Design Concepts—An Overview

I’m often asked questions about how to come up with a concept for a design and I’m usually surprised because I don’t consider myself an expert on the subject.

I suspect I get asked because I’ve written several posts (listed below) about design concepts and there’s not a lot written about them online. It probably doesn’t hurt that when typing “design concept” into Google, the first result is the first article in the list below.

The truth is, I’m just a guy with an opinion. I’m someone who has thought about design concepts and is happy to share what I’ve been thinking. In fact, I thought I’d write a short series about how I come up with design concepts and how that concept then leads me to make specific design choices.

For me, design concepts are a 3-step process of gathering information, thinking creatively to come up with a concept, and then using the concept as the highest level constraint in the project that leads all the design decisions that follow.

Today I want to talk a little about what a design concept is and then I’ll talk briefly about my 3-step process. I’ll close with some general thoughts. Over the next three weeks I’ll dig deeper into each of the steps in my process.

What is a Design Concept?

Concept (n)—An abstract idea; a general notion; a plan or intention. An idea or invention to help sell or publicize a commodity.

A concept is just a fancy way to say an idea. It’s a general plan for how to go about doing something. The question of how to come up with a concept is similar to questions about how to generate ideas.

A design concept then, is the big idea behind the design, specifically the visual direction for your solution.

The visual part of web design, any design really, is about communication. Your goal is to visually communicate certain ideas and messages. Every page of a site wants visitors to do something, whether it’s to make a purchase or click to another page. The site as a whole should visually communicate what the client’s brand represents. It should let people know what the site stands for, why someone should stick around. It should help tell the story of the website.

Much of this information, if not all, will be communicated through words, but the aesthetic of the design can reinforce the words and it can communicate in more subtle ways through visual cues as opposed to verbal language.

When designing a website, you have to make a lot of decisions. What typeface should you use? How do you choose a color scheme? What kind of imagery will work best? Sometimes these choices are constrained making the decision easier. For example, you may have to match the colors in the company’s existing logo or have to stick with the same font used on office letterhead.

Your design concept becomes an overarching constraint. It’s a high level constraint that leads to other constraints. Your concept provides a framework for everything else. It’s your strategy for solving the design problem you’ve been asked to solve. It’s the visual direction for achieving the goals of the design.

Your design concept is the big idea behind your design, the thing that will create harmony and unity throughout your design choices. It’s the unifying idea that leads your design.

My 3-Step Process

The way I’ve aways gone about coming up with concepts for designs and then using those concepts to make design decisions has 3 high level components.

  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.

I’ll cover each of the above in more depth in the coming weeks, but the gist is that you have to first collect as much information as possible to help you understand the design problem. Before you can solve a problem, you have to know what it is. You need to understand what you’re trying to communicate before you can figure out how to communicate it.

Once you understand the problem, you want to explore different possibilities. This is where you get to be creative, make lateral associations, and brainstorm. There’s never one right answer here and the skills to develop a concept come with practice and experience.

Finally, you want to use your chosen concept as a high level constraint over the design. Your concept is going to lead your design choices. You’ll let your concept tell you whether you should use a line or space to separate two elements. You’ll use it to help you decide whether warmer or cooler colors are more appropriate, whether or not a grid is the best choice, and whether one typeface is more suitable than another.

Closing Thoughts

There’s one thing I absolutely want to get across with this post and that’s the idea that there is no absolute correct design concept. I can’t give you a recipe to find the perfect concept for your project, because it doesn’t exist.

When designing a website, your client, which could be you, has goals for the site and has a design problem for you to solve. You have to figure out what that design problem is and then decide how you’re going to attempt to solve that problem.

Math problems have right and wrong answers that can be checked for their correctness. Design problems don’t. You won’t ever know if you’ve chosen the best concept. You can never know because you’d have to try them all and compare what happens. What you can do is choose the best concept you can come up with and find out if it worked to achieve the goals of the site. If it did, great. If it didn’t, learn from it and try again.

It’s up to you as designer to develop a concept, an idea for how you’re going to solve the problem. I’ll do my best to help you find your way toward that end throughout the remainder of this series, but do understand it’s ultimately up to you as the designer to come up with a design concept. It’s what you’re being hired to do and I promise the more you work to come up with design concepts, the better you’ll be able to do it again.

Next week I’ll pick things up with the first step in the process, information gathering and defining the design problem.

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