Pattern Play

Pattern (noun):

  1. A natural or chance configuration
  2. A reliable sample of traits, acts, tendencies, or other observable characteristics of a person, group, or institution
  3. A discernable coherent system based on the intended interrelationship of component parts

(adapted from the Merriam Webster Dictionary)

Patterns surround us everywhere we go, from the microscopic repeating units that organize the cells in our bodies, to the much more vast scale of the repeating designs on a building façade or a wall. They can be naturally occurring or man-made, but they are united by one common property: the ability to provide a sense of aesthetic order. Below, we consider a handful of instances in which patterns emerge.

Mosaic floors at the Library of Congress

I.   As the result of a tightly regulated set of biological instructions


In a fertilized egg or a germinating spore, a multicellular organism develops from a combination of cell growth and divisions. A single cell divides into two, then four, then eight, then sixteen, and continues doubling while following a carefully directed program. As the cells grow more numerous, the ball of cells begins to exhibit movement as the cells jostle into position, forming a specific pattern of crests and ridges that eventually settle into the physically distinct shapes of our limbs, our faces, and our hearts. In order for an organism to mature, such events must proceed along one precise program, particularly during the earliest minutes and hours of embryonic development. The amazing thing is that for some organisms, like the nematode, a microscopic worm, the divisions and movements of their cells always proceed in the same fashion all the way until the mature worm is achieved: take any two nematode embryos from the same batch of eggs, and they will develop with uncanny synchrony.1 The importance of this identical developmental process is not that the brood of worms reaches adulthood at the same exact time. Rather, the timing is the same because it is exactly optimal to ensure that each cell has just enough time to grow and mature properly, before the next cell division and before the determination of the cell’s ultimate fate, giving rise to the proper pattern of organization required for the emergence of a functional organ. These patterns are not the product of a divine will, despite their elegance and complexity. Instead, they form as a result of molecular gradients and the instructions encoded in an organism’s genome, which work together to orchestrate the process.

On a larger scale, one of the clearest examples of a natural pattern of growth and development is found during the lifetime of plant—say, of a rose. You have probably noticed that the petals on a rose spiral outward, evenly spaced, to create that characteristic and immediately recognizable shape that is the same across hundreds of cultivated species. In fact, if you peer straight down on a rose stem, you might also notice that the leaf branches emerge from the stem in an upward spiral. These spiraling patterns—also easily discernible on succulents, pine cones, and Romanesco broccoli—are not coincidence, but an intention of nature, in order to ensure that the packing of leaves, petals, stamens, and even seeds is optimal and efficient, putting as many as possible into a limited space while allowing for adequate sunlight and oxygen to reach each leaf and access by pollinators to the inside of a flower.2 Such patterns have been slowly optimized over the course of thousands of years of evolution, and few plants have diverged from this meticulous prescription.

Mosaic floors at the Library of Congress

II.   As a way of making sense of our surroundings & establishing our sense of direction

To even an untrained human eye or mind, patterns are easily picked up and recognized to allow us to intuitively determine what to do in a particular sequence of events. For example, travel through just a few airports, where you are required to check-in for your flight, show your identification at security, and remove the liquids from your carry-on baggage, and you start to realize what you have to do to pass relatively painlessly through security to make it to your gate, no matter where in the world your airport is located. Made possible by the establishment of standardized protocols and the shared preferences of people across countries, languages, and cultures, such patterns of behavior and instruction create a framework from which we can determine what to do next.

Patterns also provide a sense of where one is, relative to geomagnetic poles or to the hours of the day. Visual cues, like the moss growing on the north side of a tree trunk in the Northern hemisphere or the south side in the Southern hemisphere3, or the sun rising in the east and setting in the west, can give us a crude sense of direction. In fact, the position of the sun can also give us a sense of the time—hence, the advent of the sundial millennia ago. The waxing and waning of the moon or the consequent flow and ebb of the tides also provide temporal cues, because they follow an unfailing set of patterns dictated by cosmic cycles of orbit and rotation. Our trust in such cues relies on their unfailing patterns over suitably long periods of time.

Mosaic floors at the Library of Congress

III. As artistic depictions intended for aesthetic pleasure

The presence of a repeating motif can also serve a purely aesthetic purpose. Patterns have decorated the surfaces of manmade objects for ages, from the most humble stoneware bowl to fanciful, ostentatious burial objects, including jewelry. In ancient Greece, the crowns of columns and pillars were adorned with scroll work, carved into stone with exacting symmetry, and repeated faithfully across countless columns supporting a portico or a roof. In Meiji era Japan, the motif of bamboo, plum blossoms, and pine branches were creatively interpreted in various ways by calligraphers, print-makers, and poets, yet their symbolism as steadfast presences in the earliest of snowy spring was evident to contemporary observers because they were often portrayed together as a group, with the same intended message4. This three plant motif can be found on silk scrolls, woodblock prints, and even on lacquered boxes. Yet another example of pattern making is embodied in the ikat textile5. Created by tight binding of sections of threads during successive stages of dying prior to weaving into a sheet of cloth, this process creates two dimensional shapes either containing or lacking a particular color to create repeating patterns across the surface of the cloth. Intriguingly, the patterns are easily recognizable but hardly precise; the brilliant colors repeat at irregular intervals. Tile floors in Spain and mosaic panels in ancient Rome provide yet another instance of patterns that are pleasing to the eye. As each individual piece of tile is a certain shape with a finite number of sides—like a square, or perhaps a hexagon or a star—pieces are fit together in a particular conformation to create a border or a set of lines, or set in alternating positions to create units of visual interest, yet repeated to maintain a sense of cohesiveness.

Mosaic floors at the Library of Congress

The use of patterns extends across many aspects of our lives, whether visual or behavioral. Next time you step outside, take a look around you—what patterns will emerge?


Images are of mosaic floors at the Library of Congress, Washington D.C., U.S.A.


Mosaic floors at the Library of Congress







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