As an educator, I'm painfully aware of the challenges of curricular design. Far and away the largest challenge in building a curriculum is fitting the quantity of material into a realistic course structure. It's a zero-sum game; for each topic I add, I have to remove something. Design, like other professions, is going through a process of increased specialization, and that means there are more skills to learn in order to claim deep expertise. I end up agonizing over every detail, every class.

Our curriculum at Austin Center for Design is rich with design theory. Students take theory classes that focus on the social and political relationships between design and the culture of society. Students learn theory and discourse related to designing for the public sector, specifically as it relates to ill-defined problem solving and the ethical obligations of designers. They read complex articles from computer scientists, psychologists, and sociologists, and they build arguments that synthesize these articles into new ideas.

Yet the program at Austin Center for Design is a practitioner program, and these students go on to be practicing designers, not academics. They work for big brands, for consultancies, and in startups—and increasingly, they start their own entrepreneurial endeavors. They aren't pursuing a Ph.D. path, so why teach theory? Why waste precious class time on academic discourse, rather than practical skills?

I've thought a lot about what makes a great designer. One of the qualities is craft and immediacy with material. That's sort of obvious—someone who makes things needs to be good at making things. I'm convinced that theory is also a key ingredient to greatness, a key part of claiming to be a competent, professional designer, but it's less obvious than methods or skills and is often ignored during design education. There are at least three reasons I think students need to learn theory as part of their foundational design education.

  • Theory gives students the basis for a "process opinion." A huge amount of design work is subjective. Design research—applied ethnography—gives designers the basis to form a specific opinion in the context of a design problem; it's deliberate and is often used to substantiate a design decision. But theory gives a designer the basis to have an informed governing philosophy, broad or more ambient, for the process they'll use to do their work. For example, design research might indicate that homeless people in Texas have different shelter requirements than homeless people in Detroit; it can offer specific details about those contexts and people, and can then be used to substantiate design decisions. Theory about the ethics of designing with at-risk populations can inform the process used to work with those populations. How do you engage with a population that can't give informed consent? What does it mean to drive a participatory design process, as compared with a top-down, more command-and-control process? What steps should a designer take to translate their findings into actionable insights? Theory holds the answers to these process questions, and for a student of design, it presents an evolving body of knowledge that they can lean on as they develop their own methodology for engaging with large-scale problems.
  • Theory gives students the ability to think beyond a single design problem, in order to develop higher-order organizing principles. Each design problem is unique. After encountering a number of design problems, designers start to realize that there are patterns to both problems and solutions. Identifying these patterns takes time and comes with experience. Theory gives a designer a structure in which to organize these experiences—a way of thinking about their sameness and differentness. It becomes an intellectual taxonomy and a way of organizing different types of design solutions. After years of working as a consultant, I've built up a portfolio of work in telecom, consumer goods, entertainment, enterprise software, and so on. That's not a very useful way to categorize my work, though, because it doesn't give me a way to draw insight from the work and apply it on future projects. Instead, I try to think about how my work relates to theoretical constructs. Some of my work is related to complex problem solving, leveraging the work Herb Simon championed around ill-structured and well-structured problems. Some of my work is related to experience and engagement, and leans heavily on ideas related to affect and learning theory. By reflecting on my work as it relates to larger abstract ideas, I can better think across design problems, and better apply knowledge from one experience to another.
  • Theory gives students a sense of purpose, a reason for doing their work. I spoke with one of my alumni, Justin Boyce, about theory. He's been working for seven years as a designer in a consultancy, a startup, and most recently, a larger corporation. Justin told me that "[t]heory gives me a reason for what I'm doing—without theory, I am a robot." He went on to explain that without a set of abstract ideas to reference and consider, he is simply "pushing pixels"—doing repetitive production work that could be performed by cheap labor or by a computer itself. Theory holds a larger meaning for design work, as it grounds it in a cultural context of human want and need. As we reflect on the hours we spend at a job, design theory provides a reason for our hard work, a reason other than "just a paycheck." We work in design because design changes the world, humanizes technology, and improves the quality of the human experience.

We're seeing an influx of design programs aimed at practitioners, programs that intend to increase the number of designers available to work in the increasingly complex technological landscape. I'm skeptical of programs that don't include theory in their curriculum. It has been argued that vocational programs should focus on core skills and ignore the larger academic, theoretical subject matter. I would argue the opposite. It is the vocational programs that require this thoughtful context the most, as graduates from these programs will have a direct impact on the products and services that shape our world.