On finding the essence of your thinking.

What makes a chair a chair? This philosophy 101 question exemplifies how we are surrounded by concepts that are hard to define but easy to understand.

"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete."
➪ Buckminster Fuller

Conceptual models are abstractions of things in the real world—whether physical, abstract, or social

A map is a subjective representation of geographical space. An org chart is a map of the hierarchical relationships between people. A party is a social gathering of invited guests to celebrate something. A calendar is a visual representation of time. We are surrounded by ideas that we don’t often think about because they’ve been ingrained in our brains since childhood, and we are constantly relying on existing models to navigate the world around us and operate our daily lives.

Concepting serves as the bridge between imagination and execution

Professionals across various industries have historically relied on concepts to communicate and sell ideas. Concepts are very common in advertising, branding, marketing, graphic design, fashion, architecture, and many more creative fields. It all comes down to the human brain's innate attraction to narrative and metaphor and how we can leverage this to push ideas forward.

amazon logo with an arrow linking the a to the z and fedex logo with the arrow crated in the negative space between the E and the X

A strong concept starts with branding. Amazon promises to deliver any product from A to Z; FedEx's arrow conveys speed.

photo showing the costco hotdog for $1.50

A concept is also about business strategy. Costco's $1.50 hotdog shows its commitment to low prices.

redbull can and two pilots sponsored by redbull

Redbull walks the talk. Their positioning of "pushing the limits" translates into their extreme sports investment.

fashion show look and a product image from uniqlo showing similar  ideas

Fashion designer Clare Waight Keller explored airy and playful concepts that informed her Uniqlo collection.

"Every great design begins with an even better story."
Lorinda Mamo

A concept is strategy, visualized

Great designers are able to distill the essence of a strategy and transmute it (through a mockup, a storyboard, a sentence, a quote, a metaphor, or a story) into a form that stakeholders can grasp and embrace.

Conceptual models help users (and stakeholders) understand how a system works

In the context of digital product design, a concept can help convey the principles and functionalities of the system it represents. If I tell you I’m designing “a calendar for your emotions,” you immediately start to imagine what that app looks like, the types of actions you can take there, and how things are organized. All concepts start from a previous, familiar idea. Designers are often stitching together established mental models—the building blocks of our everyday understanding—to create something new.

Concepts are a tool for conversation

Although designers are often the ones creating visual representations of a concept, everyone on the team could (and should) participate in defining the conceptual model that the product will follow. This shared understanding is pivotal, as it influences every facet of the product—from feature set to visual language, from tone of voice to technical implementation. As a designer, the more you involve your stakeholders in that process, the higher the chances your product vision will come to life in a cohesive way.

Concepts should be simple to grasp

You know you've nailed a concept when you hear someone else articulating it in their own words, effortlessly and with clarity. The purpose is self-evident, leaving no room for ambiguity. Simplicity is not synonymous with ease, though; distilling complex ideas into their purest form is a skill that requires both mastery and restraint.

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Concepts build understanding

The visual language and visual affordances in a product play a pivotal role in shaping users' mental models of how they’ll interact with that product. A well-crafted interface leverages visual cues to guide users, making interactions feel natural and predictable.

screenshot of skeuomorphic apple calendar next to the current minimal ui calendar

UI initially leveraged the familiarity of physical objects. As people
have grown more comfortable with digital products, visual concepts evolved to be less skeuomorphic.

screenshot of a gantt chart
screenshot of a calendar with a heatmap showing days with more contributions done

Over time, calendar concepts also evolved to solve different needs.

Concepting is not just executing requirements

A checklist of requirements is not a design; it's a recipe for mediocrity. Design is about critical thinking. It’s about the things you decide NOT to include. Great designers know how to strategically question requirements, say no, and prioritize what really matters. The first step is to have a clear understanding of the problem you’re trying to solve. 

A flashy UI idea is not a concept

Designers often use the word “concept” when referring to fun, dribbble-esque, motion-heavy UI ideas. But the UI is merely the surface layer. A true concept delves deeper, providing a clear strategic solution to a clear problem. A flashy UI creates the impression of a fully fleshed-out concept where there might not be one.

“There’s nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”
Ansel Adam

A layout variation is not a concept

A high volume of UI options can create the illusion of choice but can actually hinder decision-making if they lack strategic differentiation. Strong concepts are distinct in their approach, addressing the problem from significantly diverse angles. When ideating on possible paths forward, designers should consider different framings for the problem, not different executions for the same solution. 

lotus temple photo

The Lotus Temple in New Delhi has a simple yet bold architectural concept.

Concepts should be bold

They should help others imagine a future no one thought was possible. They should spark imagination and defy convention. They should be radically simple, so they can force teams to make difficult decisions. If a product is trying to be everything for everyone, it risks becoming diluted and forgettable.

While concepting, focus on… concepts

There’s a time and place for different discussions. Oftentimes, in the absence of strategic arguments, peers might raise tactical commentary when reviewing conceptual work (the classic “have you thought about the empty state” comment). But while it's tempting to address every potential scenario immediately, tackling edge cases prematurely can derail the process and hinder the development of a strong conceptual foundation. Great designers know that they will be able to design for specific scenarios once the concept is solidified.

A concept preserves a product’s integrity

Products that start with a conceptual model have higher chances of remaining coherent as they evolve and as new features are added. Concepts act as a touchstone, reminding the team of the product's fundamental purpose and guiding decisions about future development. If you compromise on the concept, you kill the product.

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