In Christopher Alexander’s “The Timeless Way of Building,” he has a section covering observation. It starts with this recognition of the doubt a lot of folks hold about whether we can actually capture the “language” needed to build timeless things.
He goes on to share how the core skill for those of us hoping to work more systematically is the ability to observe “what makes a building beautiful.”
A painter’s talent lies in their capacity to see—they see more acutely, more precisely, what it is that really matters in a thing, and where its qualities come from. And an architect’s power also comes from their capacity to observe the relationships which really matter—the ones which are deep, profound, the ones which do the work.
In this sense, then, a pattern language which is deep is a collection of patterns which correspond to profound observations about what makes a building beautiful.
Observation is Discovery
In my work with design system leaders, I find myself continuously reminding them they don’t have to start from nothing. The best design systems are simply a force multiplier for what’s already happening inside an organization. That means, the most critical skill for any design system leader or team is the ability to observe what’s already working well.
In doing so, you rely on the expertise of your subscriber groups, you develop trust with them, they become advocates for your work, and they become contributors to the system as a whole. This act of observation is your discovery work, your engagement with users. It is foundational to building not just a library of repeatable patterns, but a culture that values them.