The Flexibility of Structures

Often the central artifact in my projects is a structure of some sort. This structure can often be represented hierarchically, as an outline. I aim for stability at the higher levels of the structure and flexibility at the lower ones.

For example, the syllabus for my systems course includes an outline of the themes for each class in the semester. Currently, it looks like this:

  1. Introduction
  2. Components
  3. Distinctions
  4. Structure
  5. Environments
  6. Communications
  7. Code
  8. Frameworks
  9. Dynamics I
  10. Control
  11. Dynamics II
  12. Modeling I
  13. Modeling II
  14. Interventions I
  15. Interventions II
  16. Final review

There are also broader areas of focus to this structure. I devised it as a three-part arc:

  1. The basics: Inducting students into the semantic environment of systems; the “what” of systems.
  2. Going deeper: Diving below the surface to understand how systems work; the “why” of systems.
  3. Agency: Showing students how designers can successfully intervene in systems; the “how” of systems.

So the outline looks like this:

  1. The basics
    1. Introduction
    2. Components
    3. Distinctions
    4. Structure
    5. Environments
  2. Going deeper
    1. Communications
    2. Code
    3. Frameworks
    4. Dynamics I
    5. Control
    6. Dynamics II
  3. Agency
    1. Modeling I
    2. Modeling II
    3. Interventions I
    4. Interventions II
    5. Final review

I also have a list of topics that I plan to address in each class. I haven’t included this level of detail in the syllabus, but I have an internal outline where I’ve worked this out. So overall, the structure of the class looks like this:

  • Level A: Focus
    • Level B: Theme
      • Level C: Topic

In this structure, level A is set; I don’t expect I’ll be making many changes to it. Level B is fairly stable, but I’m open to moving some things around to account for things like guest lecturer availability, current events, or opportunities for field trips. Level C is contingent; I want to be open to changing the order and focus at this level to accommodate the needs and questions of students.

This structural model, where the higher labels are stable, and the lower levels are flexible, is a recurring pattern I use in most of my projects. It’s very useful since it gives me the benefits of a solid foundation, but the flexibility to adapt to changing conditions. (You may recognize this as a manifestation of Stewart Brand’s pace layer model; a perennial source of inspiration.)

Brand’s “pace layers” model (1999)