The Butterfly Principles

The Butterfly Principles

13 Sep 2018

What makes some public places skyrocket right after opening – and some never take off? Having been in the front seat of public place design for almost three decades, I have witnessed great successes – and some great disappointments as well. It made me wonder; What makes these places a success? There are ten principles to help you understand.

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The Butterfly Principles


I have to admit, I sometimes might have been the one to blame if a place did not work as expected. Not having my day. But probably there’s more going on than an architect underperforming when public places don’t work as anticipated. Something told me creating these places was not simply about creating facilities for activities. So I started paying attention to the conditions that are crucial for success. Started listening to a lot of people involved. Learned from writing 3RD4ALL How To Create a Relevant Public Space. And turned this into a model, trying to simplify the process involved, outlining the critical conditions for a creation of a healthy public place.

A little background. As stated before I’m confident that architecture is part of a bigger ecosystem called the Brand, and as such architecture should behave according to the rules of Branding. Brands are build on values, and physical as well as non-physical elements. And of course, any Brand will behave according to the rules and needs of it’s customers. It will do so within the capacity of the Organization – that in itself is bound by it’s own context. And if all fits into place, activities are well facilitated and at the end off the day it all just works fine, making every user happy.


There are three factors here: physical and non-physical aspects, gathered around the Why. Imagine a healthy public place as a butterfly, creating happiness in its flight. In order to take off, both wings need to equally carry the body with a heartbeat and soul. Those wings stand for the physical and non-physical elements. The body is the belief, the story and the visible brand.

Critical ingredients to create a future proof public place are people, place, experience and product / program. The first two focus on aspects to prepare for creating the soul, the latter two focus on aspects to specify based upon the definition of the soul.

Butterfly Principle - aatvos


The Butterfly Principles are best explained through 10 questions. Answering them creates solid grounds for common grounds. I give you three examples:

1. What is the holistic idea? What’s the bigger picture? Let’s put it simple: everything start with an idea. Pretty likely, every time one initiates a public place there must be this holistic idea to which one is committed. It is crucial to determine, as it will provide the first guideline and outlook for the process to come. Have a bigger picture, and then be committed to get there together.

2. Who do we work with? The organization or entity you are a part of, your coworkers, roommates, your social context, they all determine most of your abilities and capabilities. So, be aware who you work with, who work around you, who you influence, who depends on you. Know who you are. It is your toolbox.

8. How do we engage? As you know, only personal experience can create engagement to your place. In order to do so, you have to make your facility hospitable, visible, accessible, usable, secure, comfortable, adaptive and flexible. Quite a list – but worthwhile creating, as only experience is able to create a lasting user-transformation.

Design for Programmability

There’s a lot more to any public 3rd place than just creating facilities for activities. In fact, that’s only the end of the speccing process. You need to know a lot more before talking practicalities. Mapping all ingredients shown in the wings of the butterfly create foundation to vision. And help you to withstand the forces of the cocooning process – where process pro’s usually take off with your project and take matters in their own hands. If you’re not armed with a well-founded vision, the butterfly might turn out quite different than expected. Or might be missing a wing.

I am currently working on The Butterfly Principles of Design for Programmability to provide a simple toolset to determine the ingredients that shape healthy public places.

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