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Making Design Theory

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How are theories produced in design research? In his new book, Johan Redström challenges traditional conventions of theory vs practice. 

How are theories produced in design research? Should we be aiming to mimic the ways of traditional academic disciplines? Or, ought we perhaps find our own way, accepting that we are different, and allow the unique nature of the design process to guide us? Johan Redström thinks we should.

In his new book, Making Design Theory, UID rector Johan Redström sketches a way forward, suggesting that we not consider theory in design as something constant or stable but rather as fluent and unfolding.

"I believe it's time to give up the idea that design theories should strive towards consistency or that they should carry validity over time. Instead, we should encourage that they change and evolve", says Johan Redström.

"For a long time, we have tried to make the theories coming out of practice-based design research to aspire towards universal legitimacy. In my view, this is in direct conflict with how design must relate to changing contexts over time. We are not in the business of describing the world, we are in the business of changing it, hopefully for the better. This means that our research, and consequently how we produce theories, must differ significantly from more scientific disciplines".

Being a young academic discipline, design has been subject to intense debate over what it should entail and strive for. Much of the theorizing on design to date has taken place from the outside, by art historians or art critics. The designers themselves have been subjected to play a bit-part role, to a large extent by their own choosing. The role of the designer has traditionally been to produce things rather than reflect and comment in an academic context. This has been true in most artistic disciplines and as such a division has manifested itself between those who make things and those who comment on them.

Johan Redström believes the conflict has stifled the development of design research. Going forward, he feels it is vital that designers play a key role in defining the unique nature of design research, helping to identify what sets it apart from scientific disciplines. You simply cannot fit a square peg in a round hole.

"Personally, I have no desire to be scientific, design is not a scientific discipline. So, when we are making theories I suggest that we can actually make them, that they can be produced through practice. It shouldn't be about theory or practice, it should be about both, at the same time. It is also important that we realize that in design, theories should always be considered fluid and transitional. For design, at its core, is just that", says Johan Redström.

Making Design Theory was published by MIT Press on August 25th, 2017.  For more info, visit the MIT Press website