Patterns are not building blocks.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll likely say it again. Patterns are not building blocks. They are not things that you should start off with thinking “I’ll grab a ($diety forbid) Singleton here and a Factory there, hook them up with some XML and I’ll have a working application.”

All too often I see new coders thinking this is the way to write code. I’m going to blame the way Patterns and programming as a whole are taught. In an data structures class in today’s schooling is often along the lines of “this assignment is to write a Builder for a Car class” and a successful passing grade depends on the student writing something that lets them do carBuilder.setColor("red").setStyle("sedan").build(). And then after that, they do an assignment that builds an Observer or Visitor for some contrived problem.

Rarely do students now get close to the silicon of the machine. Rarely does the student now find themselves writing code to generate a sorted linked list (heap memory allocation) from assembly instructions in SPIM. When you realize that variables are a Pattern, then you realize what Patterns actually are.

Patterns are cages. They are cages for complexity. That complexity that underlies writing even a simple linked list in assembly - its all contained within the Pattern of a Linked List. For the Linked List or Variable, these are things that we don’t think about anymore - their complexity has been hidden in the Pattern. Consider the Function Call: preserve the registers that might get clobbered on the stack, put the arguments in a specific order on the stack, jump to the address of the procedure, check the return value on the agreed upon location in the stack, restore the registers, continue on. All that complexity is now hidden behind func() in the code.

Much of the simpler instances of complexity have been wrapped up in the chosen languages. Function calls, expressions, variables, structures and so on. By caging this complexity we are now able to work with things that are even more complex than we a few decades ago when the ideas of object oriented programming where being bantered about.

So now we take for granted those older Patterns and build larger and more complex code. These Patterns of old are now things that we naturally think of while building a modern program - they are building blocks. Yet, despite their nature of building blocks we don’t start out with a program and say “I should use a variable, its something that good programs use.” Rather, we think “I need to maintain some state, to hold that complexity, I’ll use a variable.”

Today with Design Patterns, we have bigger cages for that complexity that the structure of more complex programs is demanding. And we call these cages with names like Factory, Singleton, Observer, Model, Controller, Flyweight and so on.

By starting out with the Patterns rather than the problem we are introducing complexity into the application before the application is even defined. This is a _bad_ thing. It has the next coder looking at the code and wondering which cages are empty, and which ones will have your hand get bitten off.

Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software is not a textbook for how to write good software. Nor is it a checklist for things that one should have in one’s code. It is a bestiary of problems and complexity and information about how to build cages that have been built time and time again to hold that complexity.

One should not waste one’s time building a cage that will never be filled. Neither does one go about planning a zoo by building the cages and seeing what beasts fit in them afterwards.

Plan the project and build it. And when you find out there’s a grizzly bit of complexity in the foundations of your code, then build the cage for the grizzly. Building grizzly cages in your basement for no reason just takes up space and confuses people who might inherit them.