How To Use Design Patterns To Spark New Ideas

You’re in the thick of making sense of your research data, creating themes and insights, getting ideas about how to help the people that you’re supposed to be designing for, but feeling anxiety about coming up with really innovative solutions. Now what? How do you fuel the concept development process? How does your research actually inform and inspire good design? And what if your ideas already exist in some product or service people are using today? One answer: draw upon the power of design patterns.

A design pattern is a description of something that is successfully at work in the world. It could be a contemporary service like ridesharing that people have grown to depend on, or it might be the arrangement of space that creates ambience in a park or plaza. Design patterns can be new and emerging functionalities or seemingly timeless ways of building or making things. We experience them as regular conveniences that are human-made, compelling, coherent, understandable, useful, usable parts of everyday life.

My own introduction to the concept of “patterns” and their use in design began with architect Christopher Alexander’s research about ways of building that seem to transcend time, place, space, and people. In A Pattern Language, Alexander and his colleagues define 253 patterns that have become so embedded in our environmental experience that we often intuitively apply them whenever we plan, build, or compose habitats. By articulating the format of each pattern, Alexander’s team created a guide for how to recreate that pattern in the process of designing towns and buildings.

The elements of this language are entities called patterns. 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 such a way that you can use this solution a million times over, without ever doing it the same way twice.
— Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language

For our purposes, design patterns may be drawn from many fields: economics, education, politics, entertainment, science, art, medicine, food, technology, sports, travel, business, government, literature, film, fashion, transportation, automobiles, pop culture, and more.

A collection of design patterns can be a simple list populated in a spreadsheet and entered in a document, or take the form of cards that can be referenced, shared, and used in the design process.

The anatomy of a design pattern may include a meaningful title that describes its overall nature, a short definition, and an explanation about why it’s important and what really works. Some definitions may benefit from photos or illustrations.

In practice, we use design patterns to provoke fresh ideas. Combining unlike patterns, juxtaposing them with research insights, data, and trends, or forcing conflicting patterns with draft concepts can cause designers to think more creatively about a problem and generate fresh, unexpected solutions. What Edward De Bono refers to as “lateral thinking”.

The lateral thinking attitude involves firstly a refusal to accept rigid patterns and secondly an attempt to put things together in different ways. With lateral thinking one is always trying to generate alternatives, to restructure patterns.
— Edward de Bono, Lateral Thinking

On a recent project for the City of Arlington, Texas our team combined design patterns about online dating with ideas about medical records that yielded a concept that enables various care providers to co-create a health narrative for patients suffering from mental and behavioral illnesses. And, in Tulsa, Oklahoma their team mashed together insights about spaying and neutering with patterns about food truck trends that is producing a prototype of mobile pet licensing, spaying and neutering aiming to reduce the number of unlicensed and dangerous pets roaming the streets.

How might you use design patterns in your own work? Consider these practical steps.

First, document popular trends, products, and services

  1. Design patterns can be tech-oriented, service-oriented, or even drawn from pop culture. Think of 3-5 examples. Use the template to create and print Design Patterns.

  2. Give the pattern an easily understandable name. 

  3. Describe how it works (i.e. it’s functionality and key features).

  4. Describe why it’s unique.

  5. Describe why it works so well – how does it affect people or impact a situation?

Here are two examples. Printing design patterns 2-up on a letter-sized sheet enables you to create movable assets that can be easily read from a distance of a few feet:

Design Patterns_jf_chatbots.001.png

Create ideas by combining insights with design patterns

  1. Collect insights from your research. An insight could be a statement about human behavior, a clearly defined need, or even a design principle.

  2. Identify meaningful, interesting, or provocative design patterns. A design pattern is a contemporary or historically significant feature, function, product, service, business, or trend. (Examples: voice command interactions, biometrics, and ride sharing.)

  3. Combine insights and patterns to force each combination to produce a new design idea.

Below, combining a design pattern of online dating with user needs about pet ownership to create an idea about producing chemistry between adopter and pet:

Design Pattern:

Profile-Based Matchmaking



Pet knowledge, resources, and “fit” are needed for successful ownership



Matchmaking for pet adopters supported by personality traits, medical records, and care recommendations

My use of design patterns has been greatly influenced by Jon Kolko’s thinking about insight combination when I taught at The Austin Center for Design, and by my work with Bloomberg Philanthropies helping cities create innovative solutions to complex problems.

You may download a printable PDF version of 17 useful design patterns here. Consider printing them out, folding them in half, and tearing or cutting to create movable cards that can be positioned next to insights and physically combined using the Insight Combination Map shown below and available here.

Micro-Transit (Powered Scooters, Wheels, Skateboards)

Micro-Transit (Powered Scooters, Wheels, Skateboards)