What is a Pattern Language?
A Pattern Language is an attempt to express the deeper wisdom of what brings aliveness within a particular field of human endeavor, through a set of interconnected expressions arising from that wisdom. Aliveness is one placeholder term for "the quality that has no name": a sense of wholeness, spirit, or grace, that while of varying form, is precise and empirically verifiable.
The term was originally coined by architect Christopher Alexander, who, together with five colleagues, published A Pattern Language for building in 1977. Others have since applied the term to economics, software design, liberatory communication, wikis and more.
Notable features of Alexander's pattern language that we hope to emulate include:
- Accessibility: The original book and the others by Alexander that followed it are completely understandable by an interested layperson, requiring no technical knowledge of architecture. They essentially represent a democratization of the field, which perhaps explains why they have been wildly popular except among professional architects.
- Beauty: As books, A Pattern Language and its sequel The Timeless Way of Building themselves embody "the quality that has no name." They are both simple and complex — elegant, inspiring works that draw the reader into a world of discovery. This ability to enact the qualities they are describing gives them a sense of integrity that has not necessarily been matched in other pattern language efforts.
- Connection: It is clear from the text that Alexander's book was written in "hypertext" decades before the technology existed to support it. Each of the 253 patterns listed includes links to other patterns it is embedded in, relates with, or supports.
A pattern language is not a collection of methods or techniques. It's more than a set of tools in a toolbox. It moves beyond a list of processes, to seek activities or qualities that repeat across many of those processes. We explore the commonalities that cross boundaries of method, in an effort to home in on what works. It is an interconnected whole, that when applied coherently, brings "the quality that has no name" into a field of human endeavor.
By way of analogy, you might be able to learn a few words of French, and throw them into English conversation. But if you learn the language of French to fluency, then each word of the language is given meaning by the interpretations of the words around it. While a translation dictionary may be helpful, no one would say that a foreign language is merely a list of words with translated definitions beside each one. Rather, taken as a whole, the learning of a new language opens up a new perspective on the world, brings one into a different relationship than was possible before.
Not all of the patterns listed by Alexander et al. apply to any particular building project, and likewise not all of our patterns here apply to every group conversation. The aim is to provide a deep well for inspiration, and a set of doorways into the "core commons" of deepening group conversation.
Also see the discussion at the end of What we mean by "pattern"
Great description and important given other possible interpretations of "pattern language." Wikipedia has a good, but more expanded/technical definition as well.
--Rick Lent (Not signed in).....Fri Jul 10 04:47:53 -0700 2009
I'm left with this vague feeling that you've used a lot of words to say very little. :/ what *is* a pattern language?
--Anonymous (Not signed in).....Sat Jan 09 14:52:53 -0800 2010
Would love to change "processes" links throughout the site to point to http://processarts.wagn.org/ which is wiki/alive and includes much of The Change Handbook, rather than to TCH which is fixed.
--Brandon WilliamsCraig.....Mon Jan 25 22:50:30 -0800 2010
Errata? Pretty sure "A pattern language which generates multi-service centers" where the term was coined came out in 1968, rather than 1977. See Schuler_2008_p49
--Brandon WilliamsCraig.....Mon Jan 25 22:51:48 -0800 2010
I'll transfer this to the Forum here (if it happens) but just needed a spot to put this where I can return to it and others can see/respond as moved.
Based on work originally applied to architecture and civil design in _A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction_ by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein http://tinyurl.com/ykqwpju, what follows is an adaptation of their definition modified to fit the process arts (our field). A pattern language is a series of associative descriptions (narratives about how systems and structures relate) of archetypal design practices within a particular field. It often frames the most basic universal patterns by researching and naming common tensions (e.g. in "community building" the tension between being both individual and collective authentically), proposing related processes capable of working with the tensions introduced (e.g. emergent design or goal-problem-solution, among others). Ideally, the pattern language will create a context where dilemmas are welcomed rather than resisted so that challenges may be included within a consensus understanding and options will continue to present themselves throughout design and implementation.
--Brandon WilliamsCraig.....Sat Feb 13 10:40:04 -0800 2010
To me this way of describing it, in addition to sounding overly academic, misses the central key and instead emphasizes elements i think are less important. The point of a pattern language is to bring aliveness or "the quality that has no name," and i think any definition needs to start from there. I see working with tensions or dilemmas as just one way of approaching that purpose.
--Tree Bressen.....Wed Feb 24 18:37:10 -0800 2010
Here is a definition from Tom Atlee:
A pattern is a design element -- something to attend to when designing or studying a healthy or workable system. "An accessible large body of water" might be a pattern for livable communities. "People feeling really heard" might be a pattern for generative conversations. A pattern LANGUAGE is a set of well-described patterns that also explains their interdependencies: For any given pattern, which other patterns does it depend on, and which depend on it. We might say that a pattern language articulates the life-enhancing facets of a living whole and the relationships between those parts that sustain the aliveness of the whole.
--Tom Atlee (Not signed in).....Wed Mar 10 12:38:41 -0800 2010
Just for the record, I'm still interested in making clear the difference between definitions and ideographic framing, so we don't wander too far into ideology.
* A pattern is a design element -- something to attend to when designing or studying any system
* A pattern LANGUAGE for group process is a set of well-described patterns that also explains their interdependencies, dilemmas, strengths, potential consequences, histories, archetypal narratives, etc.
* A pattern language for healthy/workable/sustainable group process is a set of well-described patterns that explains their interdependencies and the ways they may be understood independently and in dynamic interaction such that people involved are more likely to participate directly in creating a life-enhancing, living whole, and know more deeply the relationships between the parts that sustain the aliveness of the whole.
Thanks, Tom, again, for the beautiful language.
Striving to be healthy and workable,
--Brandon WilliamsCraig.....Wed Mar 10 16:21:43 -0800 2010
I see the difference between a bunch of patterns, and a pattern language, as much more than adding to each pattern well-explained interdependencies with other patterns. As we look at some patterns and try to see how they might make a language together, i expect us to end up with a different set of patterns than we started with — some may split, others merge, others be renamed or removed, or redefined or added, in service of getting to a coherent whole. I see this happening already — e.g., at the Berkeley February event, Mirroring was renamed to Fractal, and Reflection was renamed to Mirroring. I wasn't part of that process, but i imagine it reflected changes in understanding about what each pattern was about, coming in part from seeing how they related to each other. This shifting attention back and forth from individual pattern to the whole pattern language is analogous to Subgroup and Whole Group.
--John Abbe.....Thu Mar 11 14:10:05 -0800 2010
See also Peggy Holman's explanation on Other links and documents page:
--Tree Bressen.....Tue Apr 06 13:30:16 -0700 2010
To say a pattern is a design element is like saying a hammer is a building tool. Very true, but one is left with a mystery...what are its purpose and characteristics?
In "The Timeless Way of Building" Alexander says "every place is given its characteristics by certian patterns of events that keep on happening there." (p55) and "the pattern of events are always interlocked with certain geometric patterns in the space." (p75).
Therefore, a pattern could be defined as a template that manifests a specific experience or activity in a space...preferably one that adds life to the situation. A pattern language can be used to describe a number of interdependant events, spaces and activities.
--Dan Doherty.....Thu Jul 08 16:59:34 -0700 2010