Tag Archives: design

Desperately seeking (A Pattern Language)


It’s common to hear people say “These days, you can find it all on the internet” or “You can find everything on Google”.  It’s true in principle, but that’s like saying you can play anything on the piano: yes you can, if you have the technique and the repertoire.

If anything is proof of this for me, it’s my desperate search for a book that I’d come across before on…and that’s my first problem. What was it a book on, exactly? I remembered that the book in question was fascinating, and had been referred to by thousands of authors and webpages. It was a classic. In its own way, it was one of those books like Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions that had influenced an entire generation.  I was beguiled by it, and could remember the illustrations. What was remarkable was the apparent universality of the principles, the enormous scope of the subject.  Some months ago, I nearly bought it, but not quite. Unfortunately, I didn’t put it on my Amazon wishlist, or save it on Delicious, or blog about it.

I know that it had something to do with architecture, something to do with design, something to do with landscape gardening. I seem to remember finding it through a post on Understanding By Design that I read on Profhacker,  but retracing my steps led nowhere. I used every search term that I’ve used above, but got nowhere.

So this morning, I started again in a more systematic way, searching for classic books on design, and went through the lists I found until finally, the title shouted out from the page: A Pattern Language.  My memory is acute: I could remember the shape and sound of the title, and that it  was a collocation of two words not usually seen together that had something to do with design and structure. But the title is so unmemorable that I even had to scroll up again just now to remember what  it was.

I’m posting this to remind myself of the book (this is often what I use my blog for), even though I’ve just bought it from Amazon, but also as a very short essay on the myth of Google, the myth that ‘you can find everything on Google’. The truth is that you can look for anything on Google, but what your looking turns up is predicated on your ability to search, and the terms and knowledge that you bring to it.  And if that’s true of Google, how much truer must it be of any kind of research?



Information is beautiful is beautiful


If, like me, you are an Edward Tufte fan, and like nothing more than to see graceful and meaningful illustrations of data, you’ll love Information is Beautiful. Hard to know where to start with the recommendations, but the  Scientific Evidence for Popular Health Supplements bubblegram is one of my favourites – make sure you try out the filter on the right of the page.  Number three of the Four Infographical Morsels uses Google autocomplete to find out the most popular completion phrases for “How do I get my girlfriend/boyfriend to…” Another favourite is the pictorgram of the distribution of major/minor keys in Beatles songs.sd

There’s a dark side to my love of beautifully displayed information: it’s a necessary antidote to the crud that people churn out when they are mistakenly given a computer to do a job which would be better done without one, unless you happen to be a genius at displaying information visually.  It was Donald Norman in The Design of Everyday Things that pointed out the problem of ‘affordances’ – printers, for example, print things, so give a person a printer, and they’ll start printing things out, whether that’s strictly necessary or not.  I’d add to that, give them Microsoft Office and they’ll start turning everything into a table, a spreadsheet or a document, even if what you need to know would be better communicated with a smile and a touch on the arm.  People attach documents to emails because they can, not because it helps.

Please, everyone,  buy Tufte’s books and look at Information is Beautiful just to get a sense of what meaningful data looks like.