What's pattern-based thinking, and what does it have to do with design systems?

Every people manager faces one common problem: how to build and maintain effective teams. Matching people and processes to maximize results is one of the essential functions of, and challenges for, organizational leaders.

This problem has only been heightened by COVID-19 and its impact on the workforce. The sudden shift to remote work brought an inherent change in processes and team management. The way we gather for meetings, build products, and work on problems changed abruptly and, over a year into this pandemic, we're still trying to figure out how to adapt our processes to get the most out of our teams.

Leaders have tried endless strategies meant to change their teams' approaches to work, and different social technologies have brought us a long way. However, teams are still struggling to identify and solve problems in the digital landscape. To help, we have a suggestion: start thinking in patterns.

In this post, we're going to introduce the concept of pattern-based thinking and explore its practical benefits for business practices.

What is pattern-based thinking?

Patterns are a fundamental part of the human experience, and everything from language composition to facial recognition is built on patterns. Approaching problem-solving in the same way lets you jump past a lot of industry jargon and move straight towards developing a solution.

When we talk about thinking in patterns, we mean recognizing common issues or scenarios: the patterns that come up in everyday conversation. When you're looking for patterns, you're applying your past experiences and what you know to a new set of circumstances, even if those circumstances don't look the same. Think about the layouts of your favorite coffee shops, for example, and you'll understand pattern-based thinking: finding a pattern that works (cashier in the front, tables in the back) and sticking to it, so you can be creative with the way the shop is decorated instead.

The word "pattern," when applied to digital experiences, describes reusable solutions for standard sets of problems. A series of patterns develop into narratives about how these problems are solved and what we can learn from them.

So, when we're talking about design and culture, pattern-based thinking is the practice of approaching a problem by analyzing it, likening it to a standard or similar experience, and applying the solutions of that experience to our current set of circumstances.

A quick history of pattern-based thinking

Though we're looking at pattern-based through the lens of digital products, its origins predate the modern tech landscape.

In a book published in 1977 called The Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction, a civil engineer named Christopher Alexander gave voice to pattern-based thinking for the first time. Alexander wrote, “Each pattern describes a problem which occurs over and over again in our environment, and then describes the core of the solution to that problem, in a way that you can use this solution a million times over, without ever doing it the same way twice."

That the origins of pattern-based thinking aren't in tech is perhaps the greatest testament to its strength. Embracing patterns to solve problems works as well for solving digital design and software engineering problems as it does for solving construction ones.

What pattern-based thinking looks like in practice

Bringing pattern-based thinking from theory to practice changes our mindset to treat every question and problem as part of a pattern, whose solution can be adjusted and applied to similar situations. Rather than having a library with visual components and their corresponding code but no context, you'll also have a rationale for why this particular component exists and what problems it solves based on its use in a similar circumstance.

Pattern-based thinking is rooted in two questions:

  • What can I reuse?
  • How can I make our solution reusable?

In design, this concept of embracing patterns isn't referring to **cards, buttons, or other visual components, but rather the guidance and reasoning behind why we implement them. By thinking in patterns, you'll be able to quickly and effectively implement your component library to solve problems.

Business applications of pattern-based thinking

Pattern-based thinking goes beyond product teams. The way we structure teams, plan for projects, and move from idea to minimum-viable-product (MVP) can—and should—be influenced by a pattern-based approach.

Since thinking in patterns helps teams cut out the jargon, it allows for better collaboration between teams. When teams across your organization begin to speak about and approach problems in a way that other teams can understand, it democratizes your processes and helps teams learn from one another's experiences.

You'll also be able to unlock innovation within your organization, as teams will be able to share their knowledge and experience in a shared base of patterns so others can apply those patterns to their set of problems.

Product cycles will look different. Rather than reaching the end of your product cycle with just an end product, it also means coming out with a bank of issues solved along the way. That way, the next time your team approaches a similar product, you can pull from the solutions you've already created.


Pattern-based thinking addresses questions and answers as repeatable, reusable elements.

Reusing elements whenever and wherever possible frees time to address the initiative's unique characteristics. By adopting a pattern-based approach to problem-solving, you will enable your team to see problems more clearly and solve them more efficiently, using solutions you've already created to similar problems.

It's a good time to look at your structure and your approach to work, and ask yourself how you can start embracing patterns to create more innovative solutions. What can you start reusing today?

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