Designer Learning Theory

During the last theory learning session in Research Methodology class, I overheard a student saying why do we – designers need to even learn and understand theories when design principles of methods, techniques, tools, models, and skills are the necessity to design solutions? This has kept me thinking – when design educations introduce students a ‘non-skilled module’ such as research methodology, is the objective of learning theory indeed practiced, applied and needed in the design work itself? Does the application of theory only imply to design researchers (academics) but may be less relevant to design practitioners? In this post I would like to share some thoughts about the notion of generality – theory is not an exclusive possession solely by design researchers.

Although much has been written and discussed about the recognizable differences between design practitioners and design researchers who function and work in disparate environment, they somehow share one common purpose – to providing design solution, perhaps with different approaches. One of the obvious approaches of design practitioners to design solution is the sensitivity in craft and immediacy with materials (skills and techniques), while design researchers project the not so obvious quality in solving problems by answering a ‘research question’. Despite their differences to design solution, what actually gives more meaning than just solving problems with skills and techniques or to answer a research question is by learning and applying theory.

Be it practice-led or research-led designers, they speak to people around them about the things that matter, solutions that they perceived needed for certain problems and/ or discover commonalities beyond day-to-day. Very often these conversations lead to some forms of theory, perhaps without them even realising. A theory of ideas that help them to explain or speculate about why they do the things they do, or why the situation related among variables, or how the concept is developed and reflected as the outcome. It is theories, that enable the thoughts being sequential, the thinking process being engaged and the attempt to explain why so that the thought is being understood widely. That being said, theory gives designers three basis.


Whether your intention is to be a design practitioner or design researcher, there are many key ingredients that make great designers. One of the indispensable ingredients is to learn and apply theory in and when doing design.

Note to self: The purpose of theory is to assist solution based thinking. Consequently, in constructing displays of solutions, the first question is – what serve the thinking tasks to make the solution purposeful?


Designer Learning Re.Search

For the next 12 weeks, I’m assigned to co-teach research methodology module with another colleague who has more than 20 years of teaching experience in scientific disciplines. The process of preparation, teaching and learning with her had not only given me new understanding of methodology, the afterthoughts about “research” often make my journey home seems shorter than usual. Often enough, quite a few constructive learning points vividly sit on my mind, and I have decided to blog down, hoping this knowledge sharing could be a beneficial one for many like-minded readers who are into research in art and design.

The basic definition of “R/research” was listed in the Oxford English Dictionary:

As far as I can remember, this definition confused my social science background especially being a design centric learner, visualizing the outcome or how the prototype should look like is far easier than absorbing the definition. It took me long enough to decode until the recent class of research methodology; this colleague decrypted “R/research” such effortlessly.

repeat the search

This undemanding definition of “R/research” also brought me back to an article I recently read – Research in Art and Design (by Peter D. and Christopher F.). An article I was told is an essential reading for many design researchers. There seem to be a lot of common ground for “R/research” pertaining to art and design and science, yet there is also a lot of private territory within the research of art and design that define what they actually do. And this kind of research may not be the most known practices to science researchers per se. Here is a little summary derived from the article.

I’m always looking forward to her lecture every Tuesday. Not only she makes uncommonly good explanation for theory, most importantly, getting to understand the way a scientist designs the information in slides to conduct the lesson can be immensely interesting.