Approaching limitations of digital computing technologies have spurred research in neuromorphic and other unconventional approaches to computing. Here we argue that if we want to engineer unconventional computing systems in a systematic way, we need guidance from a formal theory that is different from the classical symbolic-algorithmic Turing machine theory. We propose a general strategy for developing such a theory, and within that general view, a specific approach that we call fluent computing. In contrast to Turing, who modeled computing processes from a top-down perspective as symbolic reasoning, we adopt the scientific paradigm of physics and model physical computing systems bottom-up by formalizing what can ultimately be measured in a physical computing system. This leads to an understanding of computing as the structuring of processes, while classical models of computing systems describe the processing of structures.