Concept & Strategy
The second thing I learned about in school was concepting and strategy. They were honestly a little difficult to wrap my head around, so I wanted to dedicate a whole session of Saturday Skills to it since it’s a crucial part of being a designer and a creative in general. Don’t worry if it doesn’t all make sense at first! As you get into it and practice, it will become foundational for everything you design. Let’s jump in!
What is a concept?
A concept is a general idea used to form a plan. So how does that relate to design? Your concept is how you plan on solving the problem, and it will dictate the choices you make such as color, layout, etc. It will also help shape your strategy.
How to form a concept?
First, we have to identify the problem. Does your client want to refresh their logo to appeal to millenials? Do you need to design a website that shows that a company is eco-friendly? Once you’ve figured that out, it’s time to research. Here are just a few questions to ask as you start your research:
- Who are their competitors?
- What is their current target market?
- What is their desired target market?
- What is their goal for the piece you’re designing?
- What is unique to your client?
- What do they have in common with others in their market?
- What parts of the market haven’t been tapped into yet?
As you research you’ll start to come up with ideas. Let the ideas flow, jot them down, and then give yourself a break from it. Walk away and go about life without thinking about it too much so you don’t get frustrated and feel burnt out. The worst thing you can do is sit on something for hours and days on end, exhausting all your brain power on it all at once. When you leave and come back to it, you’ll have a new perspective and a new set of ideas.
One of the best things to do during this process is to make mood boards. I can’t even count the number of mood boards I’ve made! A mood board is just a compilation of similar styles and inspiration to get your mind going. Think Pinterest board but specific to one idea. You can even make a separate Pinterest board for each idea if you want, but I prefer to collect all my photos and inspiration onto a page in Illustrator. If you have more than one idea for a project, make a separate mood board for each idea. It can include things like color palette options, typography styles, layouts, logo inspiration, etc. I would also include words or phrases that encompass each idea. The possibilities are literally endless!
When it comes to the client, sometimes it’s a good idea to show them mood boards but sometimes it’s not. They might not be able to see the idea the way you do, so sometimes mood boards can throw people off and turn them off to a great idea. Sometimes the client will ask for a mood board or something of the sort, so you can curate a specific one made for the client. Maybe it doesn’t include every single thing on your personal mood boards, but it’s enough to give the client an idea of what you’re thinking before you start actually designing. It is helpful with clients that have no idea what they want or what direction to go in!
Now for the fun part, sketching ideas. Now that you have a few clear directions from your mood boards, it’s time to sketch a lot of ideas. And when I say a lot, I mean A LOT. When I design logos, I sketch a ton of ideas before I get in the computer, and even then I do a lot more before sending a few options to the client. Same goes for layouts, websites, etc. There’s so much that the client never sees!
One thing we did in school was take a big sketch book and make a grid of 2x2 squares. In each square we’d draw something different. Sometimes the only difference was one little thing, but it forced you to try every option possible since the assignment would be to fill at least 100 of those squares. I don’t necessarily go that extreme every time I design something, but it’s a good place to start. You’ve got to learn to get out all the generic, predictable, not-so-great ideas right off the bat.
Here’s an example: In one of my classes, we were each given a target market and a product to sell and we had to come up with a name, logo, and some branding for it. The market I was given was rednecks and the product was food. After making mood boards and going through a lot of ideas I can up with my concept. Based on my target market, it made most sense that they would want to buy their food from a local, and that they didn’t care about things being fancy. They would trust a company that was relatable and laid back. The company I came up with was a father/son hunting duo that sold freshly killed meat out of the back of their pick-up truck. The name was Curbside Cuts. Their business cards were their name and number hand written with a sharpie on a piece of duct tape, and they labeled the meat they sold with bright orange hunting tags.
Which brings me to the next topic:
Your strategy is how you will execute your concept. It fills the gap between design and business. In the project I mentioned above, part of my strategy was using duct tape for the business cards. Since the company was local, it made sense to use tape so that he could stick his business card up around town to reach more potential customers.
Here’s another example that includes both concept and strategy: We made up a lot of fake companies in college, so here’s another one of those. My target market was dads aged 40 and up and I had to come up with a line of seven products for them that all went together in some way. I came up with multiple concepts and mood boards - a rock and roll from the 60s to tap into the dads’ youth and portray dads as rockstars, a 007 vibe classy vibe to portray dads as super cool, a 60’s/70’s car vibe to take dads back to their first car, and a few others I can’t remember. The one I ended up going with was the 60’s/70’s cars and my concept was comparing dads to old cars - they’re both a little older but with a bit of tlc they still run great. My strategy was to sell products that helped dads relax and unwind after a long day, and all the packaging was designed after old cars and body shops. The company was called Dad Bod Shop. The products included things like slippers, a neck pillow, and a bottle opener.
So as you can see, concept and strategy go hand in hand. If you don’t have a good concept, your strategy won’t really get anyone’s attention. If you have a great concept but no strategy, the same thing will happen. Understanding and applying both is crucial to having an effective design.
Want to practice? I’m going to make three lists below. Randomly pick one from each list and see if you can come up with a company idea that ties them together. Do some research, make some mood boards, make a list of name ideas, sketch some logos.
- Moms ages 25-40
- Kids ages 3-7
- Grandparents ages 65-85
- Men ages 18-25
- Snack crackers
- Some kind of beverage
- A blender
- Inspired by Paris
- Red, white, and blue
- Includes an animal in some way
Pick one of each and get going! You don’t have to do a full fledged company either, you could just come up with a concept, or a concept and a few mood boards, whatever gets your brain working in the right direction. I’d love to hear what you come up with, so comment down below with your new company ideas! You never know, this could actually lead to some great business ventures.
There isn’t really a right or wrong way to getting started, so find out what process works for you. Make lists, word maps, or just word vomit on a page (sorry I hate that phrase). The creative process looks different for everyone. You can look to others for inspiration, but don’t think that you have to do things their way!
This may seem like a lot, but trust me, once you get going it’ll start to make sense! I want to do a Q&A soon, so if you have any specific questions about any of this, or about anything design related, leave them in the comments below or send me an email. The whole goal of this blog is to help you build a foundation as a designer and grow in skill and craft, so any and all questions are welcome!