Design theory

For other uses, see Design theory (disambiguation).

Design theory covers the methods, strategies, research and analysis of the term design. Design theory underpins the concept of, and reflection upon, creative work.

Design theory, as well as design, is influenced by the particular context under which it is operating. Unlike other sciences, which may consider their subjects experimentally or empirically, design is about changing its environment and thus is also the subject that is influencing a theory about design.

The statements of design theory are therefore not universal, but always in relation to a situation, a context, or a time.


Many aspects of design theory deal with issues of architectural theory (e.g. Vitruvius or Art theory and aesthetics). Since design is conceived as a discipline, design theory also relates to practice.

The essay "Ornament and Crime" by Adolf Loos from 1908 is one of the first design-theoretical texts. Loos refused to be bound by obsolete dogmas when considering the scope of newly available manufacturing processes that were central to the emerging world of industrial production.

This was in opposition to the Arts and Crafts Movement with their artistic penchant for decorative and crafted objects.

In contrast to this position, the De Stijl movement promoted a geometrical abstract, "ascetic" form of purism that was limited to functionality. This attitude found its sequel in the Bauhaus movement. Here, for the first time in design history, principles were drawn up for a design that was applicable to all areas of modern aesthetics. These principles were also successfully implemented as a teaching program.

While the theories of the Bauhaus were closely associated with a specific design attitude, the field of design theory later turned to questioning industrial planning and organization.

The designer George Nelson who was deeply influenced by the Bauhaus established a modern theory of design in the United States. After 1946 general design approaches concerned solving inventive problems e.g. on the basis of cybernetics.

With TRIZ, a similar method was established in Russia. In Germany the Ulm School of Design was established in 1953, with the goal to make the training of future product designers more realistic by combining theory with practice.

With this concept, they turned away from the Bauhaus and substantiated a design of everyday life that was not dependent upon the formal bonds of the arts.

With the Conference on Design Methods (1962) the Design methods Movement began. Nigel Cross proclaimed that design was not a science, but an area of "intellectual independence". In 1964, the first chair of "Design Research" at the Royal College of Art was set up in London.

As the development of design methodology emerged in the 1960s, engineer and designer WH Mayall became one of the first to emphasise the relevance of industrial design and the importance of design in technology.[1]

Since the nineties competing disciplines such as design science, design research, design thinking develop a wider understanding of design theory. In the latest discourse, design theory is characterized by a pluralism of currents that are used in various areas.


Among the many different positions, some understand design as a form of knowledge while others examine its effects on society and vice versa. Much of the debate can be understood as a struggle for a dominant term - such as "form follows function" (Louis Sullivan and Functionalism (design) | Functionalism (architecture)).

The Bauhaus and the Ulm School representatives, such as Dieter Rams and Otl Aicher called upon function as the primary criterion for good design. This attitude was confronted by the anti-design of the 1980s, in which the protagonists, such as Ettore Sottsass founder member of the Memphis design group were asking for greater consideration of emotions as a relevant factor in human centered design.

This discussion was continued by Gui Bonsiepe and Lucius Burckhardt. The latter strongly opposed the excesses of planning and the division of the world into relational spaces, which he calls "ambient spaces". Burckhardt describes visible products as part of invisible systems.

Horst W. J. Rittel coined the phrase "bad problems" ("wicked problems"). He derives the indissolubility from his theory of complex social systems, through an endless supply of relevant and conditioning factors that complicate the process of planning and design.

The work of Wolfgang Jonas takes on this need for an iterative and cybernetic design process that deals with the design of complex systems that are, by nature, social or economic. The concept of design thinking relies on an iterative process of formalized interdisciplinary methods to develop design solutions and innovations.

Marshall McLuhan assumed that media and communication processes shape society and its approach to things. McLuhan’s theories relate to the more recent work of Bruce Sterling who describes how digital media and power lead to a new way of dealing with cross-linked products.

In contrast to the separation of theory and practice Richard Sennett conceives the idea of a design practice where "making is thinking". The process itself defines a form of epistemological knowledge and thus the design process itself is a form of science.

Points of contact with other disciplines

Design theory is linked to many other scientific disciplines, including the humanities, engineering, social sciences, history and philosophy.

In the art historical discourse, the question of the distinction between art and design has been discussed repeatedly. The design theory of Walter Gropius can be seen as a continuation of art theory, whereas this relationship is called into question in the environment of the HFG Ulm under Otl Aicher, Gui Bonsiepe and Tomás Maldonado.

In the field of engineering and medicine ergonomics and human computer interface are to key areas where design theory plays an important role. Within the field of economics , marketing affects the parameters of the design. In the 1930s, Henry Dreyfuss developed the field of ergonomic design through his application of anthropometrics.

In the field of philosophy the concept of "handiness" Heidegger should be mentioned. His studies on dealing with things and tools can be viewed as precursor of User Experience.

In the field of sociology, actor-network theory developed by, among others, Bruno Latour, has proven to be influential. Actor-network theory describes things and objects as active and examines how they direct human action.

In the field of anthropology, Yana Milev developed an approach where design anthropology provides an epistemology, phenomenology and survey of the varieties of the extended concept of design. Here the design concept is placed at the centre of the nexus of meaning of cultural production that rests on the three pillars Segno, Mythus and Techne. Anthropological design research is trans-disciplinary, developing in the connexion between Visual Culture (signal, in/visibility, image/void, imagination, representation), Doing Culture (act, cooperation, relation, fabrication, exchange), Material Culture (object, artefact, thing, facing, texture), Knowledge Culture (techniques, practices, norms, beliefs, values), Narrative Culture (mythology, significance, meaning, memory, identity), Critical Culture (watching, criterion, antagonism, crisis, theory) and Aesthetic Culture (emotion, sentiment, taste, feel, sense).

Luhmann, Helmut Krauch and Wolfgang Jonas are proponents of systems theory in design.

See also


  1. The Future of Design Methodology, Herbert Birkhofer ed. Springer Science & Business Media, 13 Apr 2011, p3


External links

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