The curtains principle: patterns should be obvious

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Image for post
The curtains principle: patterns should be obvious

People are good at recognising patterns. Pattern recognition is our human ability to identify and act when we see patterns–we often do this subconsciously.

Most design is built around recognising and responding to patterns in this way. Not just aesthetic patterns, but patterns of how things work.

I keep thinking about curtains when thinking about patterns. This is the curtains principle:

You always know when you have patterned curtains.

You can apply the same principle to design patterns. Design patterns should be obvious.

In service design, patterns are everything from parts of services and common types of transactions, to consistent use of content, or tried and tested user interface designs. Systems and processes can also be useful patterns that we recognise and look to make consistent through reuse.

For a design pattern to be useful it has to be obvious. If it’s not obvious enough, it’s probably not reusable enough to create value in a design process.

As a rule of thumb, if you’re having a “is this a design pattern” conversation then I’m guessing, in most instances, that that thing is not a useful pattern.

Patterns are useful shortcuts when we can easily recognise them. This way they can be used as tools for designing new concepts or designing entirely new services. But not if you’re asking people to look for patterns on a set of plain curtains.

Written by

Chief Design Officer, FutureGov / also find me at

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