Thursday, December 29, 2005

Organic Design

So how does one create in a more organic way? Some patterns to consider:

Shorten Feedback Loops: The shorter the path from creation to use and back to creation, the more fluidly things can evolve. Examples abound: web vs. traditional publishing; wiki & blogs vs. traditional web; iterative software development vs. "waterfall"; smaller teams, focused projects (see Less as a Competitive Advantage); houses people can easily modify (see Stewart Brand's How Buildings Learn); small pieces, loosely coupled.

Embrace Fuzzy Principles: Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. Even if you don't have metrics for something, perhaps especially so, if you think it's important, make it an explicit guiding principle. This is made easier with shorter feedback loops: after all, metrics are just a way for us to grasp that which is too big for us to get an intuitive sense of.

Trust Your Instincts: The human mind and spirit are amazingly rich breeding grounds for creativity. Don't let yourself get bogged down in justifications when you already know what's right. In fact, embracing fuzzy principles is possible only if you allow yourself to trust your instincts.

Patterns, Not Rules: As we go about our work, we often discover useful practices that help us work better. It's tempting to turn these into rules to lock in their innovation. The problem is that rules are rigid and circumstances change. Better to declare patterns: nuggets of wisdom packaged for easy use. Trust in the individual's instincts to select the right set of patterns for the situation, thus shortening the feedback loop between pattern selection and pattern use. (Are patterns just rules you don't take strictly? Sure, in the same sense that tags are just loose keywords. Terminology matters.)

Question Purity: Purity is very appealing, and it has an important place in the world, but probably not in your creation. Life is full of imperfection, constantly adapting. If you find yourself falling under the sway of a single design ideology or a pure mathematical formula, remember to leave a little room for funkiness.

Grow, Don't Build: Think in terms of creating a supportive space and providing the right resources to let your thing grow. See Kevin Kelly's Out of Control.

Observe Christopher Alexander's 15 Properties of Life: 1. Levels of Scale, 2. Strong Centers, 3. Boundaries, 4. Alternating Repetition, 5. Positive Space, 6. Good Shape, 7. Local Symmetries, 8. Deep Interlock And Ambiguity, 9. Contrast, 10. Gradients, 11. Roughness, 12. Echoes, 13. The Void, 14. Simplicity and Inner Calm, 15. Non-Separateness. For more detail, check out his The Phenomenon of Life, or this write-up (from a software perspective).

I'd love to hear your experiences using these and other related patterns.