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?