Chapter 1 Theory Maker - sketch out your Theory of Change

Theory Maker is a free web app by Steve Powell for making any kind of causal diagram, i.e. a diagram which uses arrows to say what contributes to what. You make the diagrams just by typing the names of the elements (called variables) in a structured way into a (resizeable) window, and you get a live diagram as output which reflects what you type.

In particular, it is optimised for making theories of change, logframes, etc. - special kinds of pragmatic causal theory which are particularly popular at the moment in the world of monitoring and evaluation (M&E).

Theory Maker is most often used by M&E staff for quickly sketching out project theories and evaluation plans. But scientists, especially social scientists, and policy makers use it too.

1.1 About Theory Maker

Theory Maker is a free, open-source project. The license is here. The engine which creates the diagrams (using Graphviz) is here.
It is under rapid development and run on a shoestring so please don’t rely on it being there next week. It’s been running for three years and I plan to keep it running for many more, but who knows.

The new version of Theorymaker is based on DiagrammeR and will allow actual calculations down the causal tree.

I don’t plan ever to charge for Theory Maker or to make money from it directly. It is a project for airing some ideas I have about Theories of Change to accompany a book I am writing.

Plus, Theory Maker is based on a theory of Theories of Change. So when you diagram your theory using Theory Maker, the examples help you to make a real theory, expressed using variables and rules to link them up, not just a nice picture.

Please tweet me me your comments, problems and suggestions.

1.2 Main features

  • Human-readable syntax.
  • Boxes for putting variables in groups, for example to mark off different phases, places or participants.
  • Format your variables and boxes with colours, fonts etc.
  • Easy to change diagram direction (left-to-right, top-to-bottom, etc.) and diagram proportions (wider, taller etc.).
  • Easy to add cross links even in mainly hierarchical theories, e.g. from one sub-Outcome to more than one Outcome
  • You can create aliases/labels for your variables to save tiresome retyping
  • Lots of live templates and suggestions for your theory of change, ready for you to edit (don’t worry, you aren’t editing the originals).
  • Each new diagram gets a unique permanent link which you can bookmark to return to later or send to a friend. Anyone can save changes to this link.

The rules for typing diagrams in Theory Maker are here.

1.3 What it doesn’t do

1.3.1 No beautifying

Theory Maker doesn’t give you much control over the actual layout (like whether something appears at the top or bottom). This tool tries to keep the layout simple, but that doesn’t necessarily mean things are where you expect them to be. Don’t bother trying to get the nodes and boxes to move about: If you want to tweak a diagram further, you can download the .svg version of it and manipulate it further in Inkscape, Libreoffice Draw or Illustrator.

1.3.2 Remember to save your text

There is no registration or log-in. You just type text. You can type a title for your diagram and click to save a version and bookmark the link. If you don’t, don’t forget to copy and paste (somewhere safe) the text you typed, because it won’t be there next time you visit the site.

1.4 Credits

Theory Maker is built on top of Graphviz using Shiny.

For the icons, flaticon.com and font-awesome.

Many people have helped me in developing the app, not limited to: Anamaria Golemac Powell, Esad Bratovic, Simone Ginsburg, Randall Puljek-Shank, many colleagues on LinkedIn, …