Why can’t we just design something for the sake of it?  Why does our design always have to derive from a concept?

Concepts are the basic elements of thoughts.  Our thoughts are made up of concepts, which allow us to do things like categorize, memorize, infer, learn and make decisions.  But still, the nature or origin of concepts is unclear.  There are two main views that try to explain this.

Concepts as mental representations.

This view defines concepts as a mental representation (of something) with semantic properties.  This means that a concept is an abstract idea that represents the basic characteristics of something.  In this view, concepts are strongly related to a psychological term called association (as mentioned in a previous article about Human Centered Design), which refers to a connection that is established between ideas, behaviors, events, objects or feelings.  For example, if we feel safe in our home, eventually we associate the terms “home” and “safety” and make a connection between them.  When we think of safety, we think of home, and vice-versa.  This connection is an association, and this association is the mental representation of something to which we give meaning based on our own experiences.

Concepts as abilities.

In this view, concepts are not mental representations.  The explanation behind this is that if concepts were mental images of something, then, when we tried to explain a concept, we would try to do so with another concept.  In this scenario, mental images reintroduce the same problem they are supposed to be explaining because the mental representation itself is just another thing that needs explaining.  This becomes a cycle which can’t move forward. 

Both views have extremely valid points, and knowing them both helps us understand better what concepts are and for what do we use them. 

It makes a lot of sense that designers use concepts as a part of their projects because, in the design world, concepts have a practical purpose, other than to try to justify the design.  Designers use concepts to explain the project or the idea behind it.  This allows clients to know what to expect without feeling completely surprised and it helps users to understand the design better.

Another very practical purpose is protection.  Designers don’t appreciate changes in our designs.  Still, this is something we have to deal with daily.  But if we present our clients with a concept first, then they have an idea of what to expect and the requests for changes don’t come.  The concept reduces the gap between the expected and the actual result, and clients are more likely to accept the proposal without changes. 

The concept allows the designer to say to the client: “That’s not congruent with the concept…”, and avoid unwanted or unneeded changes.

The word concept has its origin in the mid 16th century and it comes from the latin word conceptum, which means “something conceived”.  Based on this definition, everything that is man made then has to have a concept.  Maybe even things found in nature since they too were conceived somehow. 

As designers, the definition of concept we use is more romantic, more artistic.  We like to come up with concepts that are truly original and creative.  We like our projects to have a profound “raison d’être” and not just be superficial creations, as many of them really are.

But there are times where a design comes to be by coincidence or accident, and it’s in these times that the idea comes before the concept, which is usually the opposite way of how designers work.  But still, the products (designs), outcome of these situations, still all manage to have a concept.  These concepts are thought out and imposed upon the designs after or during the creation process, not before.

The improvisation of a concept is something designers like to do when we don’t have one.  We simply have a fear of being deemed as superficial designers that have an understanding of beauty, but not much else. 

But there is nothing wrong with a design coming to be without concept.  It’s not superficial design.  It’s just concept-less design, and this doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t yield a good product as a result. 

This fear of a lack of concept happens because designers mistakenly sometimes think of ourselves as artists.  And the fact that people almost always place us in the same realm as artists doesn’t help.  But design is not art.  Design is a creative process by which all things that are man made come to be, from the idea and its development to its production and even commercialization. 


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The confusion is this: since everything made by man is designed, art is also designed.  So by this premise, an artist is a designer.  But a designer is not an artist.  A designer creates something with a functional purpose. An artist creates something with an emotional purpose.  Art is made for an audience.  Design is made for users.  Design has a function other than to evoke feelings. And in our confusion, we want to give meaning to everything we create, even if we know it was a coincidence or an accident.

This is not wrong by any means.  A concept is helpful not only during the creation phase but in other phases as well.  A concept can facilitate things such as naming the object, coming up with more objects to create a family or a collection or produce creative and effective marketing campaigns to promote it.

But a concept as so can only be called that way justifiably if it came before the object or the idea.  As the own word’s definition says: it’s something conceived. 

Perhaps a more accurate term to use for the non-concept would be abstraction.

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