JDC Spring-2001 v3 - A Note on Pattern Languages for the Millennium

Issue 3
Spring 2001

Notes on Pattern Languages for the Millennium

Joan McLain-Kark
Virginia Tech

This purpose of this introduction is to be explain the objectives behind the two pattern languages presented in this issue of the Journal of Design Communication. These projects were developed as part of a graduate interior design course conducted online Fall semester, 2000 at Virginia Tech. Lori Anthony and Lulua Khambaty's articles illustrate how webpages can be combined with the concept of pattern languages to meet designers's needs for concise design references in today's rapidly changing world of work.

The pattern language concept has been very influential in architecture, planning, and design since the concepts were first introduced in the late 1970s (Alexander, Ishikawa, & Silverstein,1977). Pattern language can be thought of as a set of graphic design guidelines which integrate context. Instead of graphic standards that prescribe primarily sizes or minimum clearances, pattern language provides a more powerful method to combine socio-psychological factors in a graphic and written format into the interior design process.

The pattern is the singular element of the language with a format prescribed by Christopher Alexander (1977) as:

  1. Picture showing the example of the pattern.
  2. Introductory paragraph with background establishing the context for the pattern and explaining how it helps to complete larger patterns.
  3. Problem statement in bold which gives essence of the problem in one or two sentences.
  4. Problem statement elaboration is the longest section which "describes the empirical background of the pattern, the evidence for its validity, the range of different ways the pattern can be manifested in a building, and so on. (Alexander et al, 1977, p. xi)."
  5. Pattern name describing the solution in bold type.
  6. Diagram graphically shows the solution with labels or annotation to shows its components.
  7. Transitional paragraph explaining how it relates to smaller patterns.

Patterns are ordered beginning with the very largest down to the smallest. In the book, A Pattern Language (Alexander et al, 1977), the largest pattern is for a region while the smallest is for construction details. Each pattern is connected to the other so that no pattern is an isolated entity. The total of the patterns then becomes a patttern language to be used as a design tool.

While pattern language has been influential, many designers have not found the concept to be particularly cost-efffective to develop for individual projects. However, generic pattern languages may be especially useful as a reference during the programming phase for designing large, complex environments such as nursing homes, office complexes, and shopping malls. Nonetheless, the format as prescribed by Alexander for a pattern is perhaps too long and not conducive to quick reference. Moreover, designers are increasingly using the internet as a design research tool for checking codes, information on products, research, etc. Thus, a pattern language that communciates the patterns quickly, takes advantage of the easy accessibility of the internet, and explores the graphic features of webpages may fit the needs of today's desinger. This was how pattern language was explored in this graduate course and presented in this issue of JDC. Readers' comments and suggestions are welcome. You can page back or click on Journal of Design Communication's Spring 2001 index to view these articles.


Alexander, C. Ishikawa, S., & Silverstein, M. (1977). A Pattern Language. New York: NY: Oxford University Press.

by Kimberli D. Weeks