Drew Coffin

How Recognizing Our Patterns of Pattern Recognition Can Make Us Better Designers

Good design is human-centered design. Unless, perhaps, you’re designing for plants, animals, or robots, I see no way around this simple truth. So, what makes a design good? What makes a design bad? And what makes humans, well, human? The more I think about it, the more I think the common denominator is patterns.

If you click the first non-italicized link of any Wikipedia article and repeat this process for subsequent articles, you’ll eventually land on philosophy. Let’s jump a little further up the philosophical chain to Plato — specifically, his theory of the forms. There’s a lot to unpack about Plato’s theory of the forms, but here’s what I find useful when thinking about patterns and design: According to Plato, the concrete world exists only as understood by our senses. In other words, objects themselves are only imitations of the ideas or “Forms” of the things. Trees aren’t trees, tables aren’t tables, that fancy supercomputer / calculator / telephone / camera you carry around in your pocket isn’t an iPhone. It’s all just mass, physicality, atoms. What makes a tree a tree, a chair a chair, and an iPhone an iPhone is its respective “treeness,” “chairness,” or “iPhoneness.” And all of those are based on our abstract understanding of these objects.

At this point, you might be thinking, “Wait, ‘treeness?’ ‘chairness?’ ‘iPhoneness?!’ I thought this was supposed to be about design!” And it is, so bear with me.

What makes a chair a chair and not a table, desk, or sofa? Is a beanbag a chair? What about an upturned bucket? What about a stool? Is a car seat a chair? How about swings? Is there a difference between a seat and a chair? What even is a chair? Will I ever be able to sit down again?!

If you can’t stand all this thinking about sitting down, take a seat so we can really dig in here. When talking about how we identify chairs vs. tables, what we’re actually talking about are categories based on pattern recognition. Humans are the best pattern recognition machines. Whether we’re processing complex emotions or what makes a chair a chair, human intelligence, society, and the whole of design is predicated on our ability to recognize patterns. For example, upon receiving data from a series of objects that are about knee high and combine stable bases with horizontal planes, my brain may recognize these objects as belonging to the category of “seat,” whether they are tree stumps or office chairs.

So, humans understand the world through pattern recognition. We then assign meaning to those recognized patterns through language — be it body language, spoken language, written language, sign language, or even design language. Languages themselves are patterns, patterns that we use to communicate other patterns. Take English, for example: The alphabet, grammar, syntax, and sentence structure are all patterns that, when used correctly, result in the pattern of the English language.

We could look at patterns as they apply to architecture, cuisine, high art, politics, relationships, and just anything else, I’d wager, but we’d probably be straying back into philosophy and away from design. So, let’s talk about design.

As designers, we often recognize patterns without explicitly identifying them. These are called heuristics. Here’s a helpful example of how heuristics work: Imagine a person trying to catch a ball. She recognizes the initial angle of the ball and runs toward it. On some level, her brain is solving advanced differential equations — literally on the run — but she’s not aware of it. The math itself isn’t needed to know how to run to the correct spot and catch the ball; she’s acting on instinct.

The same thing happens in design. Designers quickly, subconsciously process massive amounts of information to arrive at a conclusion. Why choose blue over red or round over square? Breaking down our heuristic intuitions into the underlying patterns reveals information that can be useful to the design process. Recognizing these patterns helps move decisions from our guts to our heads, and make better-informed design decisions.

Heuristics are a fantastic mechanism for understanding the world, but we can benefit from understanding even a piece of the pattern behind each heuristic. I find some of the problem with different design thinking methodologies is that they rely too heavily on the method and disregard the individual’s design aptitude or understanding of the patterns that make up good design.

Photo: Trask Bedortha/Drawn

Let’s talk specifically about human-centered design for a minute. In my experience, there are two ways that we can look at human-centered design in light of patterns. First, we can say that design is naturally human-centered because it emerges from the exercise of pattern recognition performed by humans — whether consciously or subconsciously. It’s important to recognize that this comes with biases, categorical limitations, and our own personal egocentrism. Recognizing these patterns can help deconstruct these tendencies and result in better design. 

Secondly, and more importantly, we can say that good design is human-centered when our goal is to provide a better outcome or experience for a human(s) — unless, of course, you’re designing for animals or robots. We can identify “goodness” as it relates to humanity in whatever sense that is relevant to a design project, be it product design, package design, or poster design.

The interesting thing about these patterns of recognition is that we can reshape them. We can expand our capabilities as designers and develop new and innovative solutions by expanding our familiar pattern sets and creating new ones. We can break down our perceptions of the material world and build them up into new and interesting patterns of understanding, patterns that hopefully reveal unique and useful solutions to design problems. Ultimately, honest examinations of pattern recognition can help us to become more creative designers who are more capable of good, human- (or robot-) centered design.