What is conceptual design?

Conceptual design is a vital part of the design process at an early stage to assist in both problem-solving and development.

But what is conceptual design and what makes it different from other phases and aspects of the design process?


In the beginning

Design solves problems and defines solutions. To do this, it must first generate a concept.

This is a fundamental, early idea stage of the design process.

The concept is design’s big bang. Without it, there is no firm foundation or even reason for the process to proceed.

It represents the birth of an idea.

As a process, design is about refinement. You begin with the big idea, and you narrow it down into something that works as an encapsulation of all the thinking that the concept sparks.

Conceptual design must be there at the start, in order to get to the finish.


Why ‘What If’ is important

What if… is where ideas come from.

It provides the reason and motivation for product design and for designing solutions.

It helps shape the underlying philosophy for undertaking a design project.

In product design, what if drives constant improvement and product development.

Conceptual design is based on what if.


Is conceptual design concrete?

Because it is an early stage of the design process, people sometimes assume conceptual design is going to be vague and undefined.

But this is not true. What conceptual design does is come up with the description of the proposed product, by transforming abstract ideas into concrete proposals.

In this, it is very much a tangible aspect of the design process.

It uses illustrations and models to determine what the eventual detailed design part of the project will be.

Conceptual design draws on an integrated set of strategies, experiences, interactions and processes to create a clear vision.

Without it, there can be no clarity about desired outcomes.


How conceptual design works in practice

If you watch an artist drawing something from life, they begin by getting a feel for the spatial relationships in front of them, and for the abstract shapes of the thing they are representing on paper.

At this stage, it is not about the technical detail, but about the basic lines that will eventually define the forms they see.

Similarly, at the conceptual design stage, the designer is more concerned with exploring ideas using different methods, than with presenting detailed dimensions.

Conceptual 3D methods include drawings, models and 3D renderings.

There may be a lot of ideas put down in one form or another, combining spontaneity with inspiration, expressiveness with analysis.

This is a channel, through which ideas travel, where they are sifted and sorted, in preparation for the next stage of the design process.


The relationship with detailed design

Detailed design is the refinement of design concepts. This builds on the foundations laid by conceptual design.

Like the conceptual design process, it can involve modelling and visualisations, but these will include more detail, including clear dimensions and measurements.

It will look at the suitable, practical materials needed to bring the concepts to life, and the projected costs involved.

The demand to shorten product development life cycles while improving performance and increasing complexity puts a lot of focus and pressure on the detailed design process.

However, without the earlier, critical input of the conceptual design stage, the detailed design process would lack the basic purpose to drive it forwards.

Conceptual design can also uncover potential flaws or weaknesses earlier in the design process, saving time and resources later on.


Building a structurally sound design strategy

If you were to build a structure without the proper foundations in place, it would be inherently unstable.

It might look outwardly pleasing to the eye, but this would just be a façade, concealing structural weaknesses.

All design needs to be structurally sound, which is why conceptual design is essential to good and successful product development.

It lays the foundations for further development and progress and provides the necessary clarity for purposeful design.