Design Concepts—Gathering Information And Inspiration

A concept is your general idea for solving a problem, but you can’t solve a problem until you know what the problem is.

Last week I started a series about design concepts. I talked about concepts in general and offered a quick overview of the 3-step process I go through to develop and use concepts when designing a website.

  1. Information gathering to define the problem and generate ideas and inspiration.
  2. Creative exploration to develop one or more concepts and choose one to use.
  3. Using the fundamentals of design in a way that communicates your concept.

Today I want to talk in more detail about the first step in the process, gathering information to define the problem and begin generating ideas and inspiration for how you might solve it.

Define the Problem

If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.
—Attributed to Albert Einstein

If you put in the time to really understand the problem, the solution is much easier than it first seems. That’s why Einstein would devote more than 90% of his time on the problem itself.

Remember that a concept is simply an idea. Your design concept is your idea for how you’re going to solve the problem you’ve been tasked to solve. If you want to come up with a better concept, you want to spend more time understanding and defining the problem.

Every website has goals it wants to meet. Whether the site is for a business or for yourself, it has objectives. The site might want to lead visitors down a sales funnel. It might want to get people to contact you. It might simply want to entice people to subscribe to a newsletter or RSS feed. Whatever the goal, you’re designing the site for some purpose.

To achieve the objectives you need information. You need to know what the site is about. You need to know about the potential audience for for the site. What does the audience like? What interests do they have in common?

You wouldn’t design a site for a bank using the same aesthetic you would use to design a children’s site, at least I hope you wouldn’t.

You want to learn the story the business is telling its customers to get them to take the desired action. What is the brand image of the business behind the site?

Ultimately your design will need to connect with the audience. It should visually communicate a message about the site itself and the people and business behind it. To get all the information you need, you have a couple of options.

Get Information from Your Client

If the site is for you, then you’re the client and you should be able to answer all the questions you have as designer. Let’s assume the client isn’t you.

One obvious way to get information from clients is to ask them. I always start each client relationship with a phone call. Often it’s the initial call where the client is still trying to decide whether I’m the right person to design the site and I’m trying to decide if I want to take on the project.

I keep a text file open and make notes during our conversation. I’ll ask direct questions to find out who the client sees as their customers and how the client wants to represent themselves in front of their audience.

A larger company can probably give you specific answers with charts and statistics to back up what they’re telling you, but more often than not a small business won’t be able to tell you so clearly. I’ve found you often have to ask indirect questions and actively listen to get the information you need.

Clients won’t always share with you everything you want to know for a variety of reasons. They might not realize you want the information. They might know the answers through a general sense and not have the words to explain it. They likely won’t have thought about the information in terms of design, which is why they hired you.

However, if you talk awhile, they’ll likely tell you everything you want to know, even if not in direct response to a question. You have to listen between the lines. Listen actively for what you want to know.

What you want to know is the story your client wants to tell their visitors. Your design ultimately has to tell this story. You want to understand the emotions they want their customers to feel. You want a clear picture of how they see themselves.

You’re listening for the handful of words and phrases they repeat when they talk about themselves and their customers. If a word like “friendly” and its synonyms keeps coming up, then make sure it’s a word you record. If your client continues to say things like “active suburban grandma,” write the phrase down.

You don’t need a huge list. Three to five words or phrases is probably enough, though you should write down anything you think might help you understand the problem better. You can eliminate some later. At this stage, more is better so write down everything. I make notes throughout the conversation, specifically looking for those words my client uses to talk about their brand, their potential customers, and their specific goals for the site.

After the call I’ll go over my notes and organize them. I want that list of three to five words or phrases that my client has consistently used. I’ll group like words together and try to get a sense of how the client sees their business and customers.

Research the Industry

In addition to getting information from your clients, you can learn a lot through independent research. I like to spend an afternoon or two looking at other sites in my client’s industry. I want to look at sites with similar objectives and goals. I might spend a couple hours searching for sites and quickly looking through them. I’ll collect as many as a dozen for a deeper look on another day.

I’m trying to get a sense of how other sites in the same industry view themselves and their customers. I look over the sites to understand what they’re communicating and how they’re communicating it.

As I do with the phone call, I’ll keep a text file open and make notes. I record those things every site includes and think of the things they don’t include. I’ll think about the design of the sites and what messages the visuals communicate. I’ll ask myself how those messages are communicated and I’ll try to identify the concept behind the design.

Do the sites use primary colors? Are the colors saturated? Desaturated? Why? What does that say about the brand? Are visual elements packed tightly together or is there a lot of empty space between them? Does the site use sharp angles? Curves? I’ll constantly ask why and think about the reasons the designer made the choices she made. These choices aren’t the concept, but they can help you understand how the concept led the design.

You can also research customers directly. Search Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or your social network of choice to see what people say about the industry. What does the market say the industry does well? Poorly? How does the market think about your client and other businesses in the industry.

Your research won’t tell you how your client views things, but it will help you understand how the industry sees itself and its customers and it will help you understand how customers see the industry and the different businesses that are part of it.

Gather Inspiration

As long as you’re out there researching the industry, you might as well seek out some inspiration too.

You might be tempted to take inspiration from other sites in the industry, but you’ll do better to get it elsewhere. Avoid copying your competition, unless you enjoy remaining behind them.

At this stage you probably don’t have a concept in mind, but all the research you’re doing and the conversations you’re having with your client, should be stimulating you in some way.

Gather imagery. Gather textures. Gather colors. Gather whatever inspires you. It’s a first step in forming possible ideas for your eventual concept. For things you like that don’t fit the project, place them in a swipe file for future use.

Keep in mind that ideas can come from anywhere. Don’t limit yourself to the web. Look at how articles and advertisements are designed in print. Look at architecture. Notice ordinary everyday objects.

Collect more ideas than you think you’ll need. Looking for inspiration is something you should do independent of any project in front of you. You should always be looking at other designs and thinking about what they communicate and how they do it. You should always be asking yourself what’s the concept behind that design.

This isn’t so much to help you develop a concept for a particular site, but to help you develop concepts as a general skill. The more you ask questions about other designs and their concepts and the more you attempt to answer your own questions, the easier it will be for you to develop concepts of your own.

Start to Set Constraints

One thing you should do while asking your client questions, researching their industry, and gathering general and specific inspiration, is to eliminate possibilities. In other words, set constraints.

A large part of defining a problem is defining what isn’t the problem. It’s impossible to choose when you have an infinite selection so part of information gathering is eliminating options until you’re left with a smaller amount from which you can reasonably choose.

Defining constraints is one of the things you’ll do when you pause for a moment to organize all your notes and everything else you’ve collected.

Closing Thoughts

The first step in solving a problem is to understand it as best as you can. You can do that by gathering as much information as possible and using it to define the problem you’ve been tasked to solve.

Ask your client direct and indirect questions and actively listen to the words and phrases they use when talking about themselves and their market. Research their industry. Research other industries. Seek and collect inspiration for the project in front of you and the projects that will come to you in time. Define constraints and make notes at every step.

As you gather information and inspiration, your creative muscles should begin to think about the problem and also about potential solutions. You’re going to put these muscles to use in the next step in the process where you think creatively and develop a design concept for the site.

We’ll talk more about how to do that next week.

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