Notes on the Synthesis of Form by Christopher Alexander


  1. Discusses the idea of the diagrams. These diagrams, which in my more recent work, I have been calling patterns, are the key to the process of creating form…The idea of a diagram, or pattern, is very simple. It is an abstract pattern of physical relationships which resolves a small system of interacting and conflicting forces, and is independent of all other forces, and of all other possible diagrams. The idea that it is possible to create such abstract relationships one at a time, and to create designs which are whole by fusing these relationships – this amazingly simple idea is, for me, the most important discovery of the book

Key Takeaways

  1. Must design to fit the context of its use
  2. Poincare once said, “sociologists discuss sociological methods; physicists discuss physics.”
  3. Plato – “First, the taking in of scattered particulars under one Idea, so that everyone understands what is being talked about…Second, the separation of the Idea into parts, by dividing it at the joints, as nature directs, not by breaking any limb in half as a bad carver might.”
  4. The ultimate object of design is form…It is based on the idea that 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…The context is that part of the world which puts demands on this form; anything in the world that makes demands of the form is context. Fitness is a relation of mutual acceptability between these two. In a problem of design we want to satisfy the mutual demands which the two make on one another. We want to put the context and the form into effortless contact or frictionless coexistence
  5. In the unselfconscious culture a clear pattern has emerged. Being self-adjusting, its action allows the production of well-fitting forms to persist in active equilibrium with the system. The way forms are made in the selfconscious culture is very different. I shall try to show how, just as it is a property of the unselfconscious system’s organization that it produces well-fitting forms, so it is a property of the emergent self-conscious system that its form fit badly
    1. It seems to be a universal truth that small, constant steps is the ideal form of growth (PIPER). If you can achieve this with occasional positive punctuated equilibria, you have something special – evolution, mastery, startups, relationships, investing…This allows for quick learning / adaptation as well as builds in antifragility 
  6. Be careful of verbal constructs as we often lose the ability to modify them…We must keep our ability to see beyond them
  7. The problem to designing to context will be solved as the designer gets more and more control over the process of design
  8. It is the aim of science to give such a unified description for every object and phenomenon we know. The task of chemistry (and it has been remarkably successful in this) is to relate functional and formal descriptions of chemical compounds to one another, so that we can go backwards and forwards between the two, without loss in understanding. The task of physiology has been to relate the functional behavior of the body to the organs we observe in anatomy. Again, it has been reasonably successful. The solution of a design problem is really only another effort to find a unified description. The search for realization through constructive diagrams is an effort to understand the required form so fully that there is no longer a rift between its functional specification and the shape it takes…A design problem is not an optimization problem. In other words, it is not a problem of meeting any one requirement or any function of a number of requirements in the best possible way. For most requirements it is important only to satisfy them at a level which suffices to prevent misfit between the form and the context, and to do this in the least arbitrary manner possible
  9. Any state of affairs in the ensemble which derives from the interaction between form and context, and causes stress in the ensemble, is a misfit
  10. The designer as a form-maker is looking for integrity (in the sense of singleness); he wishes to form a unit, to synthesize, to bring elements together. A design program’s origin, on the other hand, is analytical, and its effect is to fragment the problem. 
  11. What is it about the internal structure of any problem that makes it hard to solve? In 9/10 cases, we cannot solve it, because we cannot grasp it; we cannot see what the internal structure is “driving at.”
  12. If we break the problem apart in such a way that its clusters of variables are as richly connected, internally, as possible, we shall have clues to those physical aspects of the problem which play the most important functional part of the problem and are therefore most likely to furnish handles for the designer’s comprehension 
  13. Th organization of any complex physical object is hierarchical. It is true that, if we wish, we may dismiss this observation as an hallucination caused by the way the human brain, being disposed to see in terms of articulations and hierarchies, perceives the world. 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 scientists, trying to understand the physical world, find that they have first to identify its physical components, much as I have argued in these notes for isolating the abstract components of a problem. You cannot understand the human body until you recognize the nervous system, hormonal system, vasomotor system, heart, arms, legs, trunk, head, etc. You cannot understand chemistry without knowing the pieces of which molecules are made
  14. This is the general rule. Every aspect of a form, whether piecelike or patternlike, can be understood as a structure of components. Every object is a hierarchy of components, the large ones specifying the pattern of distribution of the smaller ones, the small ones themselves, though at first sight more clearly piecelike, in fact again patterns specifying the arrangement and distribution of still smaller components. Every component has this twofold nature: it is first a unit, and second a pattern, both a pattern and a unit. Its nature as a pattern specifies the arrangement of its own component units. It is the culmination of the designer’s task to make every diagram both a pattern and a unit
    1. Both a wave and a molecule…

What I got out of it

  1. An absolutely beautifully written book that is thought provoking. Got me to think about design differently, how it’s done, it’s purpose, why it’s challenging, what “good design” looks like