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What Are Design Patterns and Do I Need Them?

  • October 2, 2002
  • By James Maioriello
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Software professionals may be familiar with the term "Design Patterns," but many have no idea of where they come from and what they truly are. Consequently, some do not see the value and benefits design patterns bring to the software development process, especially in the areas of maintenance and code reuse. This article will bridge this gap by defining design patterns from a historical perspective. It will also summarize the salient features of a typical design pattern and arrive at a working definition so that you will know what they are and what to expect when you incorporate them into your designs. Finally, it will explicitly summarize the benefits design patterns bring to software development and why you should incorporate them into your work. Subsequent articles will present more detailed descriptions of some of the more common design patterns, and how they can be applied to software development on the .NET platform.

What Are Design Patterns and Where Do They Come From?

Design patterns are commonly defined as time-tested solutions to recurring design problems. The term refers to both the description of a solution that you can read, and an instance of that solution as used to solve a particular problem. (I like the analogy of comparing design patterns to a class and an object instance of the class. Each is a different way to represent a thing.) Design patterns have their roots in the work of Christopher Alexander, a civil engineer who wrote about his experience in solving design issues as they related to buildings and towns. It occurred to Alexander that certain design constructs, when used time and time again, lead to the desired effect. He documented and published the wisdom and experience he gained so that others could benefit. About 15 years ago, software professionals began to incorporate Alexander's principles into the creation of early design pattern documentation as a guide to novice developers. This early work led others to also write about design patterns and culminated in the publication of Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software in 1995 by Eric Gamma, Richard Helm, Ralph Johnson, and John Vlissides. This book is considered to be the "coming out" of design patterns to the software community at large and has been influential in the evolution of design patterns since. Design Patterns described 23 patterns that were based on the experience of the authors at that time. These patterns were selected because they represented solutions to common problems in software development. Many more patterns have been documented and cataloged since the publishing of Design Patterns. However, these 23 are probably the best known and certainly the most popular.

Design patterns are represented as relationships between classes and objects with defined responsibilities that act in concert to carry out the solution. To illustrate a design pattern, consider the Adapter pattern, one of the original 23 patterns described in Design Patterns. Adapter provides a solution to the scenario in which a client and server need to interact with one another, but cannot because their interfaces are incompatible. To implement an Adapter, you create a custom class that honors the interface provided by the server and defines the server operations in terms the client expects. This is a much better solution than altering the client to match the interface of the server.

The design pattern community is growing both in membership and coverage. The pattern literature describes new patterns that solve emerging issues related to technical advancements. As a software professional, you are the beneficiary of this body of knowledge. To use these patterns, you will need to learn them and become familiar with them so you will know which pattern to pull from your toolbox when a design issue arises. Many patterns have been documented over the years. They have been classified in different ways by different authors. Take the time to learn different ways to classify design patterns because you will gain greater insight into them. As you learn more and more patterns, it would be a good idea to develop your own classification system; one reflecting the way you utilize them.

Structure of a Design Pattern

Design pattern documentation is highly structured. The patterns are documented from a template that identifies the information needed to understand the software problem and the solution in terms of the relationships between the classes and objects necessary to implement the solution. There is no uniform agreement within the design pattern community on how to describe a pattern template. Different authors prefer different styles for their pattern templates. Some authors prefer to be more expressive and less structured, while others prefer their pattern templates to be more precise and high grain in structure. We will use the template first described by the authors of Design Patterns to illustrate a template.

Term Description
Pattern Name Describes the essence of the pattern in a short, but expressive, name
Intent Describes what the pattern does
Also Known As List any synonyms for the pattern
Motivation Provides an example of a problem and how the pattern solves that problem
Applicability Lists the situations where the pattern is applicable
Structure Set of diagrams of the classes and objects that depict the pattern
Participants Describes the classes and objects that participate in the design pattern and their responsibilities
Collaborations Describes how the participants collaborate to carry out their responsibilities
Consequences Describes the forces that exist with the pattern and the benefits, trade-offs, and the variable that is isolated by the pattern

This template captures the essential information required to understand the essence of the problem and the structure of the solution. Many pattern templates have less structure than this, but basically cover the same content.

Benefits of Design Patterns

Design patterns have two major benefits. First, they provide you with a way to solve issues related to software development using a proven solution. The solution facilitates the development of highly cohesive modules with minimal coupling. They isolate the variability that may exist in the system requirements, making the overall system easier to understand and maintain. Second, design patterns make communication between designers more efficient. Software professionals can immediately picture the high-level design in their heads when they refer the name of the pattern used to solve a particular issue when discussing system design.

James Maioriello, Ph.D., is a Senior Design Engineer for Formation Systems Inc., a corporation located in Massachusetts dedicated to the development of software systems for product development in the processing industries. His position allows him to use his expertise and skills to design solutions for chemists and other scientists so they can focus their talents on innovation. Dr. Maioriello obtained degrees in Chemistry from Lehigh University and in Software Engineering from Polytechnic University in New York.






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