What Good Means

I’m obsessed with the question of what “good” means, and blame the genius loci of West Michigan for this affliction.

The dominant culture where I grew up and still live today is quite rigidly Calvinist. Dutch Reformed. My ancestors were so stridently and annoyingly Calvinist, they got themselves kicked out of The Netherlands.

The kicked out part of the story may not be factual, but if applying Occam’s Razor, it places my ancestors in an even less favorable light: choosing to isolate themselves in ethnically pure enclaves across the ocean instead of reconciling with their neighbors, a direct contradiction of Jesus’ command Gij zult uwnaaste beminnen gelijk uzelf (Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself).

Even so, Calvinism’s systematic theology of precisely who’s “in” and who’s “out” provides many comforts to those who are “in.”

I found it all pretty hard to swallow, and when I left my boyhood home in Hudsonville, Michigan to go to a secular college on the other side of the state, I was glad to leave Calvinism behind.

But gosh, I sure missed the certainty.

When it came to what “good” meant, Calvinism provided absolute, unconditional certainty. In hindsight, I can interpret the next several steps on my career path as a fumbling to regain that certainty.

The first step I made was to swap out the church for the library. And to swap out The Bible for some other sacred texts.

I studied English literature, and quickly adopted a very tight grasp on James Joyce’s Ulysses as my research focus. In particular, I studied the publication history and bibliographic coding of the 1922 first edition, an ultra-rare “uncut” copy of which is in the collection of the Detroit Public Library.

Looking back, of course I gravitated to this book over and above the many modernist masterworks I also admired. Because in 1993, there was no more solidly canonical work of fiction from the Western tradition in English literature than Ulysses. Here was the certainty I’d given up with systematic Calvinist theology!

But actually: no.

The opposite, in fact, was and still is what’s true about Ulysses. It’s a work that is wracked with, and architected on purpose to accommodate all kinds of it depends-es and uncertainties.

The more I learned about Joyce’s composition and publication methods in the making of Ulysses, the more I came to appreciate what he was doing in terms of ecosystem as opposed to artifact. Any one copy of any one edition of that book is far less than the total of what Joyce wrote, and at varying lengths away from what he is likely to have meant.

Joyce built meaning across and in between the layers in the ecosystem— working on purpose in terms of un-certainty. Working in terms of structure, not just surfaces.

I loved it. And nearly became “that guy.”

That guy: English professor, down to the tweed coat with leather elbows.

But then the World Wide Web happened. And I understood how to make web pages. Like many in that first wave of “webmasters” I was able to pay my way through graduate school and land some pretty sweet “web 1.0”- gigs on the basis of being very good at HTML and Flash and FTP.

For a few years, I knew how to use these tools so well that I could consistently and obsessively deliver on “pixel perfect.”

The tactic I used to do good work at this time in my career was mastery of a few particular technologies. I got paid for being an expert at a tool.

And if the problem I was working on couldn’t be contained — like a mosquito in amber — in a new pixel-perfect webpage or CDROM, I could flex my expertise to bring incremental, empirically proven embetterment to the websites and digital experiences the client already had.

When I worked at a big e-commerce software company in the early oughts, we pioneered the use of Flash in the checkout process, and proved that users would buy more and better in the Flash-based checkout when compared against the performance of our regular-old HTML checkout. We made it better: delivering a double digit lift in conversion. And yet.

Within a year, they had to shut the whole thing down.

We designed and built an award-winning user experience, with twice the conversion rate of a comparable implementation, and the client’s e-commerce division went out of business in a year. We had solved all kinds of problems and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the surfaces that customers interact with, but underneath this e-commerce layer was a business model and governance process our work should have, might have but ultimately didn’t align with.

We made the parts that customers saw and touched demonstrably better, and yet, the whole thing was awfully bad.

Surfaces and user-centricity had failed me, it seemed, so I began to shift the focus of my practice from surfaces to structures. To the discipline of structure, which is architecture.

This year’s AIA co- gold medalist Denise Scott Brown points out that there is a well-worn pattern of adopting a guru or figurehead among us would-be architects because: it depends. And we’re not sure we know what-all it depends on. She compares this guru worship to what sailors did when they affixed the figurehead to the prow of their ships:

with a figurehead out front, you can navigate the immeasurable by magic.

Scott Brown ultimately disclaims the guru pattern. Instead of navigating to what “good” means via magic, or in the wake of what the guru does and has done, she and her partner Robert Venturi question the underlying premise, and note that quite a lot of what’s going on in the built environment is sorta OK. “Almost alright.”

Main Street (or thereabouts), Athens GA

A plain box of a building with a false-front to give it more presence on the street, and big-ass honkin’ sign on the front just works.

This is it!

It communicates. It’s legible. It’s malleable, and can be a bar or a boutique or a BBQ joint. Just change the sign. Architects aren’t involved and likely wouldn’t earn their keep if they were.

The attitude Venturi and Scott Brown adopted was less emotionally charged than the quest for what good means. Their explicit advice to students and colleagues was to “do it deadpan.” As a result, the Venturis get blamed for an abundance of irony and sarcasm in what was later called postmodern architecture, and maybe rightly so.

Tom Erlewine, one of my first design mentors, did it deadpan. Pictured below is the three-years-later, falling apart state of a site that was a bit more visually coherent when we launched it in 1998:

From Internet.org’s Wayback Machine

To me, the governing principles behind a design like this “read” like doing it deadpan. A loose-enough grid and typographical system to accommodate all manner of wonky stuff the staff who run the thing will end up doing.

This ethos of almost alright likes a mitten more than it likes a glove.

Venturi and Scott Brown favor the mitten over the glove because structures that are specific require more clarity of intent and purposefulness in approach than what’s likely to be available at the time design and building need to get underway.


I admire Venturi and Scott Brown’s work, but ultimately couldn’t take them on as gurus because of what I see to be a jaundiced eye toward what can be expected from our clients and colleagues. I much prefer and got really excited when I began learning about the work of Richard Saul Wurman.

Like Robert Venturi, Richard Saul Wurman was a mentee of Louis Kahn at Penn. Unlike Venturi, Mr. Wurman continues to be a mentee of Louis Kahn. Wurman gives Kahn credit for giving him permission do architecture like no other architect had done it before — at least not knowingly, explicitly and on purpose. RSW took what he learned from Kahn about truth and space, and applied those ways of seeing and knowing to information.

Photo from the collection of Richard Saul Wurman

In an interview in INC. magazine in 1997, he described information architecture as being

“…about how to choose the right way to present information and how to help people navigate through it. It’s a way of thinking. It’s how you go about something. It’s a whole way of life in which the aim is not to make something look good but to make it be good.”

What “good” means: making the complex clear.

Not only does this man talk about making things be good, and what good means, Wurman also insists that we talk about the truth.

You know, the opposite of falsehood.

Mr. Wurman says:

“The classic pervasive seduction to designers is finding a solution instead of the truth.”

If you knew what was true, you could do it earnest, not deadpan.

You could design a more contextually articulated structure that’s a snug and wondrous fit to these truths you were brave enough to ask about and clarify.

Louis Kahn taught Ricky Wurman that what architects do is not the same as what pharmacists do. Requirements may be given by the client. They want things to be “just so:” but that’s not necessarily what’s true or what would be good to do.

Wurman’s certainty of the find- and graspability of truth in the service of making the complex clear— in an earnest and non-ironic way — is predicated, I’ve come to believe, on Louis Kahn’s theory of “Volume Zero.”

Kahn talked about a three-volume history of Great Britain on his bookshelf, and only having thumbed though the first couple of pages of the first volume, because what he was actually interested in was Volume Zero. A source of understanding and timeless human agreement that Stanford Anderson thinks is quite like:

…the English sense of law, custom, and institution, which relies on ancient, but constantly renewed, agreement rather than rule-reliance on agreement whether we search backward to the ancient constitution or forward in our historical unfolding. That agreement is given weight by appeal to precedent, from time out of mind, and maintained as agreement by adaptation to current conditions. It is the English appeal to the unwritten constitution and to tradition.

The tactic for making things be good in this way is to go backward from the problem. Backward — to the deep and constantly renewed source of human agreement regarding what “good” means — and only then proceeding forward into design.

To not take somebody else’s prescribed, winky-ironic, true-enough “truth” at face value, but to really go after and dig for what’s true about people and space. There’s truth about what’s good for people in space, given the context and material, and you can feel it in Kahn’s buildings.

At the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

At the Salk Institute, in La Jolla, California.

Another one of Kahn’s ways of talking about what good means was to say that “very good is less than good.”

The Apple Watch is very good. Did you know: they re-arranged the molecules in Apple Gold® to look and perform different than unbranded gold. To be insanely great, you go beyond gilding the lily and gild the gilt.

Very good.

But is it “good”?

It appears to me that a fetish object like the Watch comes at the expense of or at least in spite of the goodness of the ecosystem. Apple has made and still make some very good products, and these products are often better than the competing ones; but “just works” stopped being an accurate way to describe Apple products some years ago now. Sadly, these products no longer just work. What they do is depend. Macbook® or Macbook Air®? Lightning® or Thunderbolt® or MiniDisplayPort or USB-C? 60-watt or 80-watt MagSafe® adapter? It depends.

Part of how Lou Kahn made things be good was to ask the material what it wanted to do and be. He asked brick what it liked, and would get a different answer depending on the context for the building. In Dacca, the capital of Bangladesh, brick said it liked an arch. For the Korman House in Philadelphia, brick said it liked two giant fireplaces with a lintel between them for a doorway beneath and a balcony above.

So in addition to going backward from the problem and probing Volume Zero for what’s true about how people like to abide with their things in space, he was trying to honor the materiality of the architecture.

Very Good Is Less Than Good.

Do you remember the New York Times interactive feature Snow Fall from 2012? In a talk that Abby Covert and I presented at World IA Day a few years ago, we pointed to Snow Fall as an avatar for what good information architecture starts to look like — where the materiality of the interface and media elements’ structure is part of the content, and meaning is enhanced by the structural elements in a legible, powerful way.

Some time after we gave that talk, an internal report by the NYT was leaked to the public, and the people who made Snow Fall talked about how awful that thing was for their digital ecosystem. It couldn’t be made using the systems and tools they built the rest of the website with everyday. The editors talked about how “to snowfall” became a verb, and about how the expectations that all stories should or could be done this way made the overall environment for digital one in which people were set up to be disappointed by anything short of very good.

I think these are the operative conditions for much — if not all — of digital today: a handful of breathtakingly expensive and un-repeatable things we can point to as being very good, and not much else to talk about. It’s hard to imagine a poorer position than the one we’re in today from which to imagine a world in which the ordinary way of doing our work could be relied upon to deliver the goods every time.

About a year ago I pivoted my teaching and research on the basis of having imagined precisely such a world, after having read about and then experienced it in the work of Christopher Alexander.

What’s so compelling to me about Alexander’s work, especially the later half, is its offering of a systematic approach to making things be good, or, in his words, to creating living structure; furthermore, this approach can be practiced as and really is “the ordinary way.” Not something esoteric or insanely great or proprietary or clever or one-off: the ordinary way.

Ordinary in the sense of how things already want to be made, in accord with what Kahn called existence will. What this particular combination of energy and material wants to sort out like. Alexander says that we make things be good according to the same order that governs, for example, what metal shavings do when you place a magnet in their midst. Spoiler: they form a pattern that’s like a flower:

Any of us can employ — because we intuitively possess knowledge of — the same kinds of geometric situatedness of structures in space that allows life to thrive and become more complex. How this order works in us and in space is the same. Each of us is made from this stuff, and we’re made to make more of it.

Space Isn’t Neutral

All of the moves that we make in space will tend toward being in accord with this phenomenon of wholeness / beauty / life if we’re willing to bring the requisite level of care to the doing of our work.

Alexander says that each of us possess the means for accessing this order within ourselves and — here’s where he loses most other architects and many in the so-called sciences in academia — he contends that what we’re connecting with inside of ourselves is an objective criterion for what good means.

Applying the criterion is easy: you ask yourself some questions.

With any action you might take with regard to placement, and with regard to the situatedness of things in space you ask yourself: does this move increase wholeness / beauty / life?

Does the intervention you’re taking intensify the feelings of wholeness in you as the maker when you are performing the work?

How does your work on this one part enhance what’s going on among wholes at the system level?

Tactically, to work in terms of wholeness is to play along with how material and energy in space already want to come together. That is, to build the way that nature does, and to also look closely at and learn from what indigenous people do and from what Western people did 400+ years ago, prior to the so-called Enlightenment.

The statements Alexander makes about the nature of order are iconoclastic. I was reticent to make too much out of his work in the IA class I get to teach at the University of Michigan for several reasons, not the least of which being the seeming prerequisite of rejecting most everything people in the so-called developed world have done in the past 400 years.

But then I got to spend a few hours in some of Christopher Alexander’s buildings, and completely lost my objectivity.

The Eishin School in Japan was built in 1986, and if you didn’t know this you’d think it’d always been there.

The visitors’ centre at West Dean College in West Sussex, England sits among structures built hundreds of years ago as if it, too, had always been an integral part of the environs:

The only feelings I’ve experienced comparable to the feelings of being in an environment designed and built by Christopher Alexander were those I felt in Venice, Italy. Where every choice to situate material in space has been circumscribed by the sense that even a small act of carelessness in the environment would be tantamount to a disaster. A revering of and reverence for the spirit of the place as an ecosystem to such an extent that every act of making is considered to be consequential.

It’s a way of seeing that reminds me of an analogy used by Alan Watts to describe the difference between Zen and not-Zen. He said that Zen works the way a floodlight works.

Not-Zen works the way a spotlight works, scanning a narrow band within the darkness to sequentially make order from whatever it is the beam is focused on, without regard to what else is present in the environment.

I think most of the things that people like us make are made in the mode of the spotlight.

Not in terms of wholeness.

The people who’ve proven that they can make very good individual products with the radical focus of a spotlight seem to be pushed ever further from making good ecosystems.

Products are being made “consistent” with the application of so-called “design patterns,” and rather than bringing coherence to these various touch-points, the painting-on of interface standards and interaction patterns did something far less valuable.

Rote consistency, in the way many seem to be going about it (Material Design being just one example), is at odds with making things be good. It simplifies what needs to remain complex.

Always, when simplification is underway, meaning is being lost.

So, to work more and better in terms that Christopher Alexander might resonate with would be to embrace and, where necessary, win back complexity in the products and services we make. Complexity is the fundamental truth of ecosystems, and by papering over that complexity with a uniformity of interfaces, we’re killing the life in these products and services.

As a devotee of Richard Saul Wurman I’m reluctant to change his words or to use them in contexts he doesn’t, but really the call to action here is to make the “clear” complex. To un-simplify. To enrich, and intensify the meaning of what we’re working on and with.

A speculative example of the difference between simplification and complexity in things that people make and use comes from a recent trip to Encinitas, California. Wherein my colleague and I were served coffee on these trays:

Alexander insists that something within space and matter can be awoken by the presence of the proper configurations. And that in the absence of these configurations, we find less life or no life at all. Our ability to appreciate the presence of wholeness / beauty / life in the tray on the left was magnified by the utter absence of it in the tray on the right.

We did not ask for the actual story during our brief breakfast, but we speculated that the shop must have begun doing business in a way where every detail was deemed consequential.

They designed and built an initial quantity of these remarkable coffee trays, replete with what Alexander considers to be the fifteen geometric properties that correlate with wholeness / beauty / life.

Then they got busy. And then they got successful. They needed more coffee trays, and our hypothesis is that somebody decided to simplify the trays to ensure they could be produced in the quantities and at the price that worked for their budget, within an urgent food-service timeline.

The simplified tray fulfills every function the more complex tray does, with less fuss in manufacturing on account of having standardized its geometry. The simplified tray works, but isn’t alive. It lacks the gradients, local symmetries, levels of scale, contrast, and boundaries that are all present and accounted for in the tray that’s got wholeness / beauty / life. The tray with wholeness isn’t necessarily better than the simpler one. But it is good.

In Encinitas, like most everywhere else my work as a consultant takes me, being good is a nice to have, while delivering incremental improvement is table stakes. Developing the understanding and securing the permission to do work in terms of wholeness is going to be a tough sell without delivering on being better.

In much the same way that making the complex clear is always objectively better than when things were unclear, I believe that working in terms of wholeness is always going to outperform working in terms of part-ness. Wholeness will also always be a slower process than part-ness, a near-guarantee that working in this way will require extraordinary clients who’re “up for it.”

In my reading of The Nature of Order, “better” is presumed to be what happens at each step that’s made in terms of wholeness. Clients and colleagues alike may need some help in appreciating what they’re looking at when you show them what “better” wholeness consists of as it unfolds. But to the extent that this timeless way of building presumes structure-preserving transformation, this way is an utterly incremental and iterative way of building. The value in the wholeness you build toward is understood to be greater when structure is preserved than when it is thrown away.

I’ve been amazed by how “up for it” my students at UMSI have proven to be as we’ve done increasingly more with Alexander’s teachings in the class.

The evidence that these ways of planning and making reliably deliver the goods is available. But the learning curve to get oriented in this way of seeing and thinking is somewhat steep. Knowing how to use this evidence in practices that are not primarily focused on built-environment architecture is my present research focus. Here is an initial reading list:

And then, clearly, there is a lot of making to do. Through the choices we make in placement and arrangement, we can train ourselves to understand the ways that wholeness depends on situatedness in space.

The advice I’ve received from those who are close to the center of this timeless way of building is to start small. Like with a piece of tile, or a tea tray. And to then imagine along with Christopher Alexander:

What it would be like
to live in a mental world
where one’s reasons 
for making something 

and one’s reasons 
for making something 
a certain shape, 
or in a certain 
ornamental way

are coming 
from precisely 
the same place 
in you

On May 24, 2016 I lost one of the brightest beacons in my life for navigating this question of what good means. She liked to read what I write. Godspeed, mom.

This essay is based on a talk I got to give at UX London on May 19, 2016.