Dear Chuck,

Thanks for your kind words. By and large, I agree. The article (Friedman 2003) doesn’t describe or demonstrate how to develop and work with theory in a situated practice. One can’t do everything in a single article limited to 7,000 words. As I wrote, “There is not enough room in one article to go beyond the general consideration of methods to a specific description of how to develop theory and build specific theories. This is a task for a future article” (Friedman 2003: 520-1).

Even so, I would say that the article does represent a kind of theory. Parsons and Shils (1951: 50) describe four kinds of theory, (1) ad hoc classification systems, (2) systems of categories, (3) theoretical systems, and (4) empirical–theoretical systems. A theory is a model – a representative and static model such as a taxonomy describes parts with showing the parts in action. In this article, however, I explain a model of how the different levels and kinds of theory interact to yield general concepts and predictions. So without constituting a demonstration of theory in action or showing how to build theory, the article does offer a conceptual description of how theory functions, that is, a theory of theory construction.

In my view, this is more than a digest of selected writings on theory. If this article were a digest, no matter how good, Design Studies would not have published it. As a leading research journal of our field, Design Studies publishes original research articles. This article examines and explains concepts and principles of theory and theory construction, applying these issues to design and design research. While it does not demonstrate how to develop theory situated in practice, it does develop and demonstrate many issues of theory construction. Most robust theory development engages with prior art, in this case, issues and ideas developed by earlier scholars writing on theory construction. The references build a path. We engage with the knowledge of the field to build on and contribute to the knowledge of the field. Since neither our field nor the more general field of theory construction is axiomatized, I usually develop the background explicitly. Conceptual development is quite different to a digest – taken out of context, it could be seen as a digest. In context, it is the foundation for what follows.

The 2003 article on theory construction is available at

The conference paper on which this was based gives more details, so I will try to post it before long.

The paper I have yet to write – perhaps more a book – will explain how to generate and build a theory to address a situation in context. In the paper, I hope to engage the kind of demonstrative narrative you seek. There are many challenges in such a demonstration. While there are many forms of theories, the vast number of theoretical explanations people generate are wrong. We need sorting mechanisms that allow us to judge between valid theories and others. This is also an issue such an article must address.

I look forward to reading your article.



Ken Friedman, PhD, DSc (hc), FDRS | University Distinguished Professor | Swinburne University of Technology | Melbourne, Australia | [log in to unmask] | Mobile +61 404 830 462 | Home Page Academia Page About Me Page

Guest Professor | College of Design and Innovation | Tongji University | Shanghai, China


Friedman, Ken. 2003. “Theory construction in design research: criteria: approaches, and methods.” Design Studies, 24 (2003), 507–522. DOI:

Parsons, Talcott, and Edward A. Shils, editors. 1951. Toward a General Theory of Action. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Available at:

Chuck Burnette wrote:


I have just had the pleasure of reading Ken’s 2003 paper Theory construction in design research: criteria: approaches, and methods. (available on or from Ken’s Swinburne site) It is well written, scholarly and an altogether wonderful resource, that I had not previously read. I recommend it highly to all PhD candidates and anyone wanting a good overview of theory construction - with two caveats: 1) It organizes definitions and references well but is not a theory itself - It is a researcher’s digest of selected writings on theory. 2) It does not explain how a theory may arise or be developed to address a situation in context. It is an academic paper lacking demonstrative narrative - but a very good one, nevertheless.

As many probably realize, I am wary of the emphasis on the PhD as advanced training to teach research methods without a similar emphasis on conceptual specifications worth validating, elaborating, or disproving through research. The words Development and Demonstration seem to have been dropped from the research lexicon in favor of assessment and testing. PhD candidates with a strong interest in understanding and adding to knowledge about some subject relevant to the field should, in my view, be encouraged and helped to specify the concepts they wish to clarify through theory and to evaluate them through demonstration before acquiring relevant tools to conduct “research” to confirm or deny the propositions that result.


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