Top-down and bottom-up are both strategies of information processing and knowledge ordering, used in a variety of fields including software, humanistic and scientific theories (see systemics), and management and organization. In practice, they can be seen as a style of thinking and teaching.
A top-down approach (also known as stepwise design or deductive reasoning, and in many cases used as a synonym of analysis or decomposition) is essentially the breaking down of a system to gain insight into its compositional sub-systems. In a top-down approach an overview of the system is formulated, specifying but not detailing any first-level subsystems. Each subsystem is then refined in yet greater detail, sometimes in many additional subsystem levels, until the entire specification is reduced to base elements. A top-down model is often specified with the assistance of “black boxes”, these make it easier to manipulate. However, black boxes may fail to elucidate elementary mechanisms or be detailed enough to realistically validate the model. Top down approach starts with the big picture. It breaks down from there into smaller segments.
A bottom-up approach (also known as inductive reasoning, and in many cases used as a synonym of synthesis) is the piecing together of systems to give rise to grander systems, thus making the original systems sub-systems of the emergent system. Bottom-up processing is a type of information processing based on incoming data from the environment to form a perception. Information enters the eyes in one direction (input), and is then turned into an image by the brain that can be interpreted and recognized as a perception (output). In a bottom-up approach the individual base elements of the system are first specified in great detail. These elements are then linked together to form larger subsystems, which then in turn are linked, sometimes in many levels, until a complete top-level system is formed. This strategy often resembles a “seed” model, whereby the beginnings are small but eventually grow in complexity and completeness. However, “organic strategies” may result in a tangle of elements and subsystems, developed in isolation and subject to local optimization as opposed to meeting a global purpose.