What is a Concept Design?

Compare a cupcake with a Spanish frittata. Quite different right? Well one main ingredient with a few extra things can create wildly different outcomes – and in the same sense, giving a designer just a few requirements can result in wildly different outcomes too. Concept designs help set the stage for the whole product development process.





In the context of industrial design, they are a communication medium of an idea. A suggestion as to what something could look and function like. A way in which to interpret the client’s desires into a visual proposal. This is crucial in the development process, because merely discussing the idea can be construed in as many ways as there are egg dishes.


Whether it’s purpose is to present an entire product concept like an electric helicopter or just one feature like the hinge of a fridge door – concept designs can be used. They also lend thought to the materials and texture, the usability of the product, the environmental context or other factors which the client deems important.


Ultimately, they are simply the presentation of an idea – but to arrive at such an idea or design can require a lot of work and expertise.



Why are they important?

Concept designs provide a vision not only for the management team or client – but for all stakeholders involved in the project. Great concepts can be pitched to VC’s to raise money, they can be used to get early feedback from customers or used to negotiate with manufacturers on feasibility of production. In real terms, a concept design provides a reference - it sets the foundation for all further development. If this value can be recognised, then one appreciates the significance of concept designs.


Personally, I think the most valuable aspect to the concept design phase is the ability to explore different approaches and to ideate on innovative solutions. By only pursuing predictable, elementary design logic, you are missing a great opportunity to add value and differentiate from competitors. Your product should aim for revolutionary, not evolutionary change!



How are they created?

Predominantly, concept designs are made in sketch format; either with old-school pen and paper or also by digital means. They can also be a mix of both, by scanning paper sketches and modifying with tools such as Photoshop or Pro Create. The concepts are then usually assembled on some kind of presentation page. The medium in which one chooses is not that important, providing they are effective at communicating the intended message.



Is a 3D mockup the same?

In most scenarios, I prefer to work with conceptual sketches. The reason? Well, when you have a loosely defined design, it leaves room for imagination. Not everything is known about the functionality or the appearance of the product at this point, so it’s important to provide a rough interpretation. A 3D model on the other hand, is a defined object. It’s rigid. If you are presenting a ‘concept’ to a client, it can be assumed this IS the design. And in order to create this ‘quick mockup’ you can spend far too much time trying to perfect something which is merely an initial idea.


Now in some circumstances, it makes sense to use 3D mockups. The less artistic and consumer-focused the product is, the more this becomes relevant. If I were designing a racking system for pallets in a factory, then a 3D mockup seems viable. Another instance might be with longstanding clients. When you have been iterating on a project for a while and you have a good understanding of their needs – you might have the confidence to knock up a quick CAD model to present your ideas for the next development phase.



It’s just a sketch, why so pricy?

You made it this far through the article, so I assume you were not too irritated by the egg analogy – so here is another one: Looking at the humble egg your kitchen, it’s fair to shrug-off the complexity of how this unassuming poultry produce came to be. It’s just an egg right? It costs less than a chocolate bar and they are widely available (without getting into the ethical dilemmas this industry has).


While your designer might have spent a whole month putting together ‘just a few sketches’ – this is the culmination of tons of work! It is a refined assembly of the best creative output of her/his mind. To create a series of 3 solid product concepts for a client, can easily exceed 40 hours of work. Countless prior sketches and ideas can go into the process of concept design, let alone the research beforehand too.

It is difficult to quantify or put a price on creativity, but it’s a skill that is much harder to come by than more concrete skills and it shouldn’t be underestimated.



Summary

While a stylised set of sketches may feel a bit gimmicky, there are many situations where they become a powerful asset in product development. Often times, it can feel unnecessary to explore new approaches and different designs when ‘the client already knows what they want’, but this can be a wasted opportunity to really add value to the product. In addition, having a clearly defined concept at the outset can help to avoid huge headaches and wasted expenses on misguided development work.