There exists some dispute about the nature and role of theory in design (writ large). Here, I track my own thoughts on the subject.
Some discussions have evolved into questioning the nature of theory in general, on the premise that clearly defining what constitutes a theory of any sort is precursive to defining what a design theory is or might be.
In time, I hope to incorporate the actual comments made in those discussions here. For now, however, it is home to my take on the matter, which is in no small part driven by what I've read. TBD
I like to start with dictionary definitions, because they tend to capture the most common features of the common usages of terms. This lets one start with notions rooted in the culture and history, as well as most likely appealing to the most number of people.
Reading these definitions – and excluding those with highly specialized meanings (e.g. a theory in formal logic), it becomes quickly apparent that the common theme is:
A theory is an internally consistent explanation the validity of which is not apparent.
There are three key features here: internal consistency, explanation, and validity (or lack thereof).
Explanation requires an object and a subject. That is, one explains something other than oneself.
The separation of object and subject leads one to consider the role of perception in how we theorize/explain.
So, an attempt is made (especially in science) to control the influence exerted by external sources on the object.
I take as axiomatic that there is a discipline of design that is independent of design-as-practised in any particular discipline.
It follows that the current division of design by discipline is largely hindering the advancement of design, and gives opportunity to others to co-opt the term and therefore dilute its meaning.
Furthermore, many of the distinctions between design in this discipline and design in that discipline are entirely artificial and unnecessary.
However, I also agree with the general principle that design can/does vary depending on where it is used.
So how does one resolve this apparent contradiction? By arguing that there are some divisions in design that make sense, and that these divisions can be logically identified.
For instance, I think two of those kinds of designing are engineering design and interaction design.
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