Thoughts on Developing A Design Concept

A good design begins with a good design concept. You’re trying to solve a problem and your concept will lead the way and give you direction for your design decisions. How do you form a concept? What questions do you need to ask in order to develop one? How does your concept become the roadmap for your design?

I want to attempt to answer the questions above as well as share how I go about forming a concept for a new design or redesign.

A simple concept is hard to forget

What is a Design Concept?

concept (n) – a general idea used to formulate a plan

A design concept is the idea behind a design. It’s how you plan on solving the design problem in front of you. It’s the underlying logic, thinking, and reasoning for how you’ll design a website.

Your concept will lead to your choices in color and type. It’ll choose your aesthetic and determine your grid. Every design decision you make will fall back on your concept for direction.

Your design concept becomes the framework for all your design decisions.

We can think of design concepts in two ways.

  • Verbal – the verbal parts of your concept might be words you use to describe the site. For example your design concept might be one of sophisticated elegance. Verbal concepts tend toward the abstract. They’re focused on the message your design is to communicate.
  • Visual – the visual parts of your concept might be a specific image or color scheme. It might be an idea to use circles prominently. Visual concepts tend to be a little more concrete. They should come from the verbal part of your concept. Visual concepts are focused more on the how of conveying your message.

Typically I begin forming a concept verbally (a process I’ll describe below). At times, though, a concept comes to me visually. I may see an image in my mind for part of the site or the colors I want to use come in a flash. This usually happens after I have done some verbal conceptualizing, though before writing it down.

Generally verbal concepts come before visual concepts as the visual is really about how you’ll communicate the verbal, though it likely depends on the individual and how you think best.

Closeup of  wireframe sketch

What to do Before Creating a Design Concept

Developing a design concept is something of an individual process. There’s no one right way to generate an idea and what works for one won’t necessarily work for another. However there are parts to the process that everyone should go through.

  • Defining the problem – You can’t solve a problem without knowing what that problem is. Before developing a concept for a site you need to talk to your client and ask questions about the client’s brand, their customers, their general market, and their goals for the site.
  • Research – Your client won’t be able to tell you everything you want to know. You’ll have to do your own research into their industry looking at competing sites and trying to understand more about their market.

Both of the above should get you thinking and begin the idea generation process. The next part is up to you. I mentioned a few ways you can gather inspiration and generate ideas last week, so I won’t list them again here.

Instead I’ll offer some of the questions you should be asking yourself and your client.

  • What is your client’s brand?
  • Who are your client’s customers?
  • What are the requirements for the site?
  • What is the objective of the site?
  • What’s the budget for the project?

The answers to each of the above should give you ideas for your design concept.

Volkswagen and Rolls Royce logos

For example Rolls Royce and Volkswagen have two different brands with different types of customers. The goals of their respective sites might be the same in some places (to sell cars) and different in others (history of the car vs technical specs). Knowing these things should start to point you toward a concept for either site.

The list of questions above is hardly an exhaustive list. You should be asking as many questions as you can in order to understand as much as possible about your client, your client’s business, their customers, and what they want from the site.

When researching the client’s industry you should be asking yourself some questions as well.

  • What is consistent across sites in the industry?
  • What part of the market is being underserved?
  • What are your client’s unique selling points?
  • What kind of imagery, copy, etc. resonates with the market?
  • What other interests does the market have in common?

Again not an exhaustive list, but hopefully enough to get you thinking of your own questions to ask. Your goal, as with the questions you ask your client, is to learn as much as you can about your client’s business, this time in comparison to the competition.

Wireframe sketch

My Process For Creating a Concept

My process always begins with the 2 items mentioned above, asking questions of the client and researching the industry.

When talking with clients I’m always listening for the words they use to describe their business and their customers. They won’t always give you these words by directly asking for them, but there are other ways to get the information from them.

  • Ask indirect questions – Your clients will often reveal things about themselves and their businesses when talking about other things.
  • Listen actively – Sometimes the information you want is between the lines and you’ll have to listen actively for it.
  • Get to know your clients as people – The more you know them outside their business the better you’ll know their business
  • Speak their language – Stay away from industry jargon and use the words your clients use.

I’m always looking for descriptive words like elegant, affordable, friendly, dynamic. Abstract words that convey meaning about the client’s brand. I’ll jot these words down while we’re talking and think more about them later. These words help form the verbal concept for the site’s design.

Again you have to be prepared to listen. The words you’re looking for are often not going to come in response to a direct question.

When researching the industry I’ll keep the same words in mind and look for others. I’ll look at how the industry as a whole describes itself and in what way(s) my client stands apart from the competition. Both lead to more words that will possibly serve as part of the abstract concept for the design.

Usually after talking to the client and researching the industry I’m filled with ideas. I’m not sure which concept will work best, but the ideas are there. Once they are I prefer to then stay away from consciously thinking about the design for a time. The design will pop into my mind here or there and when it does I’ll let it, but at this stage I’m not sitting down to design. I’m letting the concept form in my subconscious.

I'm not trying to do conceptual art

During this time visual concepts come to mind. I’ll see an idea for what the layout might be or maybe something more specific like a color or an image.

For example years ago I was designing a site for a virtual assistant and an image of a file cabinet serving as a list of menu choices popped into my mind. It eventually became part of the visual concept for the site and led the way in the rest of the design.

After a few days I know I’m ready and I’ll sit down and start sketching different visual concepts for the design always keeping the few words that serve as the abstract concept in mind.

Visually I’m trying to come up with ideas for things like:

  • Style/motiff
  • Color Schemes
  • Textures
  • Shapes
  • Layout

Again each of these is led by the abstract words that have become part of the verbal concept. One design might call for sharp angular shapes while another might call for soft rounded shapes for example.

One thing I haven’t tried, but you may find helpful is to create a mood board. The link will lead you to a video explaining how to create one. If you’re unfamiliar with them they’re basically a collection of thoughts, possible layouts, and sources of inspiration you’ll use to design the site. They serve as a document for yourself or the client detailing the concept you have for the site.

High fidelity wireframe

How Concept Leads Design

I’ve said it a few times throughout this post that my concept often comes from a few descriptive words. Those words are what I want people to think and feel when visiting the site. It’s part of the experience I want them to have.

In order to do that every design element needs to be working in harmony with the concept. Every element needs to be communicating the same message. They all need to be in harmony with your concept.

It’s in the trying to create unity and harmony that your concept leads the design. If your concept is one of luxury and formal elegance you know right away they you need to use more whitespace to suggest luxury. It suggests certain color schemes, like black and red and perhaps more symmetry to convey formality.

You might have a great new grunge brush you want to explore, but it wouldn’t belong on this site since it wouldn’t fit the concept.

Your concept will show you where to go with specific design decisions. It’s the roadmap you come back to again and again through the design process. If something isn’t working it’s probably because it doesn’t fit the concept. If nothing is working you might want to explore a different concept.

Custom cover for Concept Magazine

Summary

The best designs start with a great concept. It’s your idea for how you’ll solve the problem of communicating your client’s message. While there is no one way to develop a concept the first necessary step is gathering information.

You gather information by asking your client as many questions as you can and listening to the answers on and in between the lines. You also gather information through your own research of your client’s industry, products, services, and market. The more information you have the better you’ll be able to create different concepts for the design.

You’ll develop concepts verbally and visually. The former helps determine the message you’ll convey and the latter helps determine how you’ll convey that message. Both are important roadmaps for your design decisions.

Often you’ll find that getting away from actively developing a concept and letting your subconscious work on the problem leads to the best results.

How do you come up with concepts for a new design? Do you have a specific process you go through or do you wait for inspiration to find you?

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

43 comments

  1. I find the article helpful. I don’t work with clients but I got a good tip here on how to conceptualize designs especially that I’m researching good knowledge about logo and background..

    • Glad I was able to offer something useful even of you don’t work with clients. I think the basic idea is still the same with the only difference being who’s setting the constraints on the design.

  2. Forget the negative comments about the header. It is a very good, thorough article. I have been working as a print and web designer
    for over 20 years and all of the points you made are integral to the design process. Great job!

  3. You have made some very interesting and valid points regarding client and designer conceptual relationship. It is very hard to get ideas from what the client really wants from what the clients think they want. You made some pretty good suggestions here. Thanks for posting.

    • Thanks Rod. Sometimes it can be hard to get the information you want from clients. In fairness to clients they don’t really know the kinds of things we want to know much of the time so it’s up to us to get the information out of them. It’s usually not as hard as it first seems if you’re willing to listen.

  4. Thank you for this article. I’m in school for design, and honestly this has been more informative than my last three lectures that dictated that ” I need a strong concept” without any detail as to how to get to that point and what a “strong concept” entails. Much appreciated!

  5. this really help me
    i take alot of comment on my design says u must have a concept and i dont really know how to reach the concept even am graphic design i think i can apply what u says here
    thanks

  6. Thank you for this article. I’m in school for web design, and honestly this has been more informative than my last three lectures that dictated that ” I need a strong concept” without any detail as to how to get to that point and what a “strong concept” entails. Much appreciated!

    • Thanks for the compliment. I’m glad I could help.

      Yeah it would be nice if your lectures said more than get a strong concept. A little help with what that means or how to go about forming a concept would be nice.

  7. Hi…
    just about to hand over a uni work, and although I am an abstract artist myself, however, i found this straight forward guide very useful!!!
    Great share!!!

    Happy designs!!!

  8. Thanks for the article! I am working on a concept for one of my design classes, and I was really confused and frustrated before reading this. You’ve given some great tools and advice on how to get started so thank you!

    Megan

  9. Thankyou for the article. I have just started studying Interior Design and this article has helped a lot in understanding about the background to Design Concepts

  10. dear Steven
    i am a digital painter and work as a conceptual artist in visual effects.my problem is to transfer an idea or as you said a verbal one to a full detail image! and you know film concepts are different from a sort of graphical work.do you have any experience about that?i’d be appriciated if you answer me to my email.thanks for your nice article…

    • I don’t have any experience working as a digital painter of with film, but I would think the general idea of what I suggested here still apply.

      The details might change. For example when designing a website you might use lines to indicate motion. On film you could literally show motion.

      Overall though I think the same basic principles apply.

  11. Thanks for the help! I realise this is an old article, but it’s still well and truly relevant today. I’m a design student, but there is so much that information that I have to go looking for from other sources. I do wonder whether the university fees are worth it. Thanks again! Hannah.

    • Thanks Hannah. Hopefully the content here is somewhat timeless.

      I’ll let you decide if university fees are worthwhile. I didn’t go to school for design, but I still value the education and I experience I received in college. I think school is more about training you to be able to teach yourself later.

  12. Once I have a concept and a design, how do I document it to share it. Another words what does the output design effort. Is there a useful template? What must be included in the document to assure the design is complete and actionable.
    Pat

    • It really depends on who you’re sharing it with. Style guides, style tiles, and moodboards are all ways designers help refine a concept and communicate it to clients.

      There are some basic templates out there for all 3 to help you get started, though it might be something you prefer to create your own template for with the understanding that each project is different and so may need adjustment to the template.

      I don’t know that there’s anything that has to be included in the document in the sense that it really is project dependent. When working on a site I’d want to include information type, color, and images at the very least. I’d also want some description about the mood and feeling you’re trying to convey.

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