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.

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