The Dangers of Language

May 30th 2004

From Notes on the Synthesis of Form

by Christopher Alexander

A designer may object that his thinking is never as verbal as I have implied, and that, instead of using verbal concepts, he prepares himself for a complicated problem by making diagrams of it’s various aspects. This is true. Let us remember, however, just what things a designer tries to diagram. Physical concepts like “neighbourhood” or ”circulation pattern” have no more universal validity than verbal concepts. They are still bound by the conceptual habits of the draftsman. A typical sequence of diagrams which precede an architectural problem will include a circulation diagram, a diagram of acoustics, a diagram of the load-bearing structure, a diagram of sun and wind perhaps, a diagram of the social neighborhoods. I maintain that these diagrams are used only because the principles that define them – acoustics, circulation, weather, neighborhood – happen to be part of current architectural usage, not because they bear a well-understood fundamental relation to any particular problem being investigated.

Where a number of issues are being taken into account in a design decision, inevitably the ones which can be most clearly expressed carry the greatest weight, and are best reflected in the form. Other factors, important too but less well expressed, are not so well reflected. Caught in a net of language of our own invention, we overestimate the languages impartiality. Each concept, at the time of it’s invention no more than a concise way of grasping many issues, quickly becomes a precept. We take the step from description to criterion too easily, so that what is at first a useful tool becomes a bigoted preoccupation.

While reading these passages I experienced an interesting and pleasurable sensation. What I was reading expressed a feeling I have had experienced unconsciously, but never solidified into a concrete concept. This is one of Alexander’s strengths as a writer, he seems to come at concepts from an odd and original angle and somehow express things that are obviously true, but surprisingly obscure. I’m sure I’ll introduce you to more of these revelations in later updates.

The problem Alexander describes is one that is prevalent in game design just as much as architecture or product design. In the confusion of working in a field with little formal structure, it is all too easy to grab onto any large floating object. Alexander points out that those concepts that can be most clearly expressed are precisely the ‘large floating objects’ that we notice first. For example, in creating a design document or project schedule, it’s very easy to start addressing issues that are easy to grasp, without actually examining the project’s real needs.

This idea relates to my constant repeated mantra that designers need to focus more on the low-level fundamentals of games rather than the higher-level interactions. It just so happens that the higher-level interactions are precisely those that ‘can be most clearly expressed’. I think this is probably the reason for this typical mistake made by designers. In a design document I can very easily use the written word to describe plot, character, mission structure, weapon capabilities and enemy descriptions, but it is almost impossible for me to clearly express the dynamics of the character’s mid-air jump control. Similarly in a conversation I can express some concepts more easily than others, often frustrating myself and others as I struggle to put into words a description of a sub-second interaction or completely abstract notion. People who have worked with me will recognise this frustration well.

There are two ways which we can address this issue, as I see it. The first is to rigorously apply positive discrimination in our work to ensure we always apply adequate time and energy to precisely those aspects of a design that we are having trouble describing and expressing. The moment we find ourselves struggling with language, confusing or boring people in meetings, making odd abstract drawings or waving our arms in the air, we need to be aware that we have just come across one of those aspects, make a mental note of it and be aware that this aspect of the project is likely to become easily obscured by the less important, but easier to express aspects.

The second method of addressing this issue is to make attempts to apply terminology to things that do not yet have them. This is hard to do, because it feels pretentious and academic, nevertheless if there is something we are going to find ourselves referring to and describing at length in the duration of the project, it is vital that it has an agreed label for it. This applies not only to aspects particular to the project, but also concepts and techniques that we can carry from project to project.