Computer Age: Christopher Alexander, Muriel Cooper and Architecting Space — intro lecture 8

The week we learn how architecture in the physical world can teach us about designing in the digital world. And about design patterns.

Photo by Patrick Schreiber on Unsplash

This week we’re going to think about architecting spaces and talk about a couple of people who helped us all think differently about how we can use these concepts in Interaction Design.

Christopher Alexander, is an architect, and he wrote the books A Pattern Library and A Timeless Way of Building, which are a pair of books that break down the ideas of living and working spaces — cities, towns, villages, houses, public space, living spaces — into a set of repeatable patterns that can be put together in various configurations based on the goals and needs of the people using these spaces. Each pattern encourages people to consider the needs of the users in the space and how that space might be configured or designed to enhance or encourage specific behaviors.

His library was set up as a language, as letters become words, which become sentences, his components become buildings which become towns or cities.

In the late 1980’s the idea of a pattern library was adopted conceptually by a group of programmers- known as the Gang of Four (Erich Gamma, Richard Helm, Ralph Johnson, and John Vlissides). They saw that software developers were reinventing the same functionality over and over and believed that code could be broken down into reusable components of code that could be put together in a variety of ways. This led to the creation of object-oriented programming.

In 1996, Jenifer Tidwell thought similarly that interaction design functionality could be deconstructed in the same way. She presented an Interaction Design Pattern Library at CHI as part of her master’s thesis. This in term became the book Designing Interfaces which has been a standard reference for how we design software for the last 25 years.

Now 20 years later, interaction design libraries are commonplace in our work, but back then it was groundbreaking.

Another pioneer thinking about architecting space was Muriel Cooper. Cooper started as a graphic designer — she designed all the publications and the logo of MIT press. Looking to do more, she moved into the Visible Language workshop where they had started experimenting with computers, data, art, language and design.

Cooper was the only female professor at the Media Lab for years.

The work she led considered information and language as a 3-dimensional space that could be navigated spatially as well as intellectually. The exploration of that space was like moving through a physical building space. What seems commonplace now with 3-d rendering tools and CAD programs, had never been seen before during this time and definitely not overseen by “designers”. The work was dynamic and profound given the times and the capabilities of the technology.

Thinking about communication and language in a dynamic and spacial way was the next step to her evolution as a designer where before she had pushed and pulled static traditional print work as much as she could.

Her work as a designer and educator is often overlooked but her legacy lives on in the work of many of her former students, including Lisa Strausfeld and John Maeda and the work they have been doing over the years.

The homework for my students for this week was to dig into the patterns by Christopher Alexander and from their own perspective compare some current applications to the concepts in the patterns and what can be learned from his ideas.

I gave them a list of patterns to choose 2–3 patterns to review—

#148 Small Work Groups
#36 Degrees of Publicness
#8 Mosaic of Subcultures
#41 Work Community
#12 Community of 7000
#61 Small Public Squares
#14 Identifiable Neighborhood
#98 Circulation Realms
#129 Common Areas
#149 Reception Welcome You
#131 The Flow Through Rooms
#31 Promenade
#151 Small Meeting Rooms
#81 Small Service
#205 Structure Follows Social
#127 Intimacy Gradients
#82 Office Connections
#120 Paths and Goals

and then prompted them compare the concepts to contemporary social applications, for example: Work Community to Slack or Degrees of Publicness to Facebook. How are these social applications similar or different to the concepts discussed in these patterns? What experiences have you had that support the concepts in the pattern. How did it make you feel? What else did you notice about it? Are there online experiences that you have had that one of these patterns might describe?

I always love coming back to these patterns when thinking about social spaces and where we need to think about humans and sizes of groups in relation to the types of spaces we design and how those spaces can encourage or discourage types of activities and interactions.

For my type A students, I challenged them to watch the demo from Muriel Cooper’s Visible Language Workshop Visual Landscape and to consider it in the context of the times (1994) and how it compares to current VR and AR experiences and where these early ideas have been expanded and evolved and where they are still valid.

The videos watched this week include:
Molly Wright Steenson talking about Alexander—from the Design Nonfiction series of interviews with various Interaction Designers about a ton of cool topics (Vimeo)(YouTube link)

Information Landscapes—presented by Muriel Cooper from the Visible Language Workshop demo reel (YouTube)

Note: All these lectures were delivered via video with related slide decks of images. Following the intro, students had a series of readings and videos to watch related to the topics covered in the lecture or the overall time frame. They were then given a set of prompts to stimulate their thinking and writings which ended up in a class blog.

Silicon Age
Silicon Age: Visioning the Future, intro lecture 7
Silicon Age: The Mother of All Demos, intro lecture 6

Industrial Age
Industrial Age: Mid-Century Designers, Designing For People, intro lecture 5
Industrial Age: Between the Wars, intro lecture 4
Industrial Revolution & Manifestos, intro lecture3

In the Beginning
Read intro lecture 2 — In the Beginning Part 2
Read intro lecture 1 — In the Beginning Part 1

Setting the Stage
See the visual syllabus and how I approached putting this class together