Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Seeing patterns where others see none... the brilliance and madness in pattern detection

Although I didn't plan it, this post is related to my previous post on "Seeing Variety". Both posts explore perception.  

Behind the brilliance of Christopher Alexander's "A Pattern Language" lies the idea of pattern recognition. Successful designs respect the patterns that enable people to feel good in a space or building. As a visual species, pattern detection is something we are all do. It happens when we recognize a familiar plot in a TV sitcom. It happens when a doctor starts to recognize a pattern of symptoms prior to making a diagnosis. We all see patterns in our daily life but some see more than others. 

About eight years ago, I was managing a team of designers in a studio in San Francisco. One of my designers was a bright, young, and enthusiastic designer who I initially hired as a production assistant. He would attack everything I assigned him with passion. He was always asking me for more work so, eventually, I started giving him his own projects. Seeing his thought process made me realize you can go too far in pattern recognition. As he presented his designs, I noticed that he was a bit too conceptual. He would make up wild metaphors. You could ask him to talk about basic issues like design requirements, the client, the user, etc. but he would quickly switch back to broad stroke concepts. He would say something like, "Andy, it's all about x". I'd say, "OK, tell me why it's like x." We'd discuss that a bit but then he would lose interest and announce, "Andy, it's really all about y" and then "z" and so on. I enjoyed the theoretical discussions but eventually, I realized I was dealing with what might be described as an attention deficit disorder approach to metaphor. "A is like B... and C... and D, an so on. At the time, I thought it truly had more to do with ADD than pattern recognition. But then, several years later, I was speaking with a woman who had also managed him and she had similar experiences. It solidified the hyper pattern recognition theme.

This all came home for me when I saw the movie, "A Beautiful Mind" about the mathematician, John Nash. There is a scene in the movie where Nash, as played by Russell Crow, starts to see patterns in everything he looks at. The scene is augmented by graphics that show the geometry he is seeing in the words and images of a newspaper or between the pattern of light on his wall and the geometry of the quad outside his dorm room. By this point in the movie, Nash has established himself as a brilliant theorist but one who is also starting to show signs of psychiatric problems so you don't know which mind you're seeing. Sadly, it is the madness at play... a battle with paranoid schizophrenia that he dealt with for the rest of his life. It is only many years later that the genius of his early insights into game theory and mutual cooperation are recognized by the scientific community. His brilliance and victory over illness are represented in a very touching scene where fellow faculty members surrender their pens to Nash. The ritual was entirely fabricated for the movie but it touched me and strikes me as a beautiful gesture.

When I reflect on the experience with the designer on my staff, it seems possible that those patterns did exist and that I was just not capable of seeing them. But if you are designing for the mainstream, you have to reflect what others will see. Consumers will not make esoteric connections and they certainly won't pay you for it even if you point it out. In fact, they are more likely to do their own pattern recognition that will connect your work to something considerably more mundane, maybe that sitcom they were just watching. So with pattern recognition comes the responsibility to discern which ones will connect with your users and which ones just might be the work of a mad man.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Street

"The street is a room by agreement with walls contributed individually, a floor contributed publicly and a sky contributed by God and nature."
-- Louis I Kahn

Friday, November 05, 2010

Seeing Variety Where Others See None.

There is a desert dwelling community in India with forty different names for clouds. They are experts at gathering water and their interest in clouds, no doubt, stems from their need to know which ones will deliver rain versus those that just blow by. Like the Eskimo's snow, every culture seems to have a vocabulary to match it's passions. But seeing it from the outside usually produces the opposite effect. To someone who's never seen it, all snow looks like snow. I now realize that this happens in our daily lives more often than you'd think.

I took a class in ethnography when I was in college. The professor was an ethno-musicologist and had studied communities in Africa, New York and the jazz and blues communities of the Mississippi Delta. Prompted by a derogatory comment about the Laurence Welk Show (which was big at the time), he interviewed a number of people in the local Polish community about Polka music. When he interviewed people from the general population, he found that many people despised Laurence Welk and his music. "Every song sounds exactly the same" was the characteristic comment he received. However, when he interviewed the Welk fans he found the opposite sentiment. Where some heard a grating monotony, fans heard an infinite amount of variety. They knew there was a familiar pattern... the part that outsiders disliked. But once you got into the music, they felt each song was unique. Hard core fans appreciated the subtle differences in every polka he played.

What the polka community experienced applies to almost any sub-culture. One person's variety is another person's monotony. In college, I experienced the same phenomenon in trying to negotiate music interests with one of my room mates. He was into the Stones and Zeppelin, I was into Steely Dan. He despised Steely Dan. When I asked why he said, "It all sounds the same". What I saw then as just blind (or deaf) criticism I now see as the Laurence Welk phenomenon. Steely Dan has a distinctive sound. From an outsiders perspective it might all sound the same. But for an insider's perspective, I hear a wide range of songs framed by the common elements of Walter Becker's distinctive guitar and Donald Fagan's keyboard and smart vocals.

When I was in an NYC runners group for a few years, I was amazed at how much we could talk about our most recent run. To an outsider it was just a workout but to a runner there is an almost infinite level of detail to review. There is the technique one used on the slight incline versus on the flats and the steep uphills. There's the start of the sprint versus the push to the finish, passing another runner versus drafting, and the list goes on.

I've even noticed having these two impressions when viewing my own work. When I would work on my freehand maps, I would be intensely focused on the quality of my line. My line would waver as the hand tends to do. Sometimes I could even detect the echo of my heartbeat in the waver. So I would worry that the drawing was going to look sloppy. But over time I realized that people didn't feel that way. Thus is partly due to the fact that people like the "life" of a freehand line over a perfect one drawn by a ruler. But it also has to do with the fact that what I was seeing as big wiggles in my line disappeared when you looked at it from a normal viewing distance. It was almost like I had been viewing the map under a microscope.
I don't know what the greater meaning of all this is but it's clearly a part of human culture. Seeing the detail that outsiders miss helps cement the community. Focus sets the craftsman apart from the hobbyist and the fan from the casual observer.