Pattern Language

How to Use the Power of Pattern Language in Your Design Project

You have an idea for your yard, garden, or patio. You’ve started to tinker and take a few steps toward bringing it together.

But something goes wrong—the walkway does not feel right, it all feels too sterile, or the material you picked wasn’t right.
It’s easy to get stuck. And it can feel really overwhelming sometimes, when you’re not quite sure just where to go next or how to solve your obstacle.
Enter Pattern Language: a structured design framework and philosophy that follows the natural flow of nature.

Pattern Language: The Timeless Way of Building

In 1977, architect Christopher Alexander and 5 of his colleagues at the Center for Environmental Structure at Berkeley, California published “A Pattern Language: 253 Patterns for Towns, Buildings, and Construction.”

The book introduced the idea of design patterns and problems as a complex, literal language—complete with grammar, syntax, and vocabulary—and as a function of a higher universal pattern, dictated by natural order.
When you can tap into that natural flow of things, and design with it instead of against it, you end up with a much more sustainable, reliable structure.


A couple years later, Alexander applied a more philosophical view to Pattern Language in his book “The Timeless Way of Building,” which explored the connection between nature and human endeavor, and the quality of “aliveness.”

Design that Feels Good

You’ve probably noticed that some of the outdoor spaces you’ve visited at friend’s homes or venues just feel better than others. They look great, yes, but they also seem to have a certain sort of atmospheric quality that makes them really enjoyable to be in.

Other outdoor spaces, even really nice-looking ones, can sometimes just feel awkward or slightly uncomfortable. While you can’t really put a finger on just what it is, something feels off. 

What is this subtle quality that makes some designed environments feel great, while others don’t? Alexander called it “aliveness,” a deeper wisdom that we can draw from in design to create a sense of peace, harmony, and cohesion.

Applying Pattern Language to Your Project

The best part about using Pattern Language in your design is that it’s so stinking simple. The 253 “patterns” created by Alexander each include a problem which occurs time and time again, discussion, illustration, and solution. Here’s a step-by-step breakdown of how you could use Pattern Language to get un-stuck:

  1. Start out by identifying 2-5 pattern(s) relevant to your project. These archetypal patterns can be found both in the book or online . They are broken out beginning from largest structures (like cities) to smallest (like homes), so most likely you’ll need to look toward the end.
  2. Read through the pattern(s) related to your project and determine their core value as applied to your own project, and how each of the patterns are connected.
  3. Make revisions and next-step decisions based on the patterns you found. Apply these changes to your building process.
  4. Last, assess how the pattern(s) influenced your space. Get a feel for what changed as a result, and where you’d like to go next. Revisit the list of patterns to decide if any others may help you with surrounding or related design elements.

It may not seem like much, but putting these patterns and their solutions into your work has a surprisingly efficient effect on getting un-stuck and putting a new plan into motion.