The Allure of Repeated Patterns

The main draw of the new Broad Museum slated to open in Los Angeles on September 22 is the eye-catching pattern on the building’s skin. Humans are captivated by repeating patterns: dots, diamonds, circles, cross hatches, ovals, stripes, spirals, scallops, stars, triangles, wavy lines, zig zags, and hexagons.

We doodle them during boring meetings, design them into quilts, and create tile mosaics that can last for centuries. Patterns evoke emotional responses from us, mostly positive, but not always. Think about a honeycomb shape and a fear of bee stings.

The Broad Museum

The Broad Museum in LA, Photo: Iwan Baan from

“We have evolved to register and investigate and prefer certain forms over others in fractions of a second,” says Ann Sussman and Justin B. Hollander in their book, Cognitive Architecture: Designing for How We Respond to the Built Environment.  “In those brief moments our brain can subconsciously determine whether or not to flee or step forward well before our conscious mind gets into the act.” For our ancestors, sharp objects represented danger while curved surfaces felt safe. Pattern recognition is key to survival.

While curves represent safety over sharp pointy objects, we also like symmetry which is so similiar to the bi-lateral symmetry in faces. Symmetry also appears in repeating patterns and appeals to our desire for balance. The photo below shows the symmetrical layout and repeating patterns in the dome and wall tile at the Topkapi Palace in Instanbul.

Topkapi Palace

Dome inside the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, Photo: J.M. Ward

Our brains find special meaning in patterns from our natural habitat. Since we evolved as hunter/gatherers on the Savanna, patterns from Mother Nature hold innate appeal.

Pattern recognition happens when we match something we see to something in our memory.  We evolved to recognize patterns as a survival characteristic to distinguish the danger of the spots on a leopard or the hexagons of a beehive in a fraction of a second.

All we need is a quick scan to verify dots on leopards, stripes on tigers, cross hatches on branches, ovals on petals, spirals on shells, triangles on hills and trees, wavy lines on sand dunes and mountain ranges, and hexagons on bee hives.

Ephesus Mosaic Floor in Terrace House

Mosaic Floor in Ephesus Terrace House (1BC to 7AD), Izmir Provence, Turkey, Photo: J. M. Ward

Instinctively, we adapt, translate and extrapolate these natural patterns into our own designs.  Think about your favorite buildings. The best designs not only rely on form; they trigger your pattern-matching skills. A key reason we like the Acropolis in Greece is because it looks like trees rising in a forest.


Acropolis in Greece, Photo: Wikimedia

Our admiration for Dulles Airport (designed by Eero Sarinen) in Washington is peaked by its evocative wavelike canopy that resembles the ocean or dunes.

Dulles Airport

Dulles Airport, Architect Eero Sarinen, Photo: Wikimedia

The popularity of the pyramids lie in their resemblance to mountaintops.


Pyramid at the Louvre, Paris, architect I.M. Pei, Photo: Wikimedia

Humans evolved to recognize forms and patterns, and the most successful architecture uses both.

So the next time you find the margin of your notebook filled with dots, doodles and squiggles, don’t worry; it’s just your subconscious working overtime.

This entry was posted in Architecture, Design, Patterns and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Allure of Repeated Patterns

  1. Pingback: Our preference for detail? It’s by design |

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