Flatulence in a cathedral1

DHH has written a fresh manifesto about not being an idiot, this time as specifically regards the misuse of design patterns.

I have a foot in both the building design and software development fields, so I tend to run into DHH’s subject matter–the fruits of Christopher Alexander’s impressive thought processes–pretty often.

I’m starting to think that the overzealous embrace of some but not all of the ideas behind design patterns by a field and the subsequent reaction against their predictable misuse is becoming itself a design anti-pattern.2

A woefully inadequate summary of my sample size of one

Formal design patterns–the first time around, in building design–were big in the late 1970s. I went to architecture school after that, in the heyday of deconstructivism. Mainstream architectural fashion had pretty much rejected patterns as a useful design tool by then.3

Ben Regnier–a fellow foot-in-both-camper–sums up the architectural counter-reformation thinking well. Something essential to being the sort of person who becomes a designer also leads a lot of us to see ourselves as Heroic Shapers of Stuff. So there’s something offensive about the existence of what is frequently mistaken for a paint-by-numbers approach:

Anybody passionate about their profession will bristle at the idea that what they do can be broken down into a simple set of guidelines, and this reaction is based largely on the truth that the whole is immensely more complicated than the sum of the parts. For all of these reasons, A Pattern Language seems doomed to a status as one of the many cul-de-sacs of architectural theory.

So what?

At core, I think we’re talking about the powerful concept of extracting ideas that have survived contact with reality into a conveniently reusable form. It all starts by applying this self-evidently useful approach. And it all seems to end in a world where one can make a living not making stuff, but by harassing those who do as a given field’s equivalent of the professional feng shui consultant.

I don’t know why that is. I don’t know how to make us not do that anymore. But I do:

  1. think most of what goes wrong comes when one drifts too far to the formalist side of the humanist-formalist axis;
  2. suspect there’s something pretty mathematicky-General-Relativity-Lisp-level truth-of-the-universe capital-T-True lurking in Alexander’s ideas; and
  3. know neither you nor I actually understand those ideas, so let’s go reread them.
Wed 28 Nov 2012
  1. Title shamefully stolen from Ben Regnier’s experience of bringing up design patterns while their influence was on the wane. I find it to have the ring of truth. 

  2. (Whoa). 

  3. I remember one of its proponents being dismissed as a “doctrinaire old moustache.” Metonymy and ad hominem argument, together at last.