Thoughts For Turning Vague Descriptions Into A Concept And Context For Your Design

A couple of months ago Peter commented on my post about design and context and asked whether or not you can really know if you’ve defined the right context for a design. He also wondered if it would be hard to define given you’ll likely start with vague words like professional, young, and dynamic. I wanted to address his concerns and answer both questions focusing mainly on the second.

To the first question about knowing if you’ve defined the right context, I’m not sure you can immediately know after launching a new design or while you’re developing it. You may never know if you really nailed it, though after the design has been live for a time you can measure success or failure in some way and make educated decisions about the context you set.

I want to spend the rest of this post talking about those seemingly vague words and how you can turn them into a concept that sets the atmosphere and the context for your design.

Word cloud

How To Get Descriptive Words from Clients

When I start a new project I begin by asking the client questions to figure out what they want in a site, what their business is about, what goals they have for both, etc. I ask them directly for some words that describe what they’re looking for in a design, but more than than I listen in between the lines.

The words they use in direct answer to my question aren’t always the the best words to go by. People will sometimes tell you what they think they should say or what others have told them they should say. If you listen to the words they use to describe their business and sites they like when they aren’t specifically answering your question you can often get more useful words.

You’re listening for words that tell their story. Words that differentiate them from the competition. Words that truly speak to what the business is all about. Everyone wants their business to be thought of as professional so it’s not the most useful word for our purpose. Does any business really want to be seen as amateur?

We all want to play with toys that are fun so describing your toy store as fun isn’t necessary. It’s built in to the business. It’s an important word to consider when designing, but it’s not one of the words we’re listening for.

Again you’re listening for words that tell the company’s story and help differentiate it from others in the industry. You’re listening for words that will help this business sell more of whatever it is they’re selling. You’ll have to listen between the questions and you might have to jot down some words you come up with as you get to know your client and his or her business.

From a Few Words a Concept Grows

If you’ve been listening, I mean really listening, you should be able to write down a handful of descriptive words. Maybe it’s a half dozen or a dozen. Even two or three is fine. Look through these words and try to pull out some themes. Find some commonality between them Look for relationships between words.

For example young and dynamic fit together. They give us something to work with. I took the word young and typed it into an online dictionary looking for synonyms. Here are a few that were returned.

  • blooming
  • blossoming
  • inexperienced
  • undeveloped
  • undisciplined
  • unfinished
  • recent
  • fresh
  • raw

Clearly not all words we’d want to incorporate in a design associated with a business. Undisciplined and inexperienced are probably not messages we want to communicate. On the other hand unfinished might not be as negative as it first comes across. Perhaps it suggests a design direction that’s hand drawn and illustrated. Both fit with young and dynamic. Maybe raw means elements that fall off the grid instead of rigidly adhering to it.

I also found the following in the same dictionary search.

to be young is to be immature or not old; to be youthful is having the attractive qualities of a young person

Hmm? youthful. Let’s see where that leads us.

  • active
  • enthusiastic
  • vigorous
  • full of life
  • buoyant

Better words than what we found for young. Active suggests angled instead of horizontal lines. Perhaps some imagery to express movement? Gradients over solid colors? These words also suggest a more primary color palette and again maybe hand drawn lines with rough edges as opposed to thin precision like and perfectly ordered lines.

These are ideas that are coming to me as I write this. It’s what the words above are suggesting to me. They might suggest something different to you and that’s fine. It’s why you and I won’t come up with the same design solution to the same design problem.

It’s also why you’ll probably never know with 100% certainty that you nailed a concept and have created the perfect context. There can be so many right answers. It’s hard to know one is the absolute best.

The point is to collect some words, find some common themes, and think about how these words might be communicated graphically.

Ultimately the words you were listening for were trying to help you understand your client and your client’s story. These are things you want to communicate to anyone visiting the site. The words will probably end up in the copy, but you can do more. The more unified the visuals are with the words, the more the message will be communicated and the more it will resonate with visitors.

Concept, Atmosphere, and Context

There’s certainly more to designing a website than creating the atmosphere that sets the context. There’s organizing the information and helping visitors find it. There’s making sure the content can be read. There’s creating a hierarchy so the most important information stands out.

The point is to collect some words, find some common themes, and think about how these words might be communicated graphically.

And there’s also creating an atmosphere and setting a context for how everything will be interpreted. The concept you come up with and especially how unified your design is under that concept will set the atmosphere and context for the site.

Visitors to the site will see the whole of your design. They’ll instantly form impressions from the colors used, the imagery they see, the organization of elements. They won’t consciously write down a list of words describing what your design makes them feel or what message they associate with the visuals. It will happen internally on a subconscious level instead.

In designing you went in the opposite direction. You started with the message; the words the client used to describe the site and business. You generated a list of related words to communicate this message. You then let those words lead you to imagery and colors that made you think of those words.

You do this consciously. Your visitor works the opposite direction unconsciously. Ideally you both have the same endpoints, leading your client to think about the site and business the way your client described it and you understood it. You want your client to see those hand drawn lines as energetic, youthful, and dynamic and then associate those words with your client’s business.

You don’t need to start from highly specific words. The vague words you might start with lead you to more specific concrete words that evoke visuals you incorporate into the site. The words you choose and the visuals they lead you to are part of the process.


The words clients use to describe what they want in a design may not alway be very specific and lead you instantly to a design, but they will lead you there if you work with them and let them lead you.

Start by actively listening. Understand to your client’s story. What is his or her business really about and how does it stand out from the competition. Add your own words to your list as you understand what your client should communicate to achieve their goals.

Expand the list of words you’ve written. Find common themes in them. Seek out more concrete synonyms that fit the theme. Where do these words lead you. What visuals do they get you to see?

Your goal isn’t to graphically design an exact set of words. It’s to create a path between your client’s story and what visitors see and experience. You aren’t trying to literally communicate the word dynamic. You’re trying to create an atmosphere and context that suggest the characteristics of dynamic in a way that helps the company tell its story and achieve it’s goals.

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  1. Hey Steven, first time visiting your website today and I am so impressed.

    I loved how you emphasise the importance of listening, *really* listening, in your article. A great reminder.

    Also the web design rocks! The large font is so pleasant!

    • Thans Linh. I think we all forget to really listen at times. I find so much of what a client really wants to say is between the lines.

      I’m glad you like the design. I keep wondering if I should make the font even larger than it is. It seemed big to me when I was designing, but now it’s feeling much smaller.

  2. Great article, even though I’m studying industrial design this is a very helpful aid on how to build a proper concept, regardless of your area. All of your articles are very helpful mainly because they can be easily adapted to any kind of design and still hold their value. Greetings from Mexico (:

    • Thanks Cesar. You know it’s probably because most of what I blog about are fundamental design principles. Those transfer to most anything you design instead of being specific to web design.

      Naturally I wouldn’t expect a post about a css technique is going to help you with industrial design, but ideas like developing a concept or working towards simplicity certainly apply to more than the web.

  3. Thanks for breaking this down. I’m an interior designer . Have been doing it for several years now. I love concept development however I’ve felt I struggled with it in my experience. I usually jumped to inspiration images. But this post is the perfect template for me to follow.
    Do you have a post on how to present your design concepts to the client?

    • I’m glad I could help Nikky. I haven’t written anything about presenting to clients. It’s not something I needed to do. I think I would first make sure I knew well my reasons for choosing the concept and why I thought it would work with my client’s objectives. Then I’d probably show some visuals to help my client see what the concept would look like applied to their particular needs. I hope that helps.

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