Design Patterns

Toward Patterns for Creativity – Merlin Mann

Check out this talk that Merlin Mann gave at Macworld.  Aside from the juvenile humor and occasional potty mouth, this guy consistently amazes me with his brutal honesty about not lying to yourself.  Over and over and over he hits me between my eyes with his conviction about creating great things.  His premise: quit focusing on the thought of creation and preparing to create, and just start making stuff.

This talk about design patterns is beyond great.  Here’s the money quote:

“Each [design] pattern describes a problem which occurs over and over again in our environment, and then describes the core of the solution to that problem in such a way that you could use this solution a million times over withou doing it the same way twice”

–Christopher Alexander

To paraphrase what I believe Alexander’s quote and Merlin’s talk say (and, I might be missing the point; if I am, let me know), there is a process to creation.  You approach this effort of “creation” constantly.  For some (like me), creating is a hobby.  It’s not a beast yet.  But, for those whose mortgage payments rely on income generated from these creative projects, it’s a snarling monster with slimy fangs and grisly claws.  In order to beat it, these experts have developed a process that they use consistently; a framework for creation that has beaten the beast into submission time and time again.  The outcome desired may not be the same every time (different magazine articles to write, for example, or a different subject for a film, or even a new medium of expression), but the process and framework are the same.  They’re the calm in the center of the storm, so to speak.  When everything around the artist is a whirlwind of ambiguity, this pattern is something they can fall back on for support.  The artist may not know exactly what they’re going to do, but they know they’re going to do something, and everytime they’ve done something before, they’ve done it by using this framework.

The creatives learn to rely on the framework, rather than on themselves.  Oh, sure, they’re still required to put some effort out, but they cease to trust intrinsic motivation.  We humans are emotionally fragile, prone to errors of judgement, often worried, and sometimes just plain lazy.  Beginning a big creative project is scary, and most people don’t handle it well.  Since we don’t always believe in ourselves, we worry that what we’re going to eventually make won’t be any good.  So we put off starting or following through, because we can’t really “fail” if we don’t ever start something (or, so the thought process goes).  The ambiguity at the start of any creative project is enough to make most folks get a bowl of ice cream and watch something on the TV.  However, the option to go any direction from where we start is absolutely necessary if we’re going to allow ourselves to continue to “scratch” (to steal a phrase from Twyla Tharp) around a problem and synergize the unrelated issues we dredge up.  We need to have some kind of system or framework that’s worked in the past that allows us to rest assured that everything we collect during the scratching phase will be available to us when we need it.

So, what about folks like me, who haven’t created enough to have a pattern to fall back on?  You’ve got to start somewhere, and the best place is probably to copy someone else’s pattern.  It might not work perfectly for you, but you’ve got the option to customize it as you see fit.  The basics will probably be there; if they’re not, then pick someone else’s pattern next time.  The coolest thing I’ve found so far about creativity is you’re allowed to make mistakes.  If you keep doing something you want to be doing, you might suck at it initially, but the practice will improve your technique.  Eventually, you’ll make something you’re proud of, and that other people will appreciate.  By that time, you’ll have defined your own design patterns, your best practices, and you’ll be able to share what works for you with other people.

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