What is the difference between a concept, theory, hypothesis, and paradigm?

April 26, 2017
The Trig Team


Science has been advancing technology and innovation for centuries. Scientists have grappled with categorizing the clarity of their concepts, and have developed useful terminology that has been utilized by the business innovation community.  As industrial designers, we use terminology like concept development fluidly in our daily work, but it is helpful to reference their origins.


Concept is a widely-used term synonymous with “Idea.” Typically the context of a concept has had time to be more organized than an idea.  By contrast, ideas might be quickly generated and produced at high volumes, but it isn’t until a select few are converged and organized into concepts that further action can be taken to test the concepts.  Concepts can be broad or specific, experiential or imaginary, abstract or specific.  


A hypothesis is a testable concept, subject to experimental validation to prove its validity.  


Theory is defined as a “system of concepts and statements, models, or principles, which, in concert, make the empirical world more intelligible” (Krimsky S and Golding D 1992:6)  A theory has been demonstrated to be reproducible through multiple experiments and observational evidence run by independent scientists.  The closest analogy in the business innovation community to a theory is the business model, which ties together a series of hypotheses about how a product or service will perform in the market.  Over time, the survival and success of the business is the best demonstration of whether the theoretical business model has held true.  


A paradigm is not a process, but a normative perceptual worldview that is a reflection of what the practitioner views as reasonable or unreasonable, possible or impossible.  The term was originally coined in 1962 by Thomas Kuhn in his work, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” A paradigm is your fundamental conceptual framework for how you make sense of the world around you.  Most people are not aware of their perceptual limitations due to the pervasive and hidden impact of a paradigm, in much the same was as you wouldn’t notice the air that you breathe.  To Thomas Kuhn’s point, much of science has progressed through a series of paradigm shifts that demonstrate the scientific community arriving at a new way of thinking about the world, for example, Newtonian Physics, Galilean Astronomy, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, etc.

More recently, the internet has created communities of people who share fringe paradigms such as a fear of vaccines or a belief that the world is flat. The term has largely fallen out of favor in most business circles as a lofty expression that demonstrates the speaker’s lack of familiarity with modern innovation concepts for generating pragmatic solutions. The ubiquitous expression “paradigm shift” or '“paradigm change” is most likely to show up in a corporate game of Buzzword Bingo. Usage of the term peaked in the 1990’s as managers would try to compel their team members to “think outside the box” and “seek a new paradigm,” usually resulting in eye-rolls, snickers, and content submissions to Scott Adams for another Dilbert cartoon.

Just for fun, I’ve included a sample of Dilbert’s endless 1990’s comic material around the term:

My innovation project is a paradigm
Management Zombie Paradigm

The Trig Team

The Trig Team sometimes likes to go stealth. Engage stealth mode.


Related Content

Virtual Design Thinking Workshops
What is Human-Centered Design?