Principles of pattern design

Patterns allow content designers to design content solutions consistently and at scale. There are smart ways and less than smart ways to leverage patterns.

Be clear and opinionated

People come to principles with a single question in their mind: What should I do?” Tell them. Don’t hedge or use nuanced language, even if the the principle is a matter of taste or subjective. Patterns should present the reader with an unambiguous point of view on a design choice. It’s already been thought about so they don’t have to.

Tweak patterns sparingly

Every pattern change comes at a cost and that cost is maintaining consistency. The benefit of a tweak should far outweigh this cost. There’s also the behavior change factor: people hate unlearning things even more than they hate learning things. When you change a standard, explain why you did so, and be prepared to repeat yourself.

Solve real problems people have

You should create patterns often, because every new pattern saves a designer from future hand-wringing and thinking. It saves everyone time. But don’t pull ideas out of thin air: patterns should actual problems designers come to you with. Develop patterns around real demand.

Prune bad patterns

If folks find a pattern unusable, change it or prune it. All patterns should be useful and relevant, and irrelevant ones undermine your principles as a whole. Bad patterns are ones not followed. Either amend the pattern to make it possible to follow, or acknowledge that it’s not solving a problem people care about.

Principles of using patterns

There are also principled ways to use patterns. Yes, that’s right. Here are three ways to use patterns properly.

Trust the pattern by default

Every time you use a pattern you will be tempted to second-guess it, and refine it. Supress this temptation, because it will only slow you down. Assume the pattern has been well-considered and that it represents the best current opinion on the subject. No pattern is universal, but there is probably a way to make it work for your case.

Break the pattern to help the user

Patterns are like cookie cutters: they keep stuff the same. That sameness keeps the mountain of concepts” manageable for both you and your users. But every now and then following a pattern would actually make things harder for your user. In these cases, and only these cases, you should make an exception.

Assume there’s a pattern somewhere

If you’re not using a pattern to solve a problem, you’re thinking and thinking uses up time and precious calories. Make sure you keep track of content problems a single place, where solutions can be compared with other similar work. Find similarities, debate strategy, align on a principle, and publish the pattern as soon as possible.