Concepting: A how to guide

Creating concepts (or concepting) is the most creative part of the design process. During this phase designers will explore widely looking for a diverse range of potential solutions. Done properly, good concepts lay the foundation for great work at the end of the process. Good concepts executed well are the ultimate aim. Poor concepts will fail even if the final execution is good.

Experienced designers will abbreviate the concepting phase – sometimes skipping concepts altogether and going straight into refinement. An experienced designer may also concept directly in their minds. Doing this successfully depends on the creative skill and experience of the designer and is something new designers will trouble doing. One reason for skipping paper concepting is the pressure to deliver to tight deadlines – though proper concepting need not take much time. When an experienced designer feels uninspired they can fall back into using a more methodical approach to concepting.

Concepting should be preceeded by research. The more familiar the designer is with the client, their industry and the target audience then the less research is needed.

Work on paper. Stay off the computer during initial concepting because the computer is not fast enough. The computer screen is low resolution compared to paper so often stacking concepts side by side is difficult and takes effort. Even with a drawing tablet there are just too many distractions.

Draw ideas quickly as they come. Hold the positive aims of the project in your head. Switch off critical thinking and do not worry about the project’s constraints and boundaries for now. Good concepting lets the poor ideas, the clich├ęs, the unoriginal and the mistakes out onto paper so that they don’t mentally block the designer. This allows the designer to break through into the truly original ideas. Quantity of concepts has a better chance of producing some quality concepts then over-thinking during this phase so focus on drawing any idea that comes. Let the hand and subconscious be creative.

If the designer maintains the constraints/boundaries in their minds during concepting then they will concept ideas that fit too comfortably within those boundaries. This will result in small ideas that are unambitious and safe to the point of uselessness. It is better to have a big idea and then modify it to fit the boundaries then it is to try grow small ideas into big ideas. Find the concepts most appropriate for the audience and tweak them to fit the boundaries later. (see Pushing Boundaries)

Once intial concepts are on paper then they can be critically looked at to eliminate the poor concepts and select the best ideas. Most jobs will require selecting a few concepts for the client to choose from. In this case select the strongest different ideas – not the ideas that look the best. If the ideas are not strong enough then it might be necessary to rewind the process: more freeform concepting or even more research.

Concepting need not take long. It can be done in minutes on a napkin. Ideally concepting should end when the designer has strong concepts but there is never an unlimited amount of time in the budget. What elevates a designer’s creativity above that of the average person is being able to come up with high quality ideas in a limited time-span. This is something that improves with experience.

In summary: research, concept on paper, suspend critical thinking, focus on quantity, select the strongest ideas.

(Read other eturnerx articles on the Design Process and Creativity)

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