Q & A on Synergy, Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language and Problem Solving

Foundational principle of this Conversation: To explore how the recognition of subtle patterns can help one to solve complex problems.

Pattern: A pattern is a type of theme of recurring events or objects, sometimes referred to as elements of a set of objects. The elements of a pattern repeat in a predictable manner. Patterns can be based on a template or model which generates pattern elements,

Pattern language: a term coined by architect Christopher Alexander, is a structured method of describing good design practices within a field of expertise. .

Q. Is all synergy positive?

LEWIS: Usually is but there might be times where two different groups come together and create a new factor that is detrimental to both.

Q. And where does pattern language fit in here?

LEWIS: When a person reverses a synergistic process they actually observe what might be called “a process of decomposition.”  Alexander generally speaks of designers but that term can be applied to anyone creating or “designing” a system with many components. What happens is that a creator of systems, often a designer observes a problem, selects a solution, then discovers new, smaller problems resulting from the larger solution. Occasionally, the smaller problems have no solution, and a different larger solution must be selected by recognizing a pattern that leads to the solution.. Eventually all of the remaining design problems are small enough or routine enough to be solved by improvisation by the builders as they clearly understand the pattern involved. Now the “design” is done – the system is created.

Q. Is there some formal way that these problems are solved?

LEWIS: The actual organizational structure is left to the discretion of the designer, depending on the problem. This explicitly allows a designer/problem solver to explore patterns, starting from some small part. When this happens, it’s common for a designer to realize that the problem is actually part of a larger solution. At this point, the design almost always becomes a better design.

Q. I imagine this can get complex?

LEWIS: It can but then again this is an approach specifically applicable to solving complex problems. When one recognizes a pattern they will likely notice ways in which that each pattern has relationships to other patterns and to the language as a whole. This gives the designer using the language a great deal of guidance about the related problems that must be solved.

Q. Are there experts in using pattern language to solve problems?

LEWIS: Yes. It is usually for a pattern language expert to come n as an outsider and solve a problem using this approach. This is because this outside expert must get a reliable, complete list of the problems to be solved and it is the people most familiar with the problems that need understand the pattern.

Q. How would this obstacle be addressed?

LEWIS:  Alexander recommended organizing a group of concerned, empowered users to improvise in creating workable large-scale initial solutions, maximizing the utility of a design, and minimizing the design and systems rework.


Q. Apply pattern language to how you use applied game theory in problem solving?

LEWIS: An important aspect of design patterns is to identify and document the key ideas that make any good system different from any poor system and to assist in the design of future systems. The ideas expressed in a pattern need not be specific to architecture, computer programs, or anything else. Any pattern language should be general enough to be applied in very different systems within its context, but still specific enough to give constructive guidance.


Q. Is there a general term applied to the wide range of situations in which the problems and solutions addressed in a pattern apply?

LEWIS: It is called a context.  An important part in each pattern is to describe this context. One can then offer examples to further illustrate how the pattern applies to very different situation.


Q. So every problem has a pattern?

LEWIS: Yes. If you can even recognize and define that there is a problem then you are recognizing some pattern. Many of these problems are highly complex and the problems and solutions described in a pattern can vary in their level of abstraction and yet even a very abstract pattern will usually contain examples that are, by nature, absolutely concrete and specific.

Q. In LHAGT we are concerned with real world problems as opposed to theoretical problems. There are many theoretical problems that architects, statisticians, and physicists deal with that may not have real world applications, Here patterns can vary in how far they are proven in the real world. Christopher Alexander addresses this by giving each pattern a rating by zero, one or two stars, indicating how well they are proven in real-world examples.


Q. Is this work all theoretical?

LEWIS: Many experts in problem solving and decision science believe that all patterns need at least some existing real-world example. However the logician-mathematician addressed this idea philosophically in his Incompleteness Theorum and from this perspective It is conceivable to document yet unimplemented ideas in a pattern-like format.


The patterns in Alexander’s books focus primarily on how to build a town or neighborhood as well as the design of individual buildings and the interior of rooms. Even so his ideas to general problem solving are invaluable because he sees the low-scale artifacts as constructive elements of the large-scale world, so they can be connected to a hierarchal network, These are models that help the problem solver to reproduce the unique properties of specific patterns.


Q. Please explain some of the factors than enable a creative intuitive thinker to see patterns that may not be obvious to a purely logical thinker?

LEWIS: A pattern must characterize the problems that it is meant to solve, the context or situation where these problems arise, and the conditions under which the proposed solutions can be recommended.


Q. This seems basic. Why wouldn’t a logical thinker, especially a mathematician recognize this?

LEWIS: Often unique problems arise from a conflict of different interests or “forces”. A non-linear pattern might emerge as a dialogue between thinkers that will then help to balance these conflicting  forces, and finally allow them to make  a decision.


Here is an example based on what Alexander has written.  Imagine a pattern suggesting what we now call a  “wireless smart telephone”  at a time when wireless phones had not yet been invented.. The different forces involved would be the need to communicate, while also needing to get other things done at the same time such as cooking, walking down the street, and the ability to find a good Tex-Mex restaurant in Alaska. A very specific pattern would be just “WIRELESS TELEPHONE”. More general patterns would be “WIRELESS DEVICE” or “SECONDARY ACTIVITY”, suggesting that a secondary activity (such as talking on the phone, or researching restaurants in Alaska) should not interfere with other activities.

Though unspecific to the point that a mathematician would have a hard time grouping all the variables involved in its context, the forces in the “SECONDARY ACTIVITY” pattern are very similar to those in “WIRELESS TELEPHONE”. Thus, the competing forces can be seen as part of the essence of a design concept expressed in a pattern.


Q. Why is it so difficult for a mathematician or an expert in logical thought to recognize a pattern?

LEWIS: Traditional mathematics is logically driven. Pattern language is not.  Pattern usually contains a rationale referring to some given values which are not absolute but which are actually defined by those individuals who are receiving the value. One might say that the content for the individual define the pattern in a particular form. It might be giving a person a great sense of love or freedom.  Christopher Alexander calls it the “quality without a name” (QWAN). This idea also reflects in certain trends of thought that might be associated with Taoism, Zen and mystic trends in other religious faiths. The best patterns and systems enrich daily life. It is the extraordinary person (see glossary) who is most likely to understand the subtleties in pattern language.

In traditional, ordinary ways of thinking the quality of a system is defined by how efficiently and effectively the system works. With pattern language the quality of any system: whether technical devices such as telephones or computers cars, to social networks, or physical teams interacting to complete a project social structures like a team working on a project, can be rated more easily. In some situations the defining factor will often be whether users spend their time enjoying or struggling with the system while in other situations the key will be to create design patterns help to create an object-oriented code that is easy to read, maintain, modify and reuse.

In this way pattern language creates a value defined in part on how it impacts on human life. From this perspective one can identify patterns that are distinct from the mapping of patterns associated with changing technology. Alexander says that having this distinction allows us to find a “timeless quality” (Alexander).



Q.Is there some connection between all patterns?

LEWIS: There are different theories on this. A pattern language, as described by Alexander, contains links from one pattern to another.


Q. How would this effect the ability of a group or individual to solve a problem?

LEWIS: When trying to apply one pattern in a project, a designer is directed organically to other patterns that might be helpful in its context.

According to Alexander, such links are collected in the “references” part, and echoed in the linked pattern’s “context” part – thus the overall structure is a directed graph. A pattern that is linked to in the “references” usually addresses a problem of lower scale that seems to be part of the higher-scale problem. For instance, a “Kitchen Design” might have a category for “countertop, “Utensils” “Oven” etc.

Even without the pattern description, these links, along with a “specialized  language”, what Alexander calls “meaningful names”, tell a story message: When building a place inside where food will be stored and prepared  (A Kitchen) consider to include places to store food, prepare food, utensils for the preparation and a place to cook it.


Alexander argues that the connections in the network, the lower scale problems, can be considered even more meaningful than the text of the patterns themselves. In other words with certain types of problems the elements in the parts are of greater importance than the sum of the parts. One might call this “reverse synergy”.


Q. Speak more about the patterns in pattern language and links in the solving of extreme problems?

LEWIS:  In many extreme problems the ideas of links and hierarchic networks are important, and generally accepted among experts on the subject. That being said there are some experts who are working with unique problems in design where hierarchic networks would not come into play. Situations where patterns exist but links have not been established are often known as a pattern language.


Q. Is there some master code of all know patterns?

LEWIS: No. Just as new dialects and new words enter an existing language so do we find that existing pattern language is constantly expanding as individuals recognize patterns in their own unique challenges.


Q. In LHAGT you have spoken about the importance of self assessment in creating solutions to problems and preventing future problems. Can Pattern language be used as a tool for self assessment?

LEWIS: Yes. It can also be used as a general assessment tool. Alexander’s methods have been used to define expertise in many specialized fields. Expertise can be defined in many ways but one way is by determining whether an individual has the ability to recognize patterns in, let’s say architecture, education and even computer-human interaction. This is especially valuable in LHAGT theory because so much of what we are exploring here involves multi-disciplinary thinking.


Q. How important is Pattern language in the application of LHAGT and solving complex and extreme problems?

LEWIS:  Very. In LHAGT we often deal with Pedagogical Patterns, high-level patterns of teaching and group interaction. The core of Applied Game Theory to recognize, maximize, and actualize the potential in any system at the lowest possible cost.  To do this requires a profound understanding of available information, the unique learning, communication and interactive styles of the individuals within a group and the most effective means of presenting this information in a coherent and accessible form.


Q. Speak further about pattern language in a teaching-learning-group environment.

LEWIS:  I have integrated the ideas of two approaches to pattern language in learning environments. One is the theories on Multiple Intelligence created by Henry Gardiner and the other Mitchell Weisburgh’s work on Pedagogical Patterns. Weisburgh proposes nine aspects to documenting a pattern for a certain skill. Not every pattern needs to include all nine. His listing is reproduced below:

  • Name – single word or short phrase that refers to the pattern. This allows for rapid association and retrieval.
  • Problem – definition of a problem, including its intent or a desired outcome, and symptoms that would indicate that this problem exists.
  • Context – preconditions which must exist in order for that problem to occur; this is often a situation. When forces conflict, the resolutions of those conflicts is often implied by the context.
  • Forces – description of forces or constraints and how they interact. Some of the forces may be contradictory. For example: being thorough often conflicts with time or money constraints.
  • Solution – instructions, possibly including variants. The solution may include pictures, diagrams, prose, or other media.
  • Examples – sample applications and solutions, analogies, visual examples, and known uses can be especially helpful, help user understand the context
  • Resulting Context – result after the pattern has been applied, including postconditions and side effects. It might also include new problems that might result from solving the original problem.
  • Rationale – the thought processes that would go into selecting this pattern, The rationale includes an explanation of why this pattern works, how forces and constraints are resolved to construct a desired outcome.
  • Related Patterns – differences and relationships with other patterns, possibly predecessor, antecedents, or alternatives that solve similar problems.[e


Q. How can I learn more about Christopher Alexander’s work?

LEWIS: He  has published prolifically and has expanded and updated his work through the years.


I recommend the following.

The book “Liberating Voices: A Pattern Language for Communication Revolution,” containing 136 patterns for using information and communication to promote sustainability, democracy and positive social change, was published in 2008.


A New Theory of Urban Design (1987) coincided with a renewal of interest in urbanism among architects, but stood apart from most other expressions of this by assuming a distinctly anti-masterplanning stance.


The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe (2003-4), which includes The Phenomenon of LifeThe Process of Creating LifeA Vision of a Living World and The Luminous Ground, is Alexander’s latest, and most comprehensive and elaborate work. In it, he puts forth a new theory about the nature of space and describes how this theory



Lewis Harrison is a poet, author, teacher, speaker and life coach and the creator of www.AskLewis.com. He specializes in helping individuals and organizations solve basic and seemingly unsolvable problems through the application of principles and ideas drawn from Decision Science, Positive Psychology, Game Theory, Zen and from his personal life experiences.


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