Why Theory?

In this section, we look at why we study design theory.

Designers generally focus on the generative question of how? How do we solve a design problem? How do we organize information visually? How do we use a medium(s) to communicate an idea?

This resource presents the formative theories which help us to understand the “how” of visual communication and also explores the critical theories that explain the “why” within historical, cultural, and social contexts.

When we begin to look closely at philosophical, ethical, social, historical, political, and aesthetic questions in the field of design, our ability to think creatively and critically expands. We practice and experience design in a global community. Reflecting on the design field within the context of our community helps us to become better designers.

Take a look at the readings and media below to consider the following questions.


  • What role should design play in society?
  • What role does technology play in shaping design?
  • Do you notice similarities between avant-garde movements of the past and the design field (or the world) of today?
  • In what ways do today’s designers participate in, facilitate, or reject Authorship, Universality, Social Responsibility
  • Why should designers concern themselves with unsolvable theoretical questions?
  • What are the most urgent problems facing designers today?

Why Study Theory?

Why Study Theory?

Laying the Groundwork

Review the videos, media, and readings below to lay the groundwork for studying design theory.

Laying the Groundwork for Studying Design Theory

Graphic Design History Refresher

Log in to LinkedIn Learning with your NYC Public Library Card and locate the Course: Learning Graphic Design History. Watch the video collections: Introduction1880-1912, and 1912-1930 and complete the ungraded quizzes to test your knowledge.

For help setting up your Public Library Card and accessing LinkedIn Learning check out the Resources > Access Resources section of this site.

If you have trouble accessing the LinkedIn Learning Course above, you can find the full recording below.

Learning Graphic Design History

The reading links below will automatically open Hypothesis, a web-based annotation tool. Use Hypothesis to annotate as you read the texts. See Using Hypothesis for details.

  1. What Designers, Educators and Writers Want to See in 2022” AIGA Eye on Design, Dec. 30, 2021
  2. “Foreword: Why Theory?” from Armstrong, Helen. Graphic Design Theory: Readings From the Field. New York: Princeton Arch, 2009. Pages 6-8.
  3. “Introduction: Revisiting the Avant-Garde” Armstrong, Helen. Graphic Design Theory: Readings From the Field, Princeton Architectural Press, 2009. Pages 9-15.

Other Texts

  1. “Foreword: Why Theory?” from Armstrong, Helen. Graphic Design Theory: Readings from the Field. New York: Princeton Arch, 2009. Pages 6-8. [City Tech Library Card Required]
  2. “Introduction” from Armstrong, Helen. Graphic Design Theory : Readings From the Field, Princeton Architectural Press, 2009. ProQuest Ebook Central. Pages 9-15. [City Tech Library Card Required]