Notes on the Synthesis of Form by Christopher Alexander

Notes on the Synthesis of Form by Christopher Alexander

Great book about how to view the world and why we often miss the bigger picture. The answer is systems.

Chapter One

These theories concern giving order to forms to achieve a function. Not art, but things where form informs function.

Each form created is done under considerations of constraints; the form is a product of organizing under the pressure of those simultaneous forces (which also influence each other).

These are not surprising revelations, but still they must be solved. And when a sufficiently complex problem is confronted, it becomes too much for the mind to solve "intuitively".

"These notes describe a way of representing design problems which does make them easier to solve."

Chapter Two

There are forces in the world, and they are heterogenous. The forms in the world are shaped by these forces in a way that makes the forces the "functional origins of the form." A river as a body of water is the solution or formed by the attendant forces (of rainwater running off the surface of the earth, gravity, and hydric properties).

"[...] Every design problem begins with an effort to achieve fitness between two entities: the form in question and its context. The form is the solution to the problem; the context defines the problem."

Page 24

"What does make design a problem in real world cases is that we are trying to make a diagram for forces we do not understand."

"Understanding the field of the context and inventing a form to fit it are really two aspects of the same process."

Harder to distinguish good design ("fit") than to discern what is bad design because of something out of context.

"We should always expect to see the process of achieving good fit between two entities as a negative process of neutralizing the incongruities, or irritants, or forces, which cause misfit." (Page 24)

Pick what list of contexts and forces to take into account by those "which obtrude most strongly, which demand attention most clearly, which seem most likely to go wrong." (Page 26)

"The form is simply that part of the ensemble over which we have control. It is only through the form that we can create order in the ensemble." (Page 27)

Chapter 3

"[...]the unselfconscious process has a structure that makes it homeostatic (self-organizing)[capable of organizing its own subsystems!! See thinking in systems), and that it therefore consistently produces well-fitting forms, even in the force of change." Page 38

Let us remind ourselves of the precise sense in which there is a system active in a form-making process. It is purely a fictitious system. Its variables are the conditions which must be met by good fit between form and context. Its interactions are the casual linkage which connect the variables to one another. If there is not enough light in a house, for instance, and more windows are added to correct this failure, the change may improve light but allow too little privacy; another change for more light makes the windows bigger, perhaps, but thereby makes the house more likely to collapse. These are examples of inter-variable linkage. If we represent this system by drawing a point for each causal linkage, we get a structure which looks something like this: (image with no subsystems highlighted).

Now, let us go back to the question of adaption. Clearly these misfit variables, being interconnected, cannot adjust independently, one by one. On the other hand, since not all the variables are equally strongly connected (in other words words there are not only dependencies among the variables, but also interdependencies), there will always be subsystems like those circled below, which can, in principle, operate fairly independently. (Diagram of subsystems)

We may therefore picture the process of form-making as the action of a series of subsystems, all interlinked (at the lowest level by the fact they likely don't occupy the same space―all the way to affecting the brittleness due of another subsystem's materials due to heat), yet sufficiently free of one another to adjust independently in a feasible amount of time. It works, because the cycles of correction and recorrection, which occur during adaption, are restricted to one subsystem at a time.

Page 42-43

Chapter 4

Traditions maintain stability in form and cultures as, "It is clear, for instance, that forms do not remain the same for centuries without traditions springing up about them." Page 48

When the user is the giver of form, "misfit provides an incentive to change; good fit provides none."

"Unselfish cultures contain, as a feature of their form-producing systems, a certain built-in fixity — patterns of myth, tradition, and taboo which resist willful change. Form-builders will only introduce changes under strong compulsion where there are powerful (and obvious) irritations in the existing forms which demand corrections.

When the end user of the form also creates the object, they are able to discern when problems with said form arise and correct them almost immediately:

"The basic principle of adaption depends on the simple fact that the process toward equilibrium is irreversible. Misfit provides an incentive to change; good fit provides none. In theory the process is eventually bound to reach the equilibrium of well-fitting forms."

"However, for fit to occur in practice, one vital condition must be satisfied. It must have time to happen. The process must be able to reach its equilibrium before the next the next culture change upsets it again.

Page 50-51

Chapter 5

On how designers often cope with the list of design requirements:

I have deliberately filled a page with the list of these twenty-one detailed requirements or misfit variables so as to bring home the amorphous nature of design problems as they present themselves to the designer. Naturally the design of a complex object like a motor car is much more difficult and requires a much longer list.

How is a designer to deal with this highly amorphous and diffuse condition of the problem as it confronts him? What would any of us do?

Since we cannot refer to the list in full each time we thing about the problem, we invent a shorthand notation. WE classify the items, and then think about the names of the classes: since there are fewer of these, we can think about them much more easily. To put it in the language of psychology, there are limits on the number of distinct concepts which we can manipulate cognitively at any one time, and we are therefore forced, if we wish to get a view of the whole problem, to re-encode these items. Thus, in the case of the kettle, we might think about the class of requirements generated by the process of the kettle's manufacture, its capacity, its safety requirements, the economics of heating waters, and its good looks. Each of these concepts is a general name for a number of specific requirements. If we were in a very great hurry (or for some reasons wanted to simplify the problem even further), we might even classify these concepts in turn, and deal with the problem simply in therms of (1) its function and (2) its economics.

Page 60-61

Where a number of issues are being taken into account in a design decision, inevitable the ones which can be most clearly expressed carry the greatest weight, and are best reflected in the form. Other factors, important too but less well expressed, are not so well reflected. Caught in a net of language of our own invention, we overestimate the language;s impartiality. Each concept, at the time of its invention no more than a concise way of grasping many issues, quickly becomes a precept. We take the step from description to criterion too easily, so that what is at first a useful too becomes a bigoted preoccupations.

Page 69

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

  1. The formal definition of an object describes "what it is."
  2. The functional definition of an object describes "what it does in various contexts in the world."
  3. How do formal and functional definitions relate? When we know the for, and the problem\contexts well enough that we see where they influence each other, we can build things that solve problems.

    The solution of a design problem is really only another effort to find a unified description. The search for realization through construction diagrams is an effort to understand the required for, so fully that there is no longer a rift between its functional specifications and the shape it takes. Page 90

    In all design tasks the designer has to translate sets of requirements into diagrams which capture their physical implications in a literal sense these diagrams are no more than stages on the way to the specifications of a form, like the circulation diagram of a building, or the expected population density map for some region under development. They specify only gross pattern aspects of the form. But the path from these diagrams to the final design is a matter of local detail. The form's basic organization is born precisely in the constructive diagrams which precede the design.

    Page 92

    "Any set of new requirements may be regarded as the definition of a new problem." Page 92

    Each subset is a sub problem of its own integrity. In the program the smallest sets fall together in larger sets; and these in turn again in larger sets. Each subset can be translated into a constructive diagram. And each of these subsets [contain fewer requirements than the whole] and less interaction between them, is simpler to diagram than the form as a whole. It is therefore natural to begin by constructing diagrams for the smallest sets prescribed by the program. If we build up compound diagrams from these simplest diagrams according to the program's structure, and build up further compound diagrams from those in turn, we get a tree of diagrams. This tree of diagrams contains just one diagram for each set of requirements in the program's tree.

    Page 93

    Chapter 7 review:

    To solve a larger problem, one may partition the context, problems, and requirements into individual, interrelated subsections. Each subsection should describe a disparate problem, for example, if one wishes to help a mother have peace of mind when apart from her young children, the requirements surrounding how she knows where her child is would be grouped together. All facets of the context that affect this issue are diagramed to show their interrelations. This "subproblem" of location-awareness should be classified and represented at the same level in a tree of other problems of the same order. From here, the designer groups all types of requirements, such as all location-awareness related problems together, while communication-context related problems and feedback related problems are grouped separately elsewhere. Next, their interrelations are surmised and they are then joined up into one whole, creating an interlocking, unified form composed of smaller subsets.

    The individual subsections list requirements but also describe how that subform is shaped to address the context; the forces give the form its basic shape.

    The act of defining the context into smaller subsections and discrete classes breaks the problem into solvable forms; creating these subforms in fun creates the larger form.

    Chapter 8

    "We cannot decide whether a misfit has occurred either by looking at the form alone, or by looking at te context alone misfit is a condition of the ensemble as a whole, which comes from the unsatisfactory interaction of the form and context." Page 96

    Form can be judged independently and found aesthetically pleasing (art), but must be viewed through the larger context to be sure of utility and sufficiency as a form that serves a utility.

    "In principle, to decide whether a form meets a given requirement, we must construct it, put it in contact with the context in question, and test the ensemble so formed to see whether misfit occurs in it or not." Page 96

    There are of course many, many misfits for which we do not have such a scale. Such typical examples are "boredom in an exhibition", "comfort for a kettle handle"[...]. No one has yet invented a scale for unhappiness or discomfort or uneasiness, and it is therefore not possible to set up performance standards for them. Yet these misfits are among the most critical which occur in design problems.

    Page 98

    What are requirements for which we not have a clear scale?

    • Fun
    • Comfort
    • Sexiness
    • Enjoyment
    • Delight

    But alas, we may be able to... Delight is caused when you are pleasantly surprised. What if the experience is sufficiently superior to your expectations—the tool so effect—that you marvel? What if the contact point is so well calibrated between user and tool that one marvels at the comfort felt?

    The current "cutting edge" performance will diminish quickly, but new, superior fit and efficacy must be sought.

    A design problem is not an optimization problem. In other words, it is not a problem of meeting any one requirement or a function of a number of requirements in the best possible way (though we may speak loosely as though it were, and may actually try to optimize one or two things like cost or construction time). For most requirements it is important only to satisfy them at a level which suffices to prevent misfit between form and context, and to do this in the least arbitrary manner possible.

    Page 99

    Requirements have three types of relationships

    1. Inverse (or adverse) requirement relationships: the fact a kettle can't hold too small a volume AND shall not take up too much space on the counter are inherently competing requirements.
    2. Positive correlation requirement relationships: satisfying one requirement makes the satisfaction of another simpler. For example, the requirement that (possible false causation here, but this is a great place to optimize enjoyment). An activity must be enjoyable AND beneficial, so sex and sports have become popular solutions to these requirements. But does making it enjoyable also make it beneficial? Not necessarily. How about the fact that the requirements for a fishing rod to be flexible so as to not break the line AND light for one to transport it easily correspond in a linear relationship.
    3. Independent requirements (no relationship): generally speaking, the requirement that a mug be stable when placed on a flat surface AND watertight are not related to each other in any meaningful way.

    "Roughly speaking, two requirements interact (and are therefore linked), if what you do about one of them in a design makes it more difficult or easier to do anything about the other." Page 106

    Chapter 9

    Let us therefore sum up the properties: They must be chosen (1) to be of equal scope, (2) to be independent of one another as is reasonably possible, and (3) to be as small in scope and hence as specific and detailed and numerous as possible. Page 115

    On the whole, though, there are good reasons to believe in the hierarchical subdivision of the world as an objective feature of reality. Indeed, many scientist, tryig to undertand the phsucak wirkd, find that they have first to identify its physial compnents, much as I have aruged in thee notes for isolating the anstract compnents of a proboem. To undestand the human body you need to know what to condisder as its principal functional and structrual divisions. You cannot understand it it until you rocoginize the nervous system, the hormonal system, the caso-motor system, the heart the arms, leg, trunk, head and so on as entities.

    Page 129

    This the general rule. Every aspect of a form, whether piecelike or patternlike, can be understood as a structure of components. Evey object is a hierarchy of components, the large ones specifiying the pattern of distribution of the smaller ones, the small ones themselves, though at first sight more clearly piecelike, in fact again patterns specifiying the arrangement and distribition of still smaller components.

    Every component has this twofold natureL it is first a unit, and second a pattern, both a pattern and a unity. Its nature as a unit makes it an entity distinct from its surroundings. Its nature as a pattern specifies the arrangement of its own compnent units. It is the culmination of the designers task to make every diagram both a pattern and a unit. As a unit it will fit into the hierarchy of larger components that fall above it; as a pattern it will specify the hierarchy of smaller components which it itself is made of.

    Page 130-131