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Developing a Design Concept

Benefits & Importance

A concept is a compass that will steer you in the direction which will ultimately point you to your goal. It is an essential tool for students, designers, architects and everyone who works on a project that requires some level of creativity. 

Aside from the many time saving qualities concepts have, they allow you to become a more creative thinker. There was a time when I thought concepts were for fresh students. People who had no idea where to start and were looking for an excuse to submit jargon. I realized, in the absence of it, my ideas lacked unity and ingenuity. 

If you’re responsible for a project and are not equipped with the proper tools, you will almost always face unnecessary and time consuming encumbrances. I have seen countless students who come to me and say: “I am lost, and I don’t know where to start”. Where do you start? Pick up a pencil and paper and start by developing a concept. In this blog, I will show you (in short steps) how to create your own concept and ultimately design something that is unique and distinctive.

What is a concept?

Not all projects need to produce a killer concept. Some projects require simplicity and adherence to rules. Sometimes the concept is given, like when a client wants something specific. A concept helps lead the way to many decisions you will make in your design.

concept (n) – a general idea used to formulate a plan. It’s how you plan on solving the design problem in front of you. It’s the underlying logic, thinking, and reasoning for how you’ll design a website.

It is important to understand what a concept is and what it is not. To help understand this better, let’s start by underlying what a concept is:


1- It’s not just visual.

Concepts should apply to the core aspect of your project. For example when designing a marketing ad, the core is the ad itself. Alternatively, when designing a house, the core becomes the house. Not just its facade, but the house as a whole. This is where people go wrong. Sometimes we tend to think of concepts in terms of facade. Concepts go deeper than that and often help solve problems or create things that make us happy, remember:

“Design isn’t just the facade; it’s the personality beneath”

So if a concept isn’t just visual, what else can it be? Yes, verbal! The verbal parts of your concept might be words you use to describe a site. This can be considered as the underlining message your concept is trying to deliver. On the other hand, the visual parts of your concept might be a specific image or color scheme. As architects, we rely on the visual aspects of a concept sometimes more than the verbal. We create boards and color schemes to present to our clients. It is important not to forget the message we are trying to carry. These are more powerful and are what people often relate to more on a personal level.

As architects, we rely on the visual aspects of a concept sometimes more than the verbal. We create boards and color schemes to present to our clients. It is important not to forget the message we are trying to carry.

2- A concept should solve a problem.

Whether you are designing a house for a client or creating a marketing campaign, your ideas begin with a potential problem which you need to solve. Sometimes the problem is not apparent and you must find it. Sometimes it does not play an important role in your project, and sometimes the client presents you with it.

As an architect, some of the problems I found within a project have been either:

  • In the site: where the site is a brownfield site, close to a historical or urban monument, or has is located in a challenging position. All of these are potential problems that can create ideas.
  • In the selected region: In the Gulf region where the weather soars to 50 degrees°C in summer, insuring buildings are properly designed is essential to creating comfort within our spaces. These are issues that should be tackled in every project and always generate a pool of design ideas.
    It is important however to insure that our approach to designing efficient buildings goes beyond using the best windows and insulating walls.
  • In the project requirements: like that time when we were asked to design a pharmaceutical lab. These buildings require special gas pipes to flow through. When we were working with the client on the project it took all our attention to try and coincide our work with the work of the engineers.
  • In your clients requests: Yes, sometimes your client wants a wow factor. Those kind of clients are hard to please, and you always have to stay up to date with modern technologies to pace up with their fantasies. It is even more challenging when you are working on a tight budget.
  • Social problems: There is always going to be a challenging social issue that you can tackle as an architect. This could be anything from affordable housing to fragmentation.


Every concept begins somewhere. This sometimes can be with a client, project brief or even a business proposal. It always helps to study those texts carefully because they most likely will give you clues that will help in your process of creating a concept.

Remember there are two aspects to creating a concept, the verbal and the visual aspects. It doesn’t matter which you decide to start with, though it is common practice to find a verbal idea first and move on to the visuals after that.

1- Analysis

In order to being conceptualizing you must first understand and analyze your project requirements. This requires for you to listen to your client, know your audience and finally create a project brief.

  • Practice Listening to Others

Your client can be one of your biggest resources. Now this may sound like an easy task, but not all of us are good listeners. I can’t stress enough on the importance of carrying a notebook to meetings. I have seen countless examples of misinterpretations caused because the designer relied on his memory.

Obtaining a client brief is also one of the first things you should tackle. It would always be best to try and meet your client at their place of work, or if not arrange for a Skype meeting or phone call.

  • Establish your Core Values:

Core values are those feelings or beliefs that a user would relate with to a product/building or service. These are sometimes challenging to unearth, and it is your aim as a designer to determine them early on in the concept process. Values either:

  • Relate to user needs.
  • Connect to emotions.
  • Reflect feelings of trust and belief.
  • Know your Obstacles:

Deadline, Budget & Competition.

  • Create a Design Brief:

The project brief is one of the most important stages in the analysis of your project requirements. It generally attempts to establish three things.

A- The Purpose of your project.
B- Your Target Audience. Know your target audience because this will help in providing you with the insight needed for a proper design analysis.
C- The Project Requirements.

At the end, a project brief will result in a list of proposed spaces/functions that you will include in your project. Sometimes you can arrange a client meeting after preparing this, or you can combine it with your concept. Whichever path you wish to partake, give your brief a considerable amount of time and thought.

How to create a project brief? 

2- Free Thought Process/Brainstorming

After you have met with your client, study your notes and create a list of keywords that will help in your thought process. The free thought process is based on something similar to mind maps in which you attempt to connect ideas together. Let’s look at an example to explain this …

Assuming you are designing a hospital for a client. You attended your first meeting and noticed your client emphasizing the ideas of technology, advancement and a centralized plan. Your job is to put these words together and try to link them with other ideas.

Technology > Modern > Simple Design > Less waste of space > Depends on advancements in Technology

See where I am going? At the end of this process, you will come up with perhaps one or two keywords that will represent the verbal aspect of your concept.

Note: Not all projects are based on the “Free-thought process”, a concept can also be a solution to an existing problem.

There will always be a ton of ways in which you can find solutions to a problem, it is important that you are aware of all the reasons you select one solution over the other. Ask questions until the answer convinces you. One method I find particularly useful is the “5 whys method“, a method often used in six-sigma but one that I feel can apply to all problems we are trying to understand better.

3- Develop Solutions

After extracting keywords, you can now work on developing your ideas further.

Keep your mind active:

This process requires more than just the ability to find a solution or an idea. It would require you to have an understanding of architecture on a deeper level. The way you can improve yourself is by constantly reading, exploring and connecting with people.

Your ability to theorize what was going through a designers mind when he was designing a particular space is what will help you understand better where you want to go in your project.

Sketch, even if you don’t know how to:

This is the stage in which your written words turn into sketches and ideas. We often conceptualize with no regard to composition or principles. The advantage of being in the initial stages of the project is that you have the freedom to do what you want without worrying about making any mistakes.

Remember, you don’t have to be an artist to start sketching. This is for you and it shouldn’t matter what your drawings look like.

4- Present your Ideas

This is one of the most important aspects of your concept development. Concept boards are important because it is ultimately the by-product of your design process. It is important that you convey your ideas in a manner that is clear and comprehensible.

If you search for concept layout boards you will find many suggestions on how to arrange your sketches, ideas and data on a board. I don’t like to constrict myself so I usually go with something that I feel is clear enough for my mother to read. So find a family member (preferably one who is not an architect) and ask them to judge your board.

In general, your client is looking for a concept board that he will be able to understand. Thus avoid any unnecessary chunks of text and data and instead aim for clear infographics that are easy to understand.

5- Improve Design

Once you have presented your ideas, take the time to iterate your ideas. There is always room for improvement especially when there are other people involved in the decision making. So always keep your mind open for other ideas. It’s very easy to become attached to a design, but you should always keep in mind that no design is perfect.



For more information on concept development: