Notes on Christopher Alexander’s Notes on the Synthesis of Form and Design Thinking

Context, Form, Ensemble, Misfits, Forces


I recently read Christopher Alexander’s ‘Notes on the Synthesis of Form’. Written in 1974, it is a short, dense and insightful book on design. I wanted to draw some comparisons between Design Thinking as taught at the d.school and Alexander’s writing in Notes.

What is Design Thinking?

Design Thinking is an encapsulation of how designers solve problems. It is a human-centered, prototyping-driven, iterative problem solving methodology. The current canonical visualization is a ‘process’ where you traverse through the following modes:

The most used ‘motif’ when you look up Design Thinking

You gain empathy for the people you are designing for to identify latent needs, you redefine and scope the problem, generate multiple ideas and then create experiential prototypes to test with your users. This might give you new avenues to to iterate upon your solution (or on the problem itself).

Design Thinking Revisualized after reading Notes

Here’s some visualizations of the design process by combining the design process in Notes with my understanding of Design Thinking.

Alternate Design Process Visualizations (OMG, one looks like infinity!)

WTF? Let me explain using the terminology Alexander introduced in this book.

Form, Context & Forces

Alexander writes:

Every design problem begins with an effort to achieve fitness between two entities: the form and its context. The form is the solution to the problem; the context defines the problem.

Let’s say you are a designer tasked with redesigning a kettle (which is also an example that Alexander uses in the book). The kettle is the form and the environment in which it is used is the context.

Alexander uses the analogy of iron filings in a magnetic field to describe how the form is shaped by the forces in the context. Depending on the direction of the field — the context, the filings arrange themselves in a certain way-the form.

However, he also notes that things aren’t so straightforward in a real design problem, because we don’t know the ‘direction of the field’.

“What does make a design problem in real world cases is that we are trying to make a diagram for forces whose field we do not understand. We are searching for some kind of harmony between two intangibles: a form we have not yet designed and a context which we cannot properly describe.”

So, what to do?

Ensemble & Misfits

Redesigning the kettle itself is not the objective, what the designer is trying to do is enable a certain outcome in the user’s context through this form (such as being able to get a fast cuppa tea). So: it is about how well the form fits the context that determines a successful design, not the form alone. Alexander uses the word ensemble to describe this:

“When we speak of design, the real object of discussion is not the form alone, but the ensemble comprising the form and the context.”

When an ensemble is working well, Alexander describes it has having ‘good fit’.

“Good fit is a desired property of the ensemble which relates to some particular division of the ensemble into form and context. We want to satisfy the mutual demands which the two make on one another. We want to put the context and form into effortless contact or frictionless coexistence.”

But how do we tangibly know if there is a ‘good fit’? Alexander says that it is hard to see good fit, but easier to see the lack of it, or misfits.

“It is the departure from norms that stand out in our minds rather than the norm itself. Their wrongness is somehow more immediate than the rightness of less peculiar behavior, and therefore more compelling . Whenever an instance of a misfit occurs, we are able to point specifically at what fails to describe it. It seems as though in practice the concept of good fit can only be explained indirectly.”

So back to our kettle, if study the context, you need to seek misfits. You might study the ergonomics of a kettle; You might look at how effective current products are — how well, or how fast they heat water; You might even visit some homes to see in what scenarios people use a kettle and so on. A misfit might be a user needing more portability, or perhaps accidentally spill scalding hot water on themselves, or a lack of visual or aural confirmation may result in all the water just boiling away.

Dividing the Ensemble

Alright, so study the context, find misfits. But there can be an immense number of misfits. Which ones to design for? Further, when you study the context the misfits might not just be because of the kettle. Alexander recognizes this and writes:

No one division of the ensemble into form and boundary is unique. A good designer is sensitive to the fit at several boundaries within the ensemble at once. In a perfectly coherent ensemble we should expect the two halves of every possible division to fit together. (Therefore,) we ought to design with a number of nested, overlapped form-context boundaries in mind”

This is the classic trope of innovation, that only when you look at the entire “system” can you truly reframe the problem. The Apple iPod for example, solved for misfits at multiple boundaries, such as buying digital music and ripping digital music and not just creating a new form of the mp3 player.

Similarly, a designer could decide that the kettle is the wrong way to heat water, and work on a different part of this ensemble.

Some examples of ensembles from the book. The dotted red line demarcates the form-context boundary under consideration.

So, we identify the biggest misfits and design around those.

We take just those relations between form and context which obtrude most strongly, which demand attention most clearly, which seem most likely to go wrong.”

The Wallet Project

Alright, let me take this new vocabulary and try to describe an introductory project that is used at the d.school to teach design thinking. I take the infamous Wallet Project (infamous at least in the design thinking bubble, though Kickstarter agrees there is something to it).

The Wallet Project:
A one hour introduction to Design Thinking. Participants get in pairs and go through the steps as shown.

Form: Draw the ‘ideal’ wallet.

Participants start by designing an ideal wallet. This is not unlike a prompt a professional designer may receive where the desired form is explicitly mentioned in the original problem, in this case a wallet. At the end of this step, many students make some obvious solutions: some just sketch an iPhone, some create extra credit card sleeves.

Context + Misfits: Gain empathy with your user by using the wallet as a starting point.

Next, participants try a different approach. They are paired up and are asked to share the contents of their wallet with each other, and use that as a way to learn something about their partner. For example, if someone is carrying a old receipt from a restaurant, upon investigating one might hear a story of their first date. We ask the people to seek surprises, contradictions and tensions in the stories of their partner. This is like looking for misfits.

Forces: Uncover Needs and insights

The participant then make some inferences about the user. She may articulate needs, for example, “Sean needs a way to reminisce upon the important moments in his life”, or “Sean needs a way to stay connected to his loved ones”, and also something unusual about that need, called an insight. “A connection to a loved one does not need interaction with that person” or “Tangible objects carry emotional value.”

Two phrases that we use a lot are ‘latent needs’ and ‘non-obvious insights’. The idea of a latent need is to acknowledge that the user’s need is deeper and different than what he or she might say themselves. Thus an obvious need would be to stuff more credit cards, but you as the designer have uncovered a deeper and potentially unmet need about connecting with loved ones. Thus the designer is working with both the more immediate functional needs of the user, but also the harder to pin down emotional needs.

These then are the forces in the context that seem really powerful. Two things to note here: a) in human-centered design, the primary driving forces are human, cultural, social forces instead of technological or business forces, b) the designer is exercising her judgement to choose a certain need or insight to focus on.

Also notice, that these are not forces that just apply at the boundary of the wallet. This is a a moment to broaden the problem scope, or reframe the original problem.

Generate forms at multiple boundaries: Brainstorm radically different ideas

The participant then generates several ideas to respond to these needs and insights. The phrase ‘radically different’ is worth noting. This is where possibilities for new forms to create are being explored. They may still stay in the form of a wallet (A wallet with a ‘last month’s memory’ slot), but also any other possibilities. (A service that sends this-time-last-year reminder, Frame-able receipts etc.)

Stage the ensemble:Prototype and Test

Participants then actually make something physical to test with their users. The focus is to create an ‘experiential’ prototype—they use everyday materials like paper, aluminium foil, pipe cleaners and the like to create some props, set the scene by moving around furniture and posing as actors and bring the user into this make-believe world.

This is where the word ‘ensemble’ really shines for me. Instead of creating a form (which is what most people think when they think of the word prototype), you are trying to stage the ensemble. And this staging will now reveal new ‘misfits’ allowing you to iterate upon your form.


Hope you found this interesting. By the way, these excerpts are just from the first chapter of the book. The goals of the book are quite different from design thinking. Alexander wants to create a purely symbolic method for identifying forces and creating a diagram in response to those forces, unlike the ‘enlightened trial and error’ approach that design thinking recommends. He also has an excellent analysis of pre-industrial or folk design — which he calls unconscious design and conscious design. Great book, get it here.

Also worth watching: 37Signals’ Ryan Singer’s talk on the same book: https://vimeo.com/10875362

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