I sometimes have conversations that go like this:

Me: Have you seen the work x is doing? Colleague: Yeah, it’s interesting but too academic.

By “too academic,” I think my interlocutor means theoretical as opposed to practical. And I can see he or she means; some work is definitely more theoretical than practical.

This distinction between theory and practice in design is interesting to me. On the one hand, I understand the value of practice. Real-world experiences can generate very useful heuristics. These can then be taught to others, leading to a robust body of knowledge over time.

However, I also see value in a theoretical approach to design work. Where a practical perspective can improve our craft, a theoretical perspective can change how we think of the work itself. This can spark insights that generate new heuristics and breakthroughs.

For example, early in my career, I sensed a relationship between the work I’d learned to do as an architect and the work I was doing designing software. I found no practical manual on how to do this, so I hypothesized connections between the two fields. These connections were not “practical” in the sense that they hadn’t been informed by the craft of designing software. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t useful; they helped give me a perspective that changed the way I approached the work. I tested the theory and developed a set of practical heuristics as a result of this perspective.

This interplay between theory and practice has served as the foundation of my career. I see them as counterparts, not opposites: Theory informs and enriches practice, and practice validates and evolves theory. There’s a place for both in the designer’s toolkit.