The topics covered in this chapter are:
- What is a design pattern?
We'll never know how language first came into being. Did it slowly evolve from a series of grunts and guttural sounds made during grooming rituals? Perhaps it developed to allow mothers and their offsprings to communicate. Both of these are theories, all but impossible to prove. Nobody was around to observe our ancestors during that important period. In fact, the general lack of empirical evidence lead the Linguistic Society of Paris to ban further discussions on the topic, seeing it as unsuitable for serious study.
At that time, Netscape was involved in the first of the browser wars with Microsoft. The vision for Netscape was far grander than simply developing a browser. They wanted to create an entire distributed operating system making use of Sun Microsystems' recently released Java programming language. Java was a much more modern alternative to C++ that Microsoft was pushing. However, Netscape didn't have an answer to Visual Basic. Visual Basic was an easier to use programming language, which was targeted at developers with less experience. It avoided some of the difficulties around memory management which makes C and C++ notoriously difficult to program. Visual Basic also avoided strict typing and overall allowed more leeway.
The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis is a hypothesis within the linguistics domain that suggests that not only is language influenced by the environment in which it is used but also that language influences its environment. Also known as linguistic relativity, the theory is that one's cognitive processes differ based on how the language is constructed. Cognitive psychologist Keith Chen has proposed a fascinating example of this. In a very highly viewed TED talk, Dr. Chen suggested that there is a strong positive correlation between languages that lack a future tense and those that have high saving rates (https://www.ted.com/talks/keith_chen_could_your_language_affect_your_ability_to_save_money/transcript). The hypothesis at which Dr. Chen arrived is that when your language does not have a strong sense of connection between the present and the future, it leads to more reckless behavior in the present.
For the most part, ideas are only applicable in one place. Adding peanut butter is really only a great idea in cooking and not in sewing. However, from time to time, it is possible to find applicability for a great idea outside of its original purpose. This is the story behind design patterns.
In 1977, Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein authored a seminal book on what they called design patterns in urban planning called A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction, Oxford.
The book described a language for talking about the commonalities of design. In the book, a pattern is described by Christopher Alexander as follows:
The elements of this language are entities called patterns. Each pattern describes a problem that 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.
These design patterns included such things as how to lay out cities to provide a mixture of city and country living or how to build roads in loops as a traffic calming measure in residential areas. This is shown in the following image taken from the book:
Even for those without a strong interest in urban planning, the book presents some fascinating ideas about how to structure our world to promote healthy societies.
Using the work of Christopher Alexander and the other authors as a source of inspiration, Erich Gamma, Richard Helm, Ralph Johnson, and John Vlissides wrote a book called Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software, Addison-Wesley. When a book is very influential in computing science curriculum, it is often given a pet name. For instance, most computing science graduates will know of which book you speak if you talk about "the dragon book" (Principles of Compiler Design, Addison-Wesley, 1986). In enterprise software, "the blue book" is well known to be Eric Evan's book on domain-driven design. The design patterns book has been so important that it is commonly referred do as the Gang of Four (GoF) book for its four authors.
This book outlined 23 patterns for use in object-oriented design. It divided the patterns into three major groups:
The purpose of design patterns is not to instruct you how to build software but rather to give guidance on ways in which to solve common problems. For instance, many applications have a need to provide some sort of an undo function. The problem is common to text editors, drawing programs, and even e-mail clients. Solving this problem has been done many times before, so it would be great to have a common solution. The command pattern provides just such a common solution. It suggests keeping track of all the actions performed in an application as instances of a command. This command will have forward and reverse actions. Every time a command is processed, it is placed onto a queue. When the time comes to undo a command, it is as simple as popping the top command off of the command queue and executing the undo action on it.
Design patterns provide some hints about how to solve common problems such as the undo problem. They have been distilled from performing hundreds of iterations of solving the same problem. The design pattern may not be exactly the correct solution for the problem you have, but it should, at the very least, provide some guidance to implement a solution more easily.
A consultant friend of mine once told me a story about starting an assignment at a new company. The manager told them that he didn't think there would be a lot of work to do with the team because they had bought the GoF design pattern book for the developers early on and they'd implemented every last design pattern. My friend was delighted about hearing this because he charges by the hour. The misapplication of design patterns paid for much of his first-born's college education.
Since the GoF book, there has been a great proliferation of literature dealing with enumerating and describing design patterns. There are books on design patterns that are specific to a certain domain and books that deal with patterns for large enterprise systems. The Wikipedia category for software design patterns contains 130 entries for different design patterns. I would, however, argue that many of the entries are not true design patterns but rather programming paradigms.
There are some who suggest that design patterns should be emergent. That is to say that by simply writing software in an intelligent way one can see the patterns emerge from the implementation. I think that may be an accurate statement; however, it ignores the actual cost of getting to those implementations by trial and error. Those with an awareness of design patterns are much more likely to spot emergent patterns early on. Teaching junior programmers about patterns is a very useful exercise. Knowing early on which pattern or patterns can be applied acts as a shortcut. The full solution can be arrived at earlier and with fewer missteps.
If there are common patterns to be found in good software design, are there also patterns that can be found in bad software design? Absolutely! There is any number of ways to do things incorrectly but most of them have been done before. It takes real creativity to screw up in a hitherto unknown way.
The shame of it is that it is very difficult to remember all the ways in which people have gone wrong over the years. At the end of many major projects, the team will sit down and put together a document called lessons learned. This document contains a list of things that could have gone better on the project and may even outline some suggestions as to how these issues can be avoided in the future. That these documents are only constructed at the end of a project is unfortunate. By that time, many of the key players have moved on and those who are left must try to remember lessons from the early stages of the project, which could be years ago. It is far better to construct the document as the project progresses.
Once complete, the document is filed away ready for the next project to make use of it. At least that is the theory. For the most part, the document is filed away and never used again. It is difficult to create lessons that are globally applicable. The lessons learned tend to only be useful for the current project or an exactly identical project, which almost never happens.
However, by looking at a number of these documents from various projects, patterns start to emerge. It was by following such an approach that William Brown, Raphael Malveau, Skip McCormick, and Tom Mowbray, collectively known as the Upstart Gang of Four in reference to the original Gang of Four, wrote the initial book on antipatterns. This book, AntiPatterns: Refactoring Software, Architectures, and Projects in Crisis, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., outlined antipatterns for not just issues in code but also in the management process that surrounds code.
Patterns outlined include such humorously named patterns as The Blob and Lava Flow. The Blob, also known as the god object, is a pattern in which one object grows to take on the responsibility for vast swaths of the application logic. Lava Flow is a pattern that emerges as a project ages and nobody knows if code is still used. Developers are nervous about deleting the code because it might be used somewhere or may become useful again. There are many other patterns described in the book that are worth exploring. Just as with patterns, antipatterns are emergent from writing code, but in this case code that gets out of hand.
Design patterns have a rich and interesting history. From their origin as tools for helping to describe how to build the structures to allow people to live together, they have grown to be applicable to a number of domains.
It has now been a decade since the seminal work on applying design patterns to programming. Since then a vast number of new patterns have been developed. Some of these patterns are general-purpose patterns such as those outlined in the GoF book, but a larger number are very specific patterns that are designed for use in a narrow domain.
If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants.
Patterns give us easily accessible shoulders on which to stand.