Conceptual Design: Everything You Need to Know to Get Started

Design concept is where you start. However, this starting point is a lot more important and deep than we presume.

Last Tuesday, I went to an exhibition and something very usual yet puzzling happened, my friend looked at a piece in the exhibition – this piece was a circular and thick hula hoop-like product, but it was rotating and balanced on its own with only a thread-thin string as its base – and he said: “I do not know what it is or what it does, but I want it.” 

This might have happened with some of you as well: we want things because of unexplainable reasons (mostly, we like how that product or image makes us feel). 

On the other hand, there are designs and products which are used in our everyday lives: a mobile phone, its UI design, web pages, video games, etc. 

In this blog, I talk about the beginning points of all these aspects, products, and designs we come across in our lives. 

A quick peek: It all starts on a piece of paper on a screen.

Introduction to Conceptual Design 

When we think of concept design, some of us might get images of sci-fi movies or futuristic super-smart products. While it is not entirely wrong, it is not close to right either. Yes, concept design is associated with concept art (concept art is where visuals are used in video games, movies, etc to convey an idea). 

Nevertheless, there is a thick line between concept art and concept design

Many of the products and designs we see today are famous because of their meaningful ideas, a.k.a its concept. If we look at the other side of the coin, we will realize that many designs must have been rejected for their poor concept. 

Here is an interesting aspect: ‘design concept’ has different meanings. In a literal sense, design concept means ‘an abstract idea,’ but for designers, design concept means solving a problem, underlying logic, and coming up with an umbrella of steps that brings an idea to life. 

While the conceptual design is a starting point of a design process, it extends its essence into planning, constructing, and executing. 

How to Come Up With a Design Concept?

How to Come Up With a Design Concept?

Let us consider an example: Your client asks you to fix a payment verification on their website, how do you proceed with it?

  1. You start by drawing outlines for a new payment verification page. 
  2. You check how your client’s competitors are doing it. 
  3. You tap into your client’s user market and keep a check on the problem at hand while understanding how your design will impact the users. 

If you choose option A, you are risking your design to fail as your plan does not involve people who will be using the design. Option B could stir your inspiration but it might not be unique. Whereas, option C will help you get started with concept design on the right foot first. 

While there is no definite way to begin, and every project calls for a different approach, knowing your target audience can certainly help you. 

Now that we know a little more about what to do before designing a concept, let us dive deeper into concept designing using various approaches. 

Path to Designing a Concept and Bringing it to Reality

The concept you decide (refer to the above section) will affect every aspect of your final design: its usability, its aesthetics (colors, typography, imagery, etc).

That makes it important to consider your concept not as a mere mock design, but the essence of your final design that will exist for upcoming years. Given its importance, designing a concept shall be done effectively (going back to it at a later stage will cost a lot of time, effort, and resources).

Related: Responsible and Relentless: An Approach to Creating Designs as a New Graphic Designer

Understanding The Context

As a designer, when you get a new design project, you get as many details about the project as possible; that is hardly enough information for coming up with a unique concept for the design. 

Even though you design for your clients, it is important to remember that your designs will serve your clients as well as the end-users. Thus, as discussed in the previous section, it is important to keep your end users’ preferences in mind. 

Besides that, dig deeper into information about the brand as well. Explore the elements of your client’s brand identity, know about their competitors to avoid any sort of unintended duplication in your work, get a clear understanding of the product associated with your design, and have an overall comprehension of the context associated with the design. 

Making a Moodboard

Conceptual Design: Everything You Need to Know to Get Started

This might not be a very usual way of doing things, but I can tell from my experience that it is highly constructive. 

A mood board is a collection of elements that point you towards designs that your clients and users prefer. Usually, it consists of visual elements that evoke a certain tone of the design, but you can also add words and any other element that helps you describe your choice of concept. 

Again, not a typical way to proceed, but you could also make multiple mood boards if you are between concepts. Once you have a more wholesome idea of each concept (by looking at these mood boards), it will be relatively easy to decide on a concept. 

Developing The Concept

Let me preface this by saying that ‘developing a concept’ and ‘making a mood board do not necessarily have to be performed chronologically. 

Concepts are ideas waiting to be discovered and designed. These ideas can click – as they say –  in any manner: you could get an idea through a quote or you could have a visual sense of your concept. Designers divide these two ways to make things easier:

Verbal Elements-to-Idea

These could be adjectives your clients use to describe their brand or their website or message you want to convey through your design. 

While using verbal elements to design a concept is a bit more rigid than visual, it is not as specific in terms of design. Rather, it strengthens your ideation in terms of communicating to the users through your design. 

Visual Elements-to-Idea

This is where you come up with a specific color scheme, imagery, icon, or typography style. While doing this, you could also begin sketching out the very first drafts of your concept. 

If you have to share your concept with your client before finalizing it, you could also make thumbnails (thumbnails are small sketches of your concepts; you could fit multiple concepts in one document). 

Read more to know how to present your design concepts to clients effectively: The 5 Rules for Presenting Design Concepts to Clients

Consider these two ways as brainstorming. Know that there is always room for iterations, as and when required. 

The Bottom Line

When designing for your client, make sure your design concept speaks their language but also shows your creativity and individuality at the same time. When you combine these two and serve a design that is useful for your user, that is when you know your design concept worked in all the right ways.

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