How do you design an idea? This might sound like nonsense, but visual communication (such as graphic design) requires meaning in order to convey a message. This means that to create an effective design you must have a reliable way of establishing a core, compelling idea early on in each project. That process is called conceptual design.
Because conceptualization occurs in the mind, it can be fairly easy to overlook. But conceptual design is the foundation on which good design stands, and even technically brilliant designs can fail without a solid, backing concept. With that in mind, we’re going to walk through what conceptual design is and how to apply it to your projects.
What is conceptual design?
Conceptual design is a framework for establishing the underlying idea behind a design and a plan for how it will be expressed visually.
It is related to the term “concept art”, which is an illustration (often used in the preproduction phase of a film or a video game) that conveys the vision of the artist for how the final product might take form. Similarly, conceptual design occurs early on in the design process, generally before fine details such as exact color choices or illustration style. The only tools required are a pen and paper.
Conceptual design has the root word “concept,” which describes the idea and intention behind the design. This is contrasted by “execution”, which is the implementation and shape that a design ultimately takes.
Essentially, the concept is the plan, and the execution is the follow-through action. Designs are often evaluated for quality in both of these areas: concept vs execution. In other words, a critic might ask: what is a design trying to say, and how well does it say it?
Most importantly, you can’t have one without the other. A poorly executed design with a great concept will muddle its message with an unappealing art style. A well-executed design with a poor concept might be beautiful, but it will do a poor job of connecting with viewers and/or expressing a brand.
For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on the concept whereas execution involves studying the particulars of design technique.
The purpose of conceptual design
The purpose of conceptual design is to give visual shape to an idea. Towards that end, there are three main facets to the goals of conceptual design:
To establish a basis of logic
Artistic disciplines have a tendency to be governed by emotion and gut feeling. Designs, however, are meant to be used. Whether it is a piece of software or a logo, a design must accomplish something practical such as conveying information or expressing a brand—all on top of being aesthetically pleasing.
Conceptual design is what grounds the artwork in the practical questions of why and how.
To create a design language
Since the concept is essentially just an idea, designers must bridge the gap between abstract thought and visual characteristics. Design language describes using design elements purposefully to communicate and evoke meaning.
As explained earlier, the conceptual design phase isn’t going to go as far as planning every stylistic detail, but it will lay the groundwork for meaningful design choices later on.
To achieve originality
There’s a famous saying that nothing is original, and this is true to an extent. The practice of design—like any artistic discipline—is old, with designers building on the innovations of those who came before.
But you should at least aspire to stand on the shoulders of those giants. And the concept and ideation phase in the design process is where truly original creative sparks are most likely to happen.
The conceptual design approach
Now that we understand what conceptual design is and its purpose, we can talk about how it is done. The conceptual design approach can be broken down into four steps and we’ll discuss each in detail.
It is important to note that these steps don’t have to be completed in any particular order. For example, many designers jump to doodling without any concrete plan of what they are trying to achieve. How a person comes up with ideas is personal and depends on whatever helps them think.
It can also be related to how you best learn—e.g. people who learn best by taking notes might have an easier time organizing their concepts by writing them down. And sometimes taking a more analytical approach (such as research) early on can constrain creativity whereas the opposite can also lead to creativity without a purpose.
Whatever order you choose, we would recommend that you do go through all of the steps to get a concept that is fully thought through. With that out of the way, let’s dive into the conceptual design process.
You must start your design project by asking why the project is necessary. What is the specific goal of the design and what problem is it meant to solve?
Defining the problem can be a lot trickier than it at first appears because problems can be complex. Often, a problem can be a symptom of deeper issues, and you want to move beyond the surface to uncover the root causes.
One technique for doing so is known as the Five Whys, in which you are presented with a problem and keep asking “Why?” until you arrive at a more nuanced understanding. Otherwise, if you fail to get to the exact root of the problem, your design solution would have been ultimately flawed. And the design solution—the answer to the problem—is just another way of describing the concept.
Designs must eventually occupy space (whether physical or digital) in the real world. For this reason, a design concept must be grounded in research, where you will understand the context in which the design must fit.
This can start with getting information on the client themselves—who is the brand and what is their history and mission, their personality? You must also consider the market.
Who are the people that will interact with the design? In order for the concept to speak effectively to these people, you must conduct target audience research to understand who they are and what they are looking for in a design. Similarly, researching similar designs from competitors can help you understand industry conventions as well as give you ideas for how to set your concept apart.
Finally, you will want to research the work of other designers in order to gather reference material and inspiration, especially from those you find particularly masterful. Doing so can show you conceptual possibilities you might never have imagined, challenging you to push your concepts. You’ll want to collect these in a mood board, which you will keep handy as you design.
3. Verbal ideation
Concepts are essentially thoughts—which is to say, they are scattered words in our minds. In order to shape a concept into something substantial, you need to draw some of those words out. This phase is generally referred to as brainstorming, in which you will define your concept verbally.
This can be as straightforward as simply posing the problem (see the first step) and creating a list of potential solutions.
There are also some helpful word-based techniques, such as mind-mapping or free association. In both of these cases, you generally start with a word or phrase (for logos, this is usually the brand name and for other designs, it can be based on some keywords from the brief).
You then keep writing associated words that pop into your head until you have a long list. It is also important to give yourself a time limit so that you brainstorm quickly without overthinking things.
The purpose of generating words is that these can help you come up with design characteristics (in the next step) to express your concept. For example, the word “freedom” can translate into loose flowing lines or an energetic character pose.
Ultimately, it is helpful to organize these associated ideas into a full sentence or phrase that articulates your concept and what you are trying to accomplish. This keeps your concept focused throughout the design process.
4. Visual ideation
At some point, concepts must make the leap from abstract ideas to a visual design. Designers usually accomplish this through sketching.
One helpful approach is to create thumbnails, which are sketches of a design that are small enough to fit several on the same page.
Like brainstorming (or verbal ideation) the goal is to come up with sketches fast so that your ideas can flow freely. You don’t want to get hung up on your first sketch or spend too much time on minute detail. Right now, you are simply visualizing possible interpretations of the concept.
This phase is important because while you may think you have the concept clear in your mind, seeing it on the page is the true test of whether it holds water. You may also surprise yourself with a sketch that articulates your concept better than you could have planned.
Once you have a couple sketches that you like, you can refine this into a much larger and more detailed sketch. This will give you a presentable version from which you can gather feedback.
Dream big with conceptual design
The remainder of the design process is spent executing the concept. You will use the software of your choice to create a working version of your design, such as a prototype or mockup. Assuming your design is approved by the client, test users or any other stakeholders, you can go about creating the final version. If not, use conceptual design to revisit the underlying concept.
Conceptual design is the bedrock of any design project. For this reason, it is extremely important to get right. Creating a concept can be difficult and discouraging—over time, you might find your garbage bin overflowing with rejected concepts.
But this is exactly why it is so helpful to have a delineated process like conceptual design to guide you through the messy work of creating ideas. But at the end of the day, getting a design of value will require both a great concept and a skilled designer.