Pace layers and design principles
I think it was Jason who once told me that if you want to make someone’s life a misery, teach them about typography. After that they’ll be doomed to notice all the terrible type choices and kerning out there in the world. They won’t be able to unsee it. It’s like trying to unsee the arrow in the FedEx logo.
I think that Stewart Brand’s pace layers model is a similar kind of mind virus, albeit milder. Once you’ve been exposed to it, you start seeing in it in all kinds of systems.
Each layer is functionally different from the others and operates somewhat independently, but each layer influences and responds to the layers closest to it in a way that makes the whole system resilient.
Last month I sent out an edition of the Clearleft newsletter that was all about pace layers. I gathered together examples of people who have been infected with the pace-layer mindworm who were applying the same layered thinking to other areas:
- Rich applied pace layers to career paths,
- Mark applied pace layers to the design process, and
- Jorge Arango applied pace layers to reading.
Recently I had another flare-up of the pace-layer pattern-matching infection.
I was talking to some visiting Austrian students on the weekend about design principles. I explained my mild obsession with design principles stemming from the fact that they sit between “purpose” (or values) and “patterns” (the actual outputs):
Purpose » Principles » Patterns
Your purpose is “why?”
That then influences your principles, “how?”
Those principles inform your patterns, “what?”
Hey, wait a minute! If you put that list in reverse order it looks an awful lot like the pace-layers model with the slowest moving layer at the bottom and the fastest moving layer at the top. Perhaps there’s even room for an additional layer when patterns go into production:
Your purpose should rarely—if ever—change. Your principles can change, but not too frequently. Your patterns need to change quite often. And what you’re actually putting out into production should be constantly updated.
As you travel from the most abstract layer—“purpose”—to the most concrete layer—“production”—the pace of change increases.
I can’t tell if I’m onto something here or if I’m just being apopheniac. Again.