Properties of Patterns

Pattern recognition and understanding is …the whole of human scientific and artistic endeavor…the attempt to discover Pattern in Nature.“   Ian Alexander

Are you one of those people who recognize and see patterns around you, when maybe others do not? What do you see that says you are seeing a pattern? This article is intended for intuitive, creative people seeking ways to design and make things – craftspeople, designers, builders, technicians, architects, and engineers – by focusing on, and borrowing from, both natural patterns and human-made patterns to make our built environment.

What is a Pattern?

Imagine a world without patterns. Everything in that world would be random; not necessarily chaotic, but surprisingly unpredictable. In a random world, people could not communicate, since people would utter random words instead of predictable, agreed-upon sounds. Unable to recognize familiar patterns in faces, we would greet each person every time as if meeting them for the first time. Everyone would use their own form of writing and could change it every time they wrote something; no one could read writings of anyone else. We would walk everywhere, since patterns of wheels and engines for cars could not be designed or built; and if they could, where could we drive? There would be no orderly system of roads or highways. Imagine each generation of people, plants, and animals not looking like their parents. Everything alive would be their own new “species” due to random DNA matching during reproduction.

Of course, the world is not random. We know it is not random because predictable patterns develop naturally in the world around us and in our minds. Our minds remember faces without measuring them; good cartoonists capture and exaggerate facial features of politicians and personalities, so everyone recognizes who is cartooned. We speak common languages with those around us, and we write emails, too, using common languages so others can read them. We drive cars with wheels and engines designed with sophisticated 3-D computer capabilities; and we drive only on the right side of well-designed networks of roads (in the U.S.!).

If patterns are our reality instead of randomness, what are patterns? How can we tell what a pattern is?  In each of the stories to follow, look for the properties of the patterns in bold of the objects in the discussions. This will help define the properties of the patterns and distinguish the object from other objects. Usually, patterns have only a few of these qualities, and the combinations of each pattern’s properties makes it unique.

Below is my list of properties of patterns; your list may be different. In studying patterns, it was helpful to have my list of properties as a helpful focus for comparison to other patterns.

A pattern can have one or more properties, including but not limited to these: shape & line, consistency, repetition, symmetry, color, light, contrast, camouflage, symbolism, connectivity, organization, similarity

And a pattern…Brings Order; it is not Randomness.

Ferns and Snowflakes

Evergreen sword fern fronds emerge together from a tightly packed, round base in Figure 1 left, unraveling to their full final length, which can reach 6 feet in temperate rain forests of the Olympic Mountains. Each unfolding pinna along the frond is repetitiously connected closely spaced and symmetrically along each frond. A pinna has a unique hilted “sword” shape complete with a hilt.

I don’t know if carved violin scrolls were intentionally designed to imitate the recurving line of unrolling fern tips, but the similarity has given the name “fiddleheads” to these delicate tips, which are edible.

The initial bright green springtime color of ferns contrasts well with dark brown bark texture of nearby old growth trees, where they grow without drying out in summer’s heat. No matter how badly we treat them in the garden, they consistently revive and flourish in our moist climate.

Ferns symbolize eternal youth. To the indigenous Maori of New Zealand, ferns represented new life and new beginnings. To Japanese, the fern symbolizes family and hope for future generations. According to Victorians, they symbolize humility and sincerity.

Six-sided snowflakes (Figure 1 middle) are all unique shapes, depending on moisture and temperature conditions in which they form. Yet, they are all six-sided, reflecting a natural, hexagonal molecular structure of water and ice. Visible snowflakes are large representations perfectly mimicking the molecular structure inherent in the crystals of ice.

A honeysuckle vine twists and coils, attaching itself to other plants and structures to support it over a few feet of height. It’s growth mechanisms cause the clinging, coiling nature. It is not random. (Figure 1 right)

Figure 1 Credit: Brian Glover/Wikimedia/Brian Glover

Story of Potato Chips

According to legend, the original potato chip (known as “crisps” in the UK) was created by an American cook in Saratoga Springs, New York in 1853. But further research found earlier recipes published in 1817 in the United Kingdom and the United States. Two later published recipe books in the  U.S. – one in 1824 and another in 1832 –explicitly cited the 1817 recipe. Throughout the 19th century potato chips remained only restaurant fare but beginning in the early 20th century potato chips became a retail item.

The pattern properties of potato chips – shape, color, crispiness, taste, consistency, strength, dipping ability –  all depend on their manufacture and the history of it.

To make potato chips, the process varies a bit between manufacturers, but they all start with sorting, washing and usually peeling the potatoes. Then the potatoes are sliced thin and blanched. Excess water is removed, then they are fried in oil at a high temperature, constantly raking the chips to prevent them sticking together. After removal from the fryer, excess oil is removed, and the chips are allowed to dry before packaging or serving.

Figure 4 left shows the final chips ready for packaging at a large manufacturer using a machine-controlled, continuous assembly process. Figure 4 right shows “kettle chips” made by a smaller manufacturer using a worker-controlled batch process, thicker slices, and lower temperatures.  Careful slicing and frying are needed to produce crisp chips of uniform color and texture. Careful sorting of the raw vegetables before cutting can yield consistent size and shape of the chips. It is expected that during frying the chips will curl into a variety of similar, pleasing shapes.

Figure 4 Credits: left: Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
right: Wikimedia Commons 4.0 Famartin

In 1958 the Frito Potato Chip Company introduced Ruffles potato chips after acquiring the 1948 patent rights for Ruffles from Bernhardt Stahmer.  After a merger with Lay’s potato chips in 1961, the Frito Lay company, an American company continued making and selling them.

So, what was the big development in Ruffles?  It was their shape, or more concisely, it was the shape of the cutting tool that cut the chips. Figure 2.xx shows the wave-like ridges of the potato chips which give the chips their name – Ruffles. The name comes from the shape’s similarity to a ruffled piece of fabric – a strip of fabric gathered to create folds.

The ridges, or ruffles, increase the local bending strength of the potato chip, allowing it to be dipped more effortlessly without breaking.  As a bonus, valleys between ridges more securely hold a larger quantity of dip than a regular chip.

Figure 5 Credit:

The ridged shape is similar to a scallop shell (Figure 2.yy), which is stronger pound-for-pound than an un-ridged clam shell. The ridges increase the section properties of the shell, increasing its section modulus, or bending resistance, which is proportional to the bending strength of the potato chip. 

The ridged shape is therefore often used in structural components to make pieces strong in bending, yet light in weight. Sides, tops, and bottoms of steel cargo containers (Figure 2.zz top) are made of thin steel flat plate bent into a similar offset, flattened ridged pattern of a “folded plate” to increase the bending strength many times stronger than the bending strength of the thin flat plate.

Similarly, thin gage steel plate sheets are bent into similar, folded plate shapes (Figure 2.zz bottom) to increase their bending strength so the finished decking sheet can be used for building roofs and floor structural elements in buildings – with or without a concrete topping.  Another example of use of this cross-sectional shape for a structural element is when it is used for seating riser units in stadia and arenas (Figure 2.aa).  

Notice in these construction examples that ridges form an offset of material making an increased resultant “depth” of the element, which is greater than the “thickness” of the element’s parts (Figure There is increased structural depth, with resulting increase in strength, with minimal increase in material.

The concept for increasing strength works well in any material – steel, concrete, potato chips.

Figure 6 Credit:

In 1968 Procter & Gamble introduced a new kind of potato snack, called the “Pringle”.  It is not a “chip” in the classic 1853 meaning of potato chip, since it is made from a fluid mixture containing potato which is formed into uniformly shaped, doubly curved, crisps.  Pringles, designed for easy packaging, are all the same size and shape and stack tightly together.  They are packaged in air-tight canisters to extend their storage life.  Geometrically, the shape of Pringles approximates a doubly-curved, saddle-shaped, hyperbolic paraboloid shell (hypar) with an oval perimeter (Figure 2.xx). 

Figure 7 Credit:

The shape increases the chip’s overall structural strength compared to a flat chip, so transport and handling breakage is reduced. Although the overall structural strength is increased, local bending strength for dipping is not appreciably increased.

Pringles come in their original “hypar” shape, evenly colored and textured (Figure 2.yy). They also come with a slight variation – with ridges like Ruffles – to increase their local bending stiffness when dipping into one’s favorite dip (Figure 2.zz).

Gulls Sitting in a Group

Frivolous, non-random patterns sometimes appear when we least expect them, as happened on a day I was late for a commuter ferry. Running down the passenger gangway, my mind was focused on catching the boat and my mind was saying, “You cannot miss this ferry. Nothing else matters right now.” Being preoccupied with catching the ferry before I stepped onto the ferry deck, my mind’s focus was released when I first stepped on deck, and my imagination was free and uninhibited. No longer in a hurried state, I noticed more than one hundred birds off to my right sitting together on cables over the adjoining slip.

“Oh, look at that,” I said aloud, abruptly stopping only three feet onto the boat and forcing other hurried latecomers to pile up behind me on the gangway. Birds were sitting equally spaced in a line, all facing the same direction – into the wind (Figure 2.xx). Embarrassed by stopping abruptly, I seated myself quickly and sketched the striking, repetitive pattern as the boat sailed.

That summer, a similar pattern of birds in a line was on our beach cabin roof (Figure 2.yy). This was  natural; it was not random nor a coincidence. Perhaps the birds perched equally spaced, facing the same direction, to allow each bird to see its neighbors begin flying when startled. So, if this is true, uniformly spaced birds facing one direction is collision control. The spacing organizes the birds for flight simultaneously without wing collisions between neighbors.

Figure 8 Credit: Brian Glover/ Brian Glover

How Ferry Riders Find Seats

Think back to a similar situation – high school physical education class calisthenics, where we stood in orderly rows for calisthenics. Students were organized and spaced from neighbors during jumping jacks. We would extend both arms horizontally to the fingertips of adjacent students. So…do people naturally follow a pattern of arranging themselves like the birds do?

Thinking of PE class calisthenics, I wondered if ferry commuters naturally arranged themselves in ferry boat seats. Since riding a ferryboat was part of my daily routine, I had the time to watch and sketch the natural, habitual seating patterns of ferryboat commuters for a few days. It did not take long to see common patterns for seating on long rows of seats. 

I found there are some natural, unspoken patterns for being seated in a long seating row on a commuter ferryboat, as illustrated below in Figure 2.xx. The top line in the figure is the seating row’s arrangement as the first commuter takes a seat. Subsequent seating row arrangements, in order from the top, follow. Ferry commuters fill seat rows by two basic rules:

  1. sit next to someone only when necessary,
  2. cross over as few people or seats as necessary. 

Illogically, these rules tend to make the middle seats—in rows of up to 15 or 20 seats—the last ones occupied.  On a busy commuter boat, the last passengers to board the ferry must squeeze around the knees of those already seated to get their middle seat in the long row. 

Figure 9 Credit: Brian Glover

As early morning commuter ferries got more crowded, new corollaries to the rules emerged: 

  1.   a commuting passenger may use the adjacent, unoccupied seat in which to set one’s briefcase and jacket, but only until someone asks to sit there,
  2.   never offer to move your briefcase and jacket from the seat beside you; make them ask. 

Now, this adds a dilemma to the late-arriving, introverted commuter who wants to sit down, “Do I ask the person to place their belongings on the floor like everyone else, or do I simply crawl over five more people, and risk spilling my coffee, to reach an empty seat in the middle of the row?” 

Having directed car parking in grassy fields at an old-fashioned County Fair years ago, I recognized a need for organized car parking in a marked lot, because I had experienced a few drivers not wanting to park in a regular, ordered fashion.

Frustrated drivers bypassed lines and parked quickly in an unmarked area away from attendants and stripes. They parked quickly to get to the Fair but did not consider impacts of their chaotic parking patterns – too closely parked with inadequate drive lanes – when they needed to exit later that evening. It was no surprise when later in the evening, the same drivers were upset with each other when maneuvering out of disorderly, crowded, unmarked parking areas. 

Figure 2.xx shows how a parking lot’s surface – grass or  asphalt – impacts an ad hoc organization of parked cars. There are no lines or wheel stops in the parking lot shown. In the foreground cars are parked on asphalt; the parking appears a bit disorderly and cramped until one looks at the disorganized parking on the grass lot in the background.

Figure 10 Credit:

We love our cars and therefore many drivers will seek safe, orderly parking arrangements, even if they are a bit costly. Technology in parking cars has technically evolved in the last 80 years, since the first major application of mechanical, elevated car parking was built in Spokane, Washington in  1950 (Figure 2.xx). There are many mechanical car parks now, many robot-controlled. The cubic geometries remind me of similar arrangements for roller skate racks, gym lockers or stacked chicken farm wire cages (Figure 2.yy).

A car storage system for Volkswagen (Figure 2.zz) has tall, cylindrical buildings with an empty center. Parking stalls, accessible only from the building’s center, contain new cars along the building’s cylindrical perimeter. Cars are lifted to their parking stalls by a hydraulic central lift; there are no drive lanes or ramps, so no way to drive a car to its stall. Structured floor area is minimal and there is barely enough headroom in the stalls to load cars safely into place.  The resulting building structure is efficient for storing cars. 

Figure 11 Credit:

Such arrangements created by people are far from randomly arranged.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: