design suspicion: spreading the good word

William Morris, Christopher Alexander, pattern & interruption

Thoughts? Questions? Contact me.

Further Reading

In the last (the second) in this series of ‘design suspicion’ notes, I refer briefly to the range of professions adopting designer as title, hinting at one of the themes I expect to emerge as I explore here: design culture’s expansiveness. The question of that expansiveness has something to do with language, simply, and something to do with prevailing ideas about profession or vocation, among perhaps a number of other things. It’s a question with many sides, in short, and I don’t mean to develop it at any length in this note. But I do want to pick up on what seems to me an element or effect of that expansiveness, the cross-disciplinary migration of design theory concepts, in evidence in a blog post over at Good Good Work’s site (conveniently posted within a few days of my own note). There’s good occasion in it for sketching further the historical landscape my previous note attempts to pin a marker on, and for suggesting something of the practical value in paying attention to the history.

Good Good Work is a firm providing design services, so it might be objected that my instance of concept-migration is one in which the concept hasn’t shifted awfully far. In fact, applying design-practice experience to problems of organizational development is one thing Good Good Work is about, precisely, as to the broader consulting services on offer. Design-concept transfer is integral to what they do. Still, it is striking that the post’s topic — set forward right in the headline — is an expression recently originating in architecture studies, and that despite this no reference to architecture or design (apart from a single unannotated link) comes into the discussion or indeed seems needed.

That expression, ‘pattern language,’ and the framework of ideas behind it are fairly well known (where recognized at all) for having been applied outside the sphere of academic discourse they arose within soon after they began to circulate forty years ago. Nothing particularly remarkable, then, in one sense, about their not being linked explicitly to design disciplines in the Good Good Work post’s discussion. At the same time, a single generation or so is hardly a long time for a special-usage term and associated conceptual complex to begin to find a life separate from their original context — from a context as arcane as programmatic formal methodology in architecture especially. That ‘pattern language’ terms have had this strong tendency to spread says something about the power of the idea itself, without question. But it bears considering that it says something too about architecture and its shaping as profession and field of study, part of which has to do with architecture’s position, historically, at the heart of ‘design.’

In the remainder of this note I’m just going to observe that while, on the surface, there isn’t a lot — besides the obvious concern of each with arguing for certain virtues of pre-modern ways of building and place-making — that ties the nineteenth-century medieval-revival theorists of my previous note to the late-twentieth pattern-language theorists, even so for a project like mine here their closeness in time and their common character as aesthetics-charged challengers to mainstream progress narratives set them up as dots to be connected. Maybe the most useful thing to emphasize, though, echoing one of the previous note’s observations, is what most clearly divides rather than what connects them: the moment, sometime in the last century, where design fully emerges as cultural and general disciplinary category. Christopher Alexander and his flock of pattern-language-theory proponents come to prominence in the ’60s and ’70s as design theorists addressing fellow design professionals, something that can’t be said in the same terms of anyone living very much before their own lifetimes.

English graphic artist and guild socialist William Morris, 1834–96, didn’t live to see what we know as design culture, but figures prominently in the transition that led to it. It’s not strange to see him written of as though he’d belonged to it. Plugging his name and Alexander’s together into Google is its own little lesson in what ‘design culture’ comes to entail through a century or so of evolution to the present. What does the path from Morris to Alexander look like? In one text from the mid-1990s (for more, see author Tony Ward’s corresponding page), Alexander represents a step, important but partial and flawed, toward an end Morris, ‘the first modern designer to recognize that design had a role to play in the movement for emancipation,’ signals the promise of in the wake of capitalism’s rise to totality, an eventual restitutive condition when ‘the social’ might take its place ‘at the center of design theory.’ In another, published 2012, Morris and Alexander are two pioneers of ‘information management’ to be appreciated as forebears at a moment in industrial history when ‘the role of the designer as an author, a sole creator, is being replaced with semi-autonomous, algorithmically-driven design workflows deeply embedded in a collective digital communication infrastructure.’ The divergence between the interests and resulting views of the texts’ writers can hardly be overstated. The path from Morris to Alexander runs, of course, through contested space.

It’s interesting, that in mind, to recall that the Good Good Work post takes up this very problem of contested social space (albeit at small scale), examining the possibility that Alexander’s design-methodological insights hold a key — not a key that resolves all or at once, but a key to keys, maybe it’s fair to say, with potential to allow many discrete resolutions to unfold through some chain or wave of relations. Are we in the territory of design at this point or not? Does it matter?

My interest here isn’t in coming to definite answers to questions like this. It is, though, on one hand, in coming to communicate intelligently about the variety of ordinary assignments and modes of work that still go on under the name ‘design’ as the word covers more ground and as it gets invoked with greater expectancy (or perhaps rather with less). And it is, on the other, in coming to understand something about what the word’s covering ever more ground tells us, retrospectively and prospectively, about all sorts of concrete assignments and modes of work that have gone on under it for a century or so and may keep on going on under it for a long time to come. Difficulties of language don’t have to trip us up, in business and elsewhere, as long as we confront them and give them their due.

Further Reading