Dorian Taylor is a consulting designer. He’s been influenced by the work of the architect and design theorist Christopher Alexander, who died in March. In this conversation, we discuss Alexander’s influence on the design of built environments and software.

Show notes

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Transcript

Jorge: Dorian, welcome to the show.

Dorian: Nice to be here, Jorge.

Jorge: I am excited to have you. For folks who might not know you, can you please introduce yourself?

About Dorian

Dorian: Oh, geez. I mean, what am I calling myself these days? I think I’m calling myself a consulting designer. I think that was like what I landed on. Sort of borrowing from Sherlock Holmes — the recent one with Benedict Cumberbatch or whatever. I’ve been working with the web since I was a teenager. That was in the nineties. Front end, back end, side end… all the ends at once! And now it’s kind of moving into more governance-y stuff and more “the strategy-ry” — you know how it goes.

Jorge: When you say “governance-y,” the way that I read that in conjunction with your description of consulting designer, is that you’re maybe helping organizations design the thing that designs the thing. Is that a fair take?

Dorian: What I would say like my mutant power is, I read the documentation that nobody else has time for, and I can internalize that and I can re-represent that and [come] up with formal models of processes and structures within organizations to help people be able to converse about things. This is super hand-wavy of course, but there is concrete stuff in there that people want to pay for.

Jorge: I get the sense from my own consulting work that people in organizations are coming to the recognition of the need for this type of higher-level work. Somehow that design is not just about cranking out screens; there’s something that needs to happen at a more fundamental layer.

Dorian: It’s kind of like shared mental models, right? I mean, we’ve heard of the term “conceptual integrity” — that was a Fred Brooks thing, The Mythical Man-Month. You know, it is one of those books that everybody has, but nobody reads. Conceptual integrity is the sort of state of affairs of everybody working on a project kind of understands what it is and what’s going on, and they’ve got a shared unified mental model of just what the damn thing is. And they have like shared language to talk about it. It’s about an anatomy that people are referring to.

That’s like classic, quintessential information architecture: that people use the same words to refer to the same concepts and then the relationships between the concepts. People, they kind of have an understanding of the algebra and the mechanics of processes and structures and how things relate to each other. That’s real work somebody has to do; that is real work somebody has to go and figure out.

Jorge: This notion of conceptual integrity might be a good segue for talking about the subject that brings us together today, which is the work of Christopher Alexander.

Dorian: Definitely.

Jorge: You shared a post summarizing Alexander’s work in the wake of his death. I know that you have been a student of Alexander’s work for a long time. And I described your post on Twitter as a lovely summary of his work. And I was hoping that we would talk a little bit about that. So, who was Christopher Alexander?

A Pattern Language

Dorian: Christopher Alexander was an architect. He was, up until last week. You’re an architect yourself, so you would have bumped into him at least a couple of times during your training, I’m sure. He was a sort of a heterodox figure in architecture, and deeply misunderstood and reviled by architects themselves, but then had a sort of second… Well, maybe not reviled. I mean, there were a lot of people that had a lot of I want to say mixed feelings about him, for sure and within the architecture field itself.

But he had a second sort of fan base in software going back to probably about the 1990s, even the early nineties. And I think and that was mainly for his most popular book, which is also the most popular book ever by Oxford University Press, which is called A Pattern Language. And Alexander considered himself mainly trying to teach the world effectively to try… and he was using phrases like, “creating life,” “make God appear in a field,” you know? He was saying sort of, quasi-mystical things, but he was almost serious about it. I mean, he was definitely serious about himself. And this is sort of what got the architects bristling, was he kind of believed that there are objective ways to make things that are harmonious and whole with the environment and with making people effectively feel better about themselves and carrying on with their lives. And that part definitely was weakly if at all communicated to the software industry. And it certainly…

You know, I came to Christopher Alexander through A Pattern Language, but I bought it [and] didn’t read it for 10 years. The first one that I read was his actual Ph.D. thesis, called Notes On the Synthesis of Form. And I’m glad I actually read the first one first because I think if I had started with Patterns, I probably would have misunderstood it as well.

Jorge: The impression that I get is that the software world adopted this notion of patterns. And for people who haven’t seen the book, A Pattern Language _describes — this is my poor take, and you’ll probably do a better job of describing this than I will — but it describes a way of designing spaces meant to be occupied by people, whether… I think that the subtitle is something like, _Towns

Dorian: Towns, Buildings, Construction, yeah.

Jorge: Towns, Buildings, Construction. So, there’s this implication that it’s at different scales, and it’s a way to specify a system for people to design their own environments somehow.

Dorian: Yeah. I mean, it’s A Pattern Language; it’s not the pattern language. And it’s also a pattern language. It’s a vocabulary for people who are not necessarily professional architects, professional builders, but it is like words — handles — for them to grab onto so that they can discuss these entities, these properties, these subsystems, whatever you want to call it — being able to actually talk about this thing amongst themselves. And a pattern has a formula. A pattern has a context. There’s a problem and there’s a solution to it. And you go like, “the context is this or that thing, the problem is this or that problem. And then, therefore, do this!” And every single one of the 253 patterns has that formula.

And the formula that was mainly the thing that was kind of copied. And, you know, the design patterns in software are helpful, I guess. I mean, they were kind of a parochial thing for C++ and Java and dealing with the… you know, it’s not not useful. And it helps people in that industry a great deal, and the web people sort of took it as well. And there’s tons and tons. You can go and find a zillion software patterns out on websites, I’m sure out there.

They contribute something to be sure. And they follow the formula to be sure. Do they… and Alexander asked it himself in this keynote he gave; you can find it on YouTube. It’s called Patterns in Architecture. Worth watching straight through for sure, where he kind of takes the wind out of the sails of the pattern people, because he’s like, “number one, I don’t know if you guys actually care about like making the environment good with this. I don’t know if you guys do… I think it’s a technical format that communicates useful ideas, but I don’t know if you guys are really trying to make things good.”

Jorge: The impression that I got is that patterns have been adopted in software but perhaps elsewhere as well, as a vehicle for efficiency of some sort or productivity. Whereas I think that Alexander was using them as a vehicle for what he called “wholeness,” this notion that we want the end result to have this quality… you want it to be good, with a capital “G” somehow.

Wholeness

Dorian: Yeah. And he really thought that there was a sort of objective criterion to that. I remember now what I was going to say: the other thing that he said was that he abandoned the patterns themselves. So, in that keynote in ‘96, Alexander says, well, actually I don’t really… you know, the patterns, they don’t really deliver the goods. I don’t use them anymore. I use this other thing. And that was what became The Nature of Order, which is like a 2,500 page, four-volume… I consider it to be logically one book because you don’t just crack it open in a random page. Like you’d have to start at the front, go all the way to the end… it’ll take you a year to read it, kind of thing. Like, it’s a project. It’s one of those things.

It’s funny, somebody said to me the other day, you know, “Alexander’s kind of one of those people where like, if you wanted to engage with it, you have to go off and read thousands of pages of text.” It’s like Marx or something like that; it’s the same sort of deal. If you wanted to be engaged intelligently with it, you just have to sit down and… How many people in the world are going to do that? You’ve got to go in and abridge somehow. Even if you’ve got it down in order of magnitude, you’d be looking at a 600-page document, you know? How do you compress the entire life’s work of this guy down to something that an ordinary person is not going to misunderstand?

Because one of the major misunderstandings was that Alexander was this nostalgic traditionalist who just wanted to make things look like some old-timey medieval hamlet or something like that. And it’s like, no, no! There were reasons — and they were structural reasons — for why the stuff that he created looked the way that it did. You hear that. One of the major criticisms is that he’s kind of this traditionalist and it’s like, no, no, no! Like, say, for example, compression structures versus tension structures. Or non-reinforced concrete. Or the use of wood. You know, pitched roofs. The use of stone, the use of all these kinds of like local materials. I’m not going to get into the details of it but there were reasons for all of it. There were sort of structural reasons for all of it.

Jorge: I was going to say, I think that there is a profound misunderstanding because his built work does look fairly traditional…

Dorian: yeah.

Jorge: …but in many ways, he was quite radical in that I don’t think that his ultimate project was about designing those buildings per se. It was more about, like we said earlier, designing the thing that designs the thing. Like how do you create systems that will allow the creation of — in his case — built environments that are good in almost a quantifiable way. Is that a fair take?

A framework for the emergence of order

Dorian: Yeah. I mean, well, he had this… His testing criterion was this thing he called “the mirror of the self” test. The idea was you would hold up two objects and you would look at them and you’d be like, okay… you don’t ask, which one of these is better? Or which one do I like better? This is a sort of a difficult thing to communicate in a context of whatever you want to call it… a moral relativity or relativism? It’s kind of like, you look at it and you say, “well, which one of these two things is a picture of my true self?” You know, which one is more representative of me as a person? And you can do that with anything.

And what he determined was that there’s pretty strong agreement — like on the order of like 80-85% or something like that — is that it’s like the ketchup bottle and the salt shaker, which one is more… You know, these kinds of odd…. and that’s really what The Nature of Order, the big honkin’ tome is about: there are geometric, topological, color properties… there are physical properties that are present in these things that rate higher on that test. So, if you were going to compare off all these things against each other, the one that would win would turn out to have these 15 properties, and then they would be like alternating repetition, levels of scale, positive space, these kinds of characteristics. They’re in the post; I reproduced them there.

And I wrote something a while back when I was sort of thinking about like these 15 properties — there are 15 of them — from the perspective of information theory, like they kind of like cluster into three categories. And of course, I’m going to categorize the categories here. One of them is like, it generates information. The other one, it compresses. And then the other one kind of like de-noises, I think? Roughly. But carrying informational content, compression, and throttling were my three meta categories of these 15 properties. And so given that, you can imagine these kinds of meta properties in anything. In any process and you could go and you can say, “okay, well, how would we take the writing of Alexander and apply it like in a sort of a whole way?”

The four books or whatever that are in the middle that nobody ever… you know, they’ll read A Pattern Language, they might have A Timeless Way, they might have Notes On The Synthesis of Form, and they really might buy_ The Nature Of Order_, and attempt to truck through it. But then there’s three or four in the middle that were written in the 1970s that are all case studies and they’re all kind of overlooked in the fact that they are incredibly practical. And it’s like, how did Alexander actually implement his process? Well, he wrote that down too.

What you get out of that is the first thing he did was he went and he became a general contractor. He started a company to be the general contractor because he couldn’t work with general contractors because they wouldn’t let him do his thing. And he designed the process from a financial perspective. So, he designed how the budget would be laid out for these projects, from the perspective of a general contractor. And he designed the contract as well. And he also looked at the kinds of things that the planning authorities required and whatever.

And he would say like, “you know what? You need to submit your drawings to the city? Well, we’ll submit them bogus drawings. We’re not going to use those drawings as authoritative, but the city needs them, so we’ll send them some bullshit. You know, we’ll send them some silly nonsense that doesn’t matter because the as-built drawings will be the authoritative ones once we’re done.” And that was like one of the main things about Alexander’s sort of process was that it was — and I think about this in terms of, he’s using the building site itself as an analog computer, he’s using the building site like a slide rule, you know? And I get that from…

There’s another book that like totally randomly, totally by chance, I bought at the same time that I bought A Pattern Language for the first time back in 2001. It was called Cognition in the Wild, by Ed Hutchins. And that is an ethnographic study. If you’ve never read it, oh my God! It’ll blow your mind. It is an ethnographic study of the navigation team of an aircraft carrier. And it just so happens that when Hutchins is on board, it has an accident; it has a power failure. And so he is on the bridge watching the navigation team improvise their process on the spot. So there’s five or six guys, there’s a bunch of equipment and it doesn’t work, and they’re like trying to fill the gaps of the dead equipment with slide rules and protractors and stuff like that. And this ship is careening into San Diego Harbor, and then I’ve got to keep it from running aground. They’ve got to keep it from hitting stuff while they work to get the instrument power back on.

And so, anyway, one of the things that Hutchin says in that is he says, “a navigational chart is an analog computer.” And I’m like, “just like that!” The building sites of Alexander were analog computers. They were a computational environment to the extent that you use Shannon’s definition: you say computation is revealing latent information using known… from known information, using known methods. So yeah! It is revealing latent information from known information using known methods.

Jorge: The sense I get is that the ultimate project is to somehow enable the conditions for order to emerge. Order in service to some kind of “wholeness,” I think is a word that Alexander used. And the notion that comes to mind is the…. and just in hearing you talk about the Hutchins example and also this notion of the building site as an analog computer, what comes to my mind is Gall’s Law, this idea that a complex system that works evolves from a simple system that works, and you can’t really design a complex system from the get-go. And something like a building is a fairly complex system. And it sounds like what Alexander was trying to do was to create the conditions for that complexity to emerge from conditions on the ground, as opposed to some kind of abstract imagined representation of what the ideal conditions might be.

Contextual architecture

Dorian: Yeah, absolutely. If you think about it, one of the things that with respect to wholeness is he’s like, “I’m trying to repair the earth.” One of the patterns in A Pattern Language is a thing called site repair. And he says, you go onto the building site and you don’t go to the nicest spot on the building site and say, “this is where I’m going to build my house.” you go to the worst spot. Because you can’t make the best spot better by tearing it down and putting a house on it. You can go to the worst spot and you make the worst spot better by bulldozing it and putting a house on it. Just that idea of always having a context, you know?

And I think like our architecture and information system design alike, it’s kind of like, “I’m going to come in with the system, this object, and I’m just going to plunk it down.” When you think about Gehry and Bilbao or something like that, and then it’s like, that building could be anywhere, right? And it’s a majestic, bold piece of architecture. It looks really cool, but what about Bilbao makes that unique? Because it looks just like the Disney Theater in Los Angeles. Or that building in MIT. You know, it says a lot about Frank Gehry’s personal style. It doesn’t say a lot about the place that it’s situated in.

And Alexander was very much about we’re going to try to make this look like it belongs here. And you know, like, the Eishin campus, the West Dean Center, the Fresno Farmer’s Market… any of those buildings, you know, they really look like they belong where they should be. And then there was a sort of sense of context there that like really only comes… and in the way that Alexander would do it, he’s got bamboo stakes with flags on them and he goes around and he just shoves them into the ground and he says that the white ones are buildings and the orange ones are paths, and this part’s a hedge.

And he goes in, and he goes with the client. This is what they did with the Eishin. They bring the client to the site as this participatory exercise and what the client said from this experience is like, “I could see the entire campus come… like, it became real to me.” How many times have you been with clients and they’re like, “where’s the stuff? I don’t see anything. You haven’t done anything.” And it’s like, “what are you talking about? We’ve been working, busting our asses for months on this! What do you mean we haven’t, you know… and you’re saying, there’s nothing?”

It’s like, well, how do we make that? How do we make that, “this is a real thing to me” experience come to a client? I still would love to know. There’s a lot of stuff around getting participation and so on and so forth. It’s been very difficult to do that kind of thing obviously, within the last couple of years due to COVID. But like that kind of thing, like we’re repairing a hole, rather than we’re building a system; we’re building an object.

It’s like, I want to talk about an information system-shaped hole in your organization, and we’re going to fix that hole. We’re not going to come in with this edifice and plunk it down and say, “here’s the new system.” Which is so much like, you know, Salesforce, or SAP, or whatever. Oracle, you know, all that stuff is these kinds of, “we’re going to get a new system!” And then we go to the next system. And then a couple of years later, we go to another system, and then you’ve got to hire me to pull the data out of one system and shove it into the other. Maybe in another lifetime!

Jorge: To bring it back to the Gehry buildings, it sounds like the distinction there is that these things like the Bilbao Guggenheim museum may have internal conceptual integrity in that it feels like it’s a whole thing in and of itself, but it’s not integral with its context.

Dorian: Yeah, exactly.

Jorge: What I’m hearing here is, aspire for conceptual integrity. But not just internal conceptual integrity, but making a thing that is conceptually whole with the context and systems that it’s a part of and that it informs.

Software replacement culture

Dorian: Yeah. And I mean, the extent to which that is a thing that like… you might want to try to read that as like, “oh, what you’re talking about is systems integration.” Because so much of what we do in software is all mediated one way or another by platforms and vendors. And it’s all about who’s your CMS and who is your CRM and who is your ERP, WTF, LOL, BBQ, whatever. It’s all about relationships. You know, Miro, Figma… Now we have this proliferation of tools. Zoom would be another one. And they’re all proprietary. None of them talk to each other in any meaningful way. And each one of them is all about getting users locked in and then kind of like giving you whatever’s on their menu.

And so, like all of this software is verbs, but it all controls the data, which is nouns. And so much of it is kind of like, “well, you know, we’re going to put all the nouns in our database or our file format or whatever, and the only way that you can verb the nouns is to use the verbs that we give you. And we, you know, we’re just going to give you this menu of operations. And if what you need is not on the menu, then too bad.” And I see so much of that. I see so much of that in any kind of enterprise. Again, it’s this big system, a huge contract.

The Oregon Experiment, one of Alexander’s mid-career books, talks about this kind of replacement culture where you go and you do a ten or a hundred million dollar contract with one of these IT vendors. And they’re in there like a tick. And then, eventually, you just get more and more frustrated by… you know, you can’t do the something or other. And then, something is finally the straw that breaks the camel’s back. And then, you jump in bed with another vendor like a decade later or five years later, you know? The horizon on it is five, ten years maybe? That’s what this sort of business-to-business software world is.

Alexander, you know… the analog to that would be like going and building a giant building, and then it’s like, why? Because the big, big deal it makes the administrators look good. And this is at the University of Eugene, Oregon. And, yeah. It makes them look good because it is this big audacious project and they go and they bulldoze something and then they plunk this thing down and like… and Alexander was talking about like, “Hey! What about a couple hundred bucks to fix that fence? What about being able to put a rose bush down?” What about that?

And it’s like the granularity, the addressability of the money is so chunky that like, you can’t do it for less than a million dollars, sorry! And if it’s going to be a million dollars, it might as well be ten million. If it’s going to be ten million, might as well be fifty million. And so, these little bits of repair can’t be done because you cannot address that money, because the money is like… if you only need a couple hundred bucks, then you can’t address that in the budget regime.

And this is why I’ve been paying more attention to the actual money aspect of it. And in the case of software, it’s kind of like… You know, I had a client long-term, a while back. Whenever they had some coin, they’d dial me up and be like, “oh, can we fix this little thing here?” And it’s like, a lot of their infrastructure was stuff that I wrote, but I wrote it piece by piece. We could imagine regimes where an organization might set aside fifty thousand, a hundred thousand, you know, whatever… maybe up to a million dollars, I don’t know. But there would be these sort of repair jobs on their internal infrastructure. But heretofore a lot of the ideas that I see around that are not… they’re IT. They’re like, “oh, it’s a technical thing.”

And it’s like, no, no, you know? This is an adaptation thing. You know, computers are almost as old as television now, and we’re still treating them like, “ooh, mysterious technology thing.” And it’s like, no, no, no! Okay, we’re manipulating information. And everybody knows what information is. When you bleach out any technical stuff about computers, everybody understands the social dynamics of telling this person this and not telling that person that, and the kinds of decorum and how you comport yourself in public and so on and so forth. Everybody kind of understands how information works innately, but then you like you try it in the computer and they just go blank and you know, like 50 IQ points go out the window and they’re like, “doh, I don’t get it?” And it’s the same thing, it’s just mediated by a machine.

So, you know, I would love to be able to communicate that. I haven’t found a way to do it because I think it’s kind of a short circuit. It’s like anytime you introduce computers it becomes an IT issue. And it’s really an issue of communication, memory, comprehension. You know, that was really my big thing, comprehension. Like, imagine a ship in a bottle you put the ship in, you’ve put it through the neck of the bottle, all folded down, and then you pull on the rigging, and then it all comes up inside like an umbrella or something like that. And that’s how you get the ship into the bottle.

And for me, I was like, “well, how do you get a complex mental model into somebody’s brain?” Because you’ve got to feed it through and then you have to kind of assemble it inside their head. And I think, for me, like, one of the ways to do that was hypermedia. The ability to oscillate between storytelling and just the facts, or oscillate between modalities of visual and auditory and kinesthetic and being able to have people, “if you’re interested in this path through the system, you can take it. If you’re interested in that path, you can take that one and, you know, you can get to the same place eventually.”

It’s like some things are just complex and you’re just going to have to deal with the fact that they’re complex. Given that, what’s the best, most efficient way to get the complex thing into your head so you can understand it and then you can make use of it? We don’t talk about that. We just talk about making things simple and easy and convenient, you know? You can take that back almost to a fundamental schism in what the societal role of a computer is, you know? You’ve got the Minsky and McCarthy over on one thing that says like, “well, we want the computer to be this intelligent thing that just serves you. It’s kind of like a slave.” And you got the J.C.R. Licklider and Englebart camp who are saying, “well, we want the computer to be a dumb tool to make smart people smarter.” I’m in that camp, you know? I’d rather have a tool than a slave myself. I don’t need Siri, I just need a sharp knife.

Closing

Jorge: Hearing you talk about replacement culture and Alexander’s work as possibly a different path… that resonates a lot, particularly given that we’re concerned about things like climate change and living more sustainably. Think about regeneration, if possible. And you’ve pointed to the fact that Alexander’s work is vast. And some of it like The Nature of Order is intimidating. What’s the best place for folks to get into it. People who are listening, if they can pick up one thing to read of Alexander’s or a way to get into his work so that they can think about integrating this into their own work — do you know of any resource?

Dorian: If they’re software people, I think that the best thing that they can probably do is watch that keynote from 1996, the one that’s called Patterns in Architecture. It’s on YouTube; there’s a couple of instances of it on YouTube. I would start there because that is like an hour of your time whereas any book is going to be… I mean, you will blast through A Pattern Language if you get it, you know? But like Alexander himself said like 25 years ago, A Pattern Language is abandonware from his perspective. So I think it’s a good historical artifact. I think it’s an interesting thing. And it will make you feel good to read it. But I think that I would start with that keynote because that really captures what Alexander is about.

It was interesting actually, I was on this memorial Zoom call last week; a bunch of people that were actually like colleagues of his. And one person said something really surprising to me. There was a paper that Alexander wrote called, A City Is Not a Tree. You can find that online as well. That’s a little mathematical for most people. But, what this person said was like, “I was really glad that he wrote that because it sort of demonstrated that he understood that this kind of hierarchical decomposition structure, which he described in his Ph.D. thesis and in Notes On The Synthesis of Form, was inadequate for describing the interlacing in these sort of interactions of the features of a city and the sort of layout of the city.

But I mean, you might go for Richard Gabriel’s Patterns of Software. You can find a PDF for that online. But if you want to engage with Alexander directly as a person in software, there is obviously the stuff that I’ve written. Maybe just go with that post of mine. It’s not the shortest piece I’ve ever written, but it’s definitely got a 1:250 ratio of verbosity when you compare it to Alexander’s work proper. But other than that, it’s tough. You’ve got to kind of want to dive in. If you’re going to get into Alexander, I think you kind of have to do it all.

Jorge: No, that’s okay. And where can folks follow up with you?

Dorian: So, I run my mouth on Twitter all day long: twitter.com/doriantaylor. I also have a website that is doriantaylor.com. And I have a SubStack — I don’t know if it’s going to be SubStack forever — I have a newsletter which is camped on it, dorian.substack.com. I got that before somebody else did, which I’m pretty proud of.

Jorge: Well, fantastic. I’m going to include links to all of those in the show notes and also to the OOPSLA keynote, which I also found enlightening. I think that that’s a good recommendation for an overview of the man’s work. Thank you so much for sharing with us.

Dorian: Well, it is, been an honor and a pleasure to get on here and talk about it, Jorge. Thanks so much.