more notes on generativity; and how it relates to design

This week I have the honour of attending and presenting an award at the ceremony of the 60th Australian Good Design Awards. So I have been thinking about design. In particular, how does one apply design principles to our lives?

We criticise developers who rape and pillage spaces around us, ignoring good design in pursuit of a dollar. But my suspicion is that property developers do not appreciate and reject good design, they are simply motivated by something else. Is it not also true of our living? Perhaps it is not that we appreciate the patterns of living that facilitate a good life – and reject them, maybe it is that we have never been given a realistic alternative than the dominant narrative of self serving consumerism; and the drive for power and influence or whatever shapes our discretionary choices and relational patterns.  Developers may trash our cities and towns, but all around us we’re trashing our families and communities by repeating bad patterns of living.

I completed Notes on Generativity a couple of years ago, and while I was happy to crystallise my thinking, my learning continues. The thoughts in this note have been stimulated from reading Christopher Alexander’s A Timeless Way of Building, the companion volume to A Pattern Language from which I have learned so much. If Pattern Language is the expression, A Timeless way of Building is the thinking. It has genuinely stirred my being.

Alexander describes, illustrates, explores, explains a so-called ‘quality that cannot be named’. Sometimes a town, a building, a room, a space has a particular kind of quality for which there is no accurate or precise English word. One might say it is ‘alive’ or ‘whole’ or ‘comfortable’ or ‘free’ or ‘exact’ or ‘eternal’ even … but none of these describe completely what one feels and experiences when in the space. The same can be said for a life. What is that quality? Successful, satisfied, happy? Content, peaceful or purposeful? Or what about the intelligences; emotional, spiritual? As with architecture and design, it is similarly very difficult for a single word to describe that ‘quality’ that characterises some people. In The Freedom Paradox, Clive Hamilton talks about so called ‘avatars of virtue’ … that’s kind of what I’m shooting for. But unlike some ideological or religious gurus, I’m searching for something that is a bit more ordinary and ‘everyday’.

A town or a building can be ‘designed’, but it would be a mistake to think that design is a blueprint; a set of static principles. Rather there are patterns that if understood and facilitated can give rise to ‘that quality’. It only emerges as people engage with the space; it is the way people behave in and with a space that gives it that quality that cannot be named. Think of a well design cafe; it ‘works’ only as people engage with and within.

The way to grow a flower is not to ‘build it’ with tweezers and cells, but to plant the seed in favourable conditions and cultivate the environment. Design is the same. By creating something in a particular way, based on well understood patterns, we invite the possibility of ‘that quality that cannot be named’. Good design should never be an end in itself. Of course at one level beauty is indeed an end. Aesthetic is its own reward. But most designers would admit that unless there is a social (or environmental or other) impact that emerges from the use of the product or service, then they fall short of their aspiration as designers. A beautiful chair is not just for a ‘theoretic sitting’ but a real ‘sit’, one that enhances that moment of living.

This is why I call my manifesto Notes on Generative Living. I became a student of my own life, observing the patterns that, when harmonised, gave that sense of quality of life that is extraordinarily elusive to name. I concluded that for me, there were actually three identifiable patterns that stood out. It is not a set of behaviours or activities. It is not a set of commitments even. It is a set of patterns that, if integrated into routines, generate in my life, that ‘quality that cannot be named’.

They are pleasure, betterness and meaning.

Just like design, they are not part of a blueprint that guarantee anything.

Alexander has identified 253 individual design patterns; an extraordinary achievement in observation and wisdom. There will be many many more ‘life patterns’ beyond the three I have written about. For other people in different contexts with different orientations and experiences of life, there will be others that are more appropriate to be applied to best facilitate that quality of life I describe as ‘generative’. Many years ago I defined something as generative if it is:

  1. Hard coded, non-negotiable but non-prescriptive design elements.
  2. The outward expression is intentionally and continuously evolving creatively.
  3. Positively oriented; it generates positive experiences and cultivates a positive future.

In the years since then, having digested Alexander’s work, I am more inclined to nuance the language a little. Something is generative if:

  1. Based on an established pattern, observed in diverse contexts, which facilitates a high probability of, rather than guarantees a positive outcome.
  2. Experience of it evolves in a creative, dynamic way from considered behaviour.
  3. It facilitates outcomes that are regenerative, reproductive; offering life to the future.