Learning to Love Software: A Bridge Between Theory and Practice

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Ellen Lupton


Students love learning software, while faculty often avoid teaching it. This essay argues that a key way to reengage both students and faculty is to approach software as an analytical tool, a means of not only describing and generating meaningful form, but also synthesizing the practical goal of production with the theoretical goal of conceptual development. Software can thus be a bridge between theory and practice. Theory is by definition general: it is a description or model capable of sustaining its relevance across countless unique situations. Practice, on the other hand, is lived, grounded, and specific: it is the ongoing application of ideas to circumstances, a process that in turn reforms our models, warping and transforming our theories. Like theory, software is general, while practice is specific. Software exists prior to any practical use of it, and yet it is designed to anticipate those uses. Tools such as Photoshop, InDesign, and AfterEffects have cast a net around our field of practice, filtering our daily production of typography, symbols, images, and information systems. No theory or pedagogical practice yet exists to address the role these commercially developed and distributed digital technologies play in shaping and describing design’s visual language.


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