What do digital products, architecture, and pottery have in common?

Patterns… they are everywhere. When we recognize a familiar pattern we instantly know what it is and how to use it. When we see a button, we know how to click it. When we see a coffee cup, we how to drink from it. When we see a front door, we know how to enter it.

Good designers know how to use patterns to make new things familiar. We use them to make complex things simple. We use them to design things that never need to be learned or taught. Great designers naturally notice patterns everywhere and subconsciously make mental notes of what works best. It’s almost more of an affliction than a practice.

UX Researchers will take it further and test various patterns against each other to determine the best approach. They will watch people and observe what they look at and why they choose to click. Sometimes users will seemingly make a mistake but once you get into the user’s head you realize that the designer’s assumption was wrong about how the user will interpret the pattern – so the design is changed to match the user’s perception.

Patterns can also show hierarchy or priority too. For example in UX Design we will make objects on the page more visually dominant to help draw the user’s eye to it – an obvious example is a button. But sometimes we need multiple buttons with various levels of priority. In these cases, we make certain action styles look more and less dominant so that we can point the user to the most commonly used action first. Then we’ll create a style guide to record our visual language so we use patterns consistently It’s a simple common trick, but a good example of why patterns are important in design.

In the title of this post, I chose digital products, architecture, and pottery because these are the three mediums I care about most. I learned to be a potter at a young age and even got my BFA in Ceramics. I studied architecture in school and it’s been my primary area of interest outside of work for many years. For almost three decades I’ve been a digital product designer (and worn many of the associated hats).

In all three of these very different mediums, patterns have always emerged as the glue that ties together anything I’ve designed or created. Essential reading on the topic is A Pattern Language, which comes at this topic from an Architect’s point of view but is totally adaptable for any medium.

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