Design Theory and Practice

Many disciplines make a distinction between their practical and their theoretical nature. Although there is always an overlap between the two, and each is key in informing the other, the distinction can be useful, particularly in an educational setting. Design is no different. The difference between these two aspects of the discipline can be broadly summarized by characterizing practice as the "how" of the discipline and theory as the "why".

Practice is the "how" of a discipline in that it details "How do I do this"; the end goal being a previously defined criterion for success. For example, the newspaper is a well established medium, with a clearly understood purpose and presentational format. Design practice puts forward the principles which one must utilize to create an artifact that a viewer would understood as being a newspaper. Practice is a very contemporary notion it applies to its culture and times. Rules of practice ensure that a designer will communicate what he desires to the audience he has defined.

Theory constitutes the "why" of a discipline in that it questions the reasons behind practice. "Why do we do this" or "Why does this work" are theoretical questions that lead a designer to a better understanding of the principles behind practice. Understanding these principles does not lock a designer to them however, as theoretical knowledge often leads to radical changes and questioning of pre-existing norms and standards.

The theoretical rethinking of practice can become absorbed into the norm as more and more designers employ new technique and audiences become more receptive to it. Modernist principles of design, for example, are now often the standard by which success is rated in contemporary times. The Modernist ideals of the early 20th century were a major departure from the design principles of the previous century, however, and at the time there was often outcry and disagreement about them. Over the course of the last century these ideals have been inserted into the mainstream so much so that there validity and universality are often unquestioned. One can see a similar process taking place with many aspects of Post-modern design, as its influences start to be seen everyday places such as suburban homes and mainstream television.

Theory and practice are intricately intertwined, and the greatest designers have an intimate understanding of both, enabling them to both speak to their times, and move into the future.

November 2001


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