. After all, can’t the designer just test out their ideas empirically until a UX design is shown to be usable, learnable, and perhaps enjoyable as well? Well, sure. Ideally, every possibility could be explored and tested empirically.
But how many possibilities are there? Without any guiding principles, there are not only more possibilities than can be tested by you. There are more possibilities than there are atoms in the universe. Imagine a very simple interface on a small mobile device. Let’s say there are only ten screens in your whole application. The iPhone 12, for instance, has nearly 3 million pixels. 24-bit color allows over 16 million colors per pixel. If you literally tested out every possible arrangement, this would mean 16 million to the 3 millionth power for each of the ten screens!! The number of atoms in the universe is estimated to be between 10**78 and 10**82. Obviously, this is far less than 16,000,000**3,000,000 !!
Of course, I’m not suggesting that anyone would attempt a pixel by pixel test of an interface, but the general point remains: you need some way to limit testing to reasonable alternatives. The notion of using these fifteen properties is not that they dictate a particular design nor that you don’t need to do any empirical testing. Rather, the fifteen properties could be used to help guide design. The properties could be thought of as reducing the search space.
Here are the fifteen properties:
- Levels of Scale
- Strong Centers
- Alternating Repetition
- Positive Space
- Good Shape
- Local Symmetries
- Deep Interlock and Ambiguity
- The Void
- Simplicity and Inner Calm
Perhaps the names themselves might resonate with your own sense of aesthetics for design and composition, but let’s review them one by one.
The first is “Levels of Scale.”
When it comes to natural beauty, a few moments reflection may provide you with many examples. Christopher Alexander claims this property is also present in traditional art and architecture across many cultures. As you see something such as, e.g., the Taj Mahal or the Parthenon in the distance, you see a beautiful shape. As you approach it, you will see more and more levels of scale. By contrast, many modern buildings are largely featureless between the overall shape and the texture of the building material.
If your design has multiple levels of scale, it will be easier for your user to orient themselves; to know “where they are” in the application and therefore easier to take appropriate action. It’s something to keep in mind with respect to your design — whether hardware, software, documentation, or a building.
How could you use or see “Levels of Scale” as a desirable property of what you are doing right now?
Some references to Pattern Languages in HCI.
Pan, Y., Roedl, D., Blevis, E. and Thomas, J. (2012), Re-conceptualizing Fashion in Sustainable HCI. Designing Interactive Systems conference. New Castle, UK, June 2012.
Thomas, J. C. (2012). Patterns for emergent global intelligence. In Creativity and Rationale: Enhancing Human Experience By Design J. Carroll (Ed.), New York: Springer.
Thomas, J. (2012). Edging Toward Sustainability. CHI Workshop Position Paper for Simple Sustainable Living. CHI 2012, Austin, Texas.
Thomas, J. (2012), Enhancing Collective Intelligence by Enhancing Social Roles and Diversity. CSCW Workshop Position Paper for Collective Intelligence and Community Discourse and Action. CSCW 2012, Bellvue, WA.
Thomas, J. (2011), Toward a pattern language for socializing technology for seniors. Workshop position paper accepted for CSCW 2011 workshop: Socializing technology among seniors in China, Hangzhou, China, March 19-23.
Thomas, J. (2011). Toward a Socio-Technical Pattern Language for Social Systems in China and the World. Workshop position paper accepted for CSCW 2011 workshop: Designing social and collaborative systems for China. Hangzhou, China, March 19-23.
Thomas, J. (2011). Toward a Socio-Technical Pattern Language for Social Media and International Development. Workshop position paper accepted for CSCW 2011 workshop: Social media for development, Hangzhou, China, March 19-23.
Bonanni, L., Busse, D. Thomas, J., Bevis, E., Turpeinen, M. & Jardin, N. (2011). Visible, actionalble, sustainable: Sustainable interactin design in professional domains. Workshop accepted for CHI 2011. Vancouver, B.C., May 7-12.
Thomas, J. (2011). Focus on Ego as Universe and Everyday Sustainability. Workshop position paper accepted for CHI 2011 workshop: Everyday practice and sustainable HCI: Understanding and learning from cultures of (un)sustainability. Vancouver, B.C., May 7-12.
Thomas, J. C. (2018), Building common ground in a wildly webbed world: a pattern language approach. Journal of Information, Communication and Ethics in Society, 16 (3), 338-350.