Design Concepts—Creative Thinking And Exploration To Develop And Select Ideas

A good concept can make your design more interesting. It can add depth and meaning to your work. A concept helps you generate new and related ideas. It also guides your thinking and design decisions. Your ability to develop concepts, your creativity, can help you stand out from other designers. So how do you go about developing a concept for a project?

This is the third post in a series about design concepts. I started with an overview of concepts, in which I shared a 3-step process for how I go about developing one and using it to design a site. Last week I talked about the first step in the process, gathering information. Today I want to talk about the second step, which is where I actually develop the concept.

Unfortunately, I can’t give you a recipe for coming up with a concept. At some level you have to use your own creative abilities to come up with possible concepts and choose which one to use. However, I can talk about the things I do to help me come up with ideas and what criteria I use when deciding which idea will become the design concept for the site.

A Reminder About Concepts

As a reminder, or in case you haven’t read the previous posts in the series, a concept is simply an idea. It’s a general plan for how you’re going to solve a problem. A design concept is the big idea for how you’ll approach the design, specifically the visual direction of your solution.

I think we often place too much emphasis on the word concept as though it’s some kind of special design magic. A concept is simply an idea and the same things you would do to generate any type of idea work for coming up with design concepts.

Design Concepts Evolve from an Iterative Process

It’s possible a concept will flash into your mind fully formed, but more often than not a concept evolves over time as you work.

To develop a concept you typically want to use an iterative process that goes back and forth between creative exploration and the analytical refinement and organization of what you found while exploring.

If you start by gathering information and inspiration like I talked about last week, then you should already have ideas in mind about possible directions the design can take. Your exploration has begun. Now it’s time to take it further.

Creative Exploration

Start by brainstorming. Write down anything that comes to mind no matter how stupid the idea might seem at first. Collect as many ideas as you can. If you prefer to sketch, draw your ideas. Sketch quickly and again come up with as many ideas as you can.

I like to start with words and I’ll typically look over the words and phrases my client continued to use when we talked. I’ll write down synonyms for the words and play around with variations of the phrases.

I’ll think about the way my client described his or her customers and think about what a similar person might enjoy or what might motivate that person to take action. I’ll also think about the specific goals and objectives my client mentioned for the site and I’ll continue to make all sorts of associations with the words and phrases I’ve collected and come up with.

Imagine your client says their customer base is made up of physically active 20-somethings. Picture that kind of person and what connections you can make with their interests and perceptions. How would this person dress? How do they talk? What do they do when they aren’t being active? What kind of interests are active 20-somethings likely to have in common aside from their age and active lifestyle?

Think about the words in non-design contexts. A word like playful makes me think about children on a summer afternoon. It also makes me think about two people flirting with each other. Write both ideas down.

Use a dictionary and thesaurus to find synonyms and near synonyms. Find antonyms and then look up the antonyms of those words. Again, creative exploration. Play around. See what you can come up with.

This is the time for lateral thinking and out of the box thinking and all those cliché phrases about thinking creatively.

Come up with as many ideas as you can. You’ll eliminate most of them, but you might have to come up with 10 bad ideas to get to a good one. The act of generating ideas will lead to new ideas and often the better ideas come later.

If nothing comes, take a break. Sometimes you have to start your subconscious working on the problem with a reasonable amount of effort and then you go do something else while your subconscious does its thing.

Keep in mind you’re exploring and not seeking an answer. There is no right solution to this. There are multiple solutions that can work. Don’t think of creative exploration as looking to find the right idea. Think of it as finding one idea and then following the idea to see where it leads. Then start with another idea and see where that one leads.

Refinement and Organization

At some point your focus will shift from trying to come up with new ideas to organizing and refining the ones you already have. Take one or two or three of your ideas and explore them deeper. You’ll probably do this naturally because you’ll keep coming back to similar themes when you brainstorm.

Start by organizing what you have. Put like ideas together. Maybe the word elegant in your notes belongs with that image of an exclusive cocktail party. Maybe the black, red, and gold color palette you recorded would work well in the same group.

Look at the list of words and phrases you collected. What kind of imagery do they invoke? Do they make you think of certain colors? Certain shapes?

A word like playful suggests a brighter color scheme to me than a word like sophisticated, which I think calls for a more neutral palette. A word like experienced has me thinking about strong solid shapes both horizontal and vertical while a word like innovative makes me think of diagonals and triangles.

You may wonder how I made those associations. It comes from observation. When you come across a design, whether it’s for the web or in print or anywhere else, ask yourself how the design makes you feel. Describe what you see in a couple of words or phrases. Then think about what the design did to make you feel that way and choose the words and phrases you chose. Do that enough and when the time comes to think what color best describes cost effective, you’ll already have a color in mind.

As you refine your ideas and especially as you organize them and combine words and imagery, you should notice a number of different themes emerging. Maybe you started with a word like elegant and followed it in several different directions. You might have collected images, colors, and typefaces for:

  • that exclusive cocktail party
  • a wedding in which every attention has been paid to every last detail, no matter how insignificant
  • a simple or non-obvious mathematical formula

Any of these could become the concept for a design in which the word elegant or similar is important to communicate.

I mentioned above this is an iterative process so it’s ok to refine and organize and then spend more time brainstorming. Go back and forth a few times. Each round of iteration should improve on the last one and inform the next one.

Each time through the cycle you should find your ideas are getting stronger and you’ll reach a point where it’s time to pick one of the ideas as your concept.

So how do you choose?

Choosing One Concept for Your Design

There’s no one way to decide or an exact science for how to choose which concept to use from the few you’ve come up with. This is one of the reasons you get paid to design. Part of your job as a designer is to make these kind of choices. Don’t worry if that scares you. It will get easier with time and experience.

To get you started on the road to experience, you can ask yourself questions about each of your possible concepts.

  • What do your clients want to communicate to their customers?
  • Does you concept communicate the site’s goal and objectives?
  • How would the potential audience for the site likely react to the concept?
  • Will your concept make visitors think and feel what you want them to think and feel while they interact with the site?
  • What story does your concept tell?
  • Is that story in harmony with your client’s brand?

Your goal as designer is to help your clients achieve their goals for the site. Your concept should communicate in a way that helps the the site achieve its goals and objectives. It should tell the same story your client wants to tell about themselves when they talk to their customers.

Think again of the word playful and the two ideas of children playing and adults flirting. These are two different concepts around the word playful. One probably fits your client’s message more than the other.

Perhaps earlier in the process you decided the flirting adults concept was better choice and you’ve since divided the concept into two ideas, one more overtly sexual and one where the flirting is more innocent. The same way you arrived at flirting adults over children playing, you now have to decide which way of flirting is more appropriate for the site.

Which one you’d ultimately go with would depend on the goals of the site and the client’s brand and so on. Comparing your ideas to these things should point you to one concept over another, though sometimes you might find you have multiple concepts and any of them could work. How do you decide?

Subjective, not Objective

There is no absolute correct concept for any project. I know we like for things to have objectively right or wrong answers, but many times they don’t. This is one of those times when the choice is subjective.

Your goal is to visually communicate certain messages and ideas to visitors of the site and there are many ways to communicate the same message.

At first you probably won’t have confidence in yourself to choose a concept that works, but with time and experience it does get easier. You can gain experience by looking at the designs of others and asking yourself what’s the concept behind the design and thinking about it? Why did the designer choose that concept? What did they do in the design to make you think it was the concept?

There’s no recipe where you can follow these 5 steps to the perfect design concept. This is part of your job. You have to think about concepts and practice coming up with them and use your best judgement to build your confidence.

Do your best and learn from each attempt so you can do better the next time. Always be thinking about design concepts even when you aren’t working on a specific project.

Don’t feel pressured to find the “right” concept. Again, there is no single correct concept to find.

Closing Thoughts

More than anything this stage of coming up with a design concept is about the creative process. Generate ideas and then work to refine them. Generate a lot of ideas and then eliminate those that don’t work.

When it’s time to choose one concept, ask yourself questions to decide which of your concepts works best with the site, your clients, and the story they want to tell. Sometimes this will point you to an obvious choice and sometimes it won’t. When it doesn’t, do your best to make a choice and go with it. It will get easier with time and experience.

There’s one last part to this series on design concepts and that’s how you use your concept to actually design the site. That’s what I’ll talk about in two weeks when I discuss your concept as your highest level design constraint.

Next week I’m going to take a quick break from the series to share some images of my time in New York for the Thanksgiving Holiday.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

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