“How to Design Almost Anything” – Introduction to The Nature of Order by Christopher Alexander

In March 2017 I took part in a design workshop that changed the way I think about design. I could go on and write an entirely new blog post on great lessons from it, but for this blog, I’ll focus on two of the strongest aspects that I learned and I hold in my mind ever since.

One aspect is the Evolution of Design process, which comes handy in Worldbuilding, which we will visit at some point later. The other one – vaguely described in this article – is a set of guidelines developed by one of the most influential architects to walk the face of the Earth, Christopher Alexander.

It’s a set of principles, normally referred to as Fundamental Properties of Wholeness. It consists of a set of rules that are almost always used in combination. There are fifteen properties a designer can play with in order to achieve desired results. The system is not entirely straightforward in its essence, making it somewhat hard to understand at first, although it’s not really meant to be ‘understood’. I would say one rather gets a ‘feel’ for it, gradually. If anything, it’s a manifestation of understanding of design, into a written word. Without further ado…

These are the 15 “parametres” we will play with. We will list them down bellow. Source: https://www.idfa.nl/en/film/c0b9c2c9-8f16-49d1-8638-29e7c31ff38f/the-nature-of-order-an-essay-on-the-art-of-building-and-the-nature-of-the-universe

The biggest challenge in using the principles to your advantage is, that they are very much co-related. It’s nearly impossible to satisfy all fifteen properties in all parts of the design, and arguably shouldn’t be attempted. To top it off, they can be used as a subject to debate on what each of them means, and how they are (or can be) seen in design. Not to mention that each of them deals with a rather nature-related aspect…

In order to play the game, we must first meet the terminology. And before we do that, it’s fair to introduce you to where it all comes from.

Those principles come entirely from Christopher Alexander and he describes them in the 4-part book (or essay) The Nature of Order.

The Nature of Order. I’ll be honest I have hard time accepting the selection of the colours…

The properties described in the book revolve around the concept of Wholeness and Centers. You might talk about the wholeness and centers in a similar way you talk about composition in art; with one crucial difference: In composition you arrange the elements so they design a line of action. In wholeness, however, you arrange the elements to create the centers – between those elements.

The Wholeness is basically ‘all there is’. In order to make the wholeness really whole, we need to make sure that centers – it’s building blocks – are well defined and used.  A good use of centers make the wholeness stable. Even Alexander himself wrote “… no one has shown how to represent wholenss…. no one has yet formulated a way of understanding just what this wholeness is, in precise terms.” Although, as he noted, most creatives eventually learn how this whole(ness) works and how to use it.

How designing the elements (above) makes the way centers work. This image is taken directly from the book, The Nature of Order.

The Center, Alexander describes – or defines – (roughly) as “an organized zone of space, that exhibits and forms a local zone of relative centeredness with respect to other parts of space”. Center isn’t a single point, it’s a zone.  The borders that we make using the elements, encapsulate and create the centers around them.

I could go further into what Wholeness and Centers represent, but there’s a book for it – The Nature of Order, of course. So, here are the principles (although there might be a better word for it) that Christopher Alexander mentions in the book(s):

1.) Levels of Scale
2.) Strong Centers
3.) Boundaries
4.) Alternating Repetition
5.) Positive Space
6.) Good Shape
7.) Local Symmetries
8.) Deep Interlock and Ambiguity
9.) Contrast
10.) Gradients
11.) Roughness
12.) Echoes
13.) The Void
14.) Simplicity and Inner Calm
15.) Not-Separateness

These are basically the elements that appear in nature and make our world pleasing to the eye and the soul. These are the principles we will use whenever we want to make something feel – natural.

In the next chapter, we will look on the other aspect of design that we were introduced to in the workshop, that I earlier mentioned as “Evolution of Design Process”. Afterwards, we’re going to come back to these principles and see what we can do with them.

Of course, if you’re eager, you’re welcome to explore the books, no need to wait for my publication. Also you should keep in mind, that the majority of the content in this post is simplified for a quicker read and don’t even scratch the surface. After all, Christopher Alexander studied the process his whole life, whereas I’ve heard about it on the workshop (and decided to look a little bit into it myself).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *