Eric Karjaluoto

The Hardest Part of Design

For the past week, I’ve accomplished little. Part of that is laziness. The sun is out in full force—and I’m enjoying it. Between morning bike rides, and afternoons in the garden, I’m pretty content to just mosey along. (Life moves fast; it’s nice to take a moment to breathe, and listen to the birds chirp.)

I’m scratching my head

There’s another part to this, though, and it’s a bigger problem I’m wrestling with. It started with building a better onboarding process for Officehours. I wrote the text, planned the sequence, and comped the pages. This sequence involves 6 panels, which feel drab. They need visuals to bring them together and serve as an appropriate welcome, for new members.

I could treat these panels in many different ways. I could vary background colors, or use gradients. Perhaps large images at the top would help move the visitor through the process. These could involve patterns, abstract shapes, or more pictorial illustrations. In the latter case, the question becomes: Of what? Office paraphernalia (staplers, folders, donuts) brought to life? Maybe wayfinding signage moving the visitor through the process? Or, perhaps some kind of evolution (e.g. a plant growing) as the process gets completed?

This is not an uncommon problem. I suspect most designers struggle with it when working on a larger project. That said, few write about this challenge. Why don’t they? Probably because it’s a nebulous part of the process with few simple solutions. Unlike some other design tasks, there aren’t many best practices for conceptual thinking. So, we’re left with vague blockbusting tips, but these are devices, not solutions.

So, most pick away at conceptual problems, until they take shape. Some give up. Others pick the wrong approach (which later haunts them). Yet others put in the time, and arrive at a solution that seems implicit, in hindsight.

What a concept is

Before I go further, let’s step back and better define what a concept is. Many use the terms “idea” and “concept” interchangeably, but I think there’s a difference. Although ideas can be bigger notions, they can also be small. Like, “I have an idea—let’s grab a beer!” (Which, given the weather, is a pretty good idea.) Hold on… back in a second.

OK—back. Mmm… Beer… Sudsy…

A concept tends to be more general in nature—and more vague. This looseness allows concepts to work better as umbrellas. A good concept gives the designer room to move around and play with many connected ideas. Here’s an example of the work our studio did for BCFM. Given the changing nature of media, we came up with a concept for them of new forms. We then created a batch of amorphous blobs that we applied to their materials. The beauty in this, was in the concept being open enough to allow us to adapt it to whatever item we needed to design.

So, I’d say that a concept is a broad notion that can be applied across a project, system, or body of work.

A concept isn’t a gimmick or a trick. It shouldn’t limit your work. Instead, it should provide guide rails of sorts. It should lend support, but not become a cage. So, a concept like new forms isn’t that creative. In fact, on first pass it isn’t even notable. But it doesn’t have to be. The concept serves as a sort of glue. So long as it binds all the elements, the compelling part can come in the visual implementation.

We don’t talk about concepts much—especially when building things for the web. This is because we tend to see these constructs as largely functional (which is somewhat accurate). However, there’s always that problem of what to put in the image block on the homepage. If you don’t know, you haven’t yet defined your concept. And this means more obstacles are bound to come.

Those in advertising talk about concepts a lot, but they actually traffic in ideas. This is because ads live in the domain of ideas. And as powerful as ideas can be, they’re less suited to extend to other implementations. They almost never work as the glue for larger systems. That’s because they’re too specific and unsuited to adapt to varying media. (Advertising ideas often need sight, sound, and a spoken narrative to work. In some media, two of these three are inaccessible.)

Why concepts are so important

The situation I described earlier (choosing images for my onboarding panels) isn’t about which visuals look best. It’s a question of what’s suitable, and why they belong there in the first place. On one hand, they’re needed for decorative purposes. Fair enough: a functional space benefits from beautification. Nevertheless, using decoration to justify an approach is a weak response at best.

A concept connects your visuals/treatments to your intentions. So, (using the Officehours example) if I want the space to feel playful, I might animate a bunch of staplers. If I want it to feel progressive and new, I might experiment with some unfamiliar treatments. Alternately, if I want it to feel friendly, I might continue using the simplified illustrations found in our explainer video.

A lot of design misses the mark, because the designer leaps to implementation—without determining a concept. This is why we so often we see generic stock images on websites: the designer just shoved something—anything—in the hole. If he/she had worked out a concept, such decisions wouldn’t be random.

Concepts are difficult to pin down—and they take time. But, when you do get the concept right, all your decisions should be easier to make.

Concepts are slippery

Unlike taxonomy, structure, grids, and the like, the best concepts don’t follow conventions. So, ones that seem to make perfect sense often fall flat. Meanwhile, exciting ones often fail to align with an organization’s needs.

Coming up with a concept is like going to a flea market, in hopes of finding something to add vibrancy to your home. Although you know what you’d like this thing to accomplish, you don’t yet know how—or what it is. So, you’re at the mercy of chance. You might find something interesting, or you might not. Sometimes you’ll discover it in the first 10 minutes; sometimes it’ll take weeks. And, once you get it home, you might find out that it doesn’t fit at all.

This search can be circuitous, and there’s no one way that uniformly works. Some solutions come easy, and some don’t. And, unlike the item you decorate your home with, a concept often becomes a sort of organizational filter. Once in place, you’ll use it to assess all future decisions. That’s right—what you pick today is with this organization for years. No pressure, right?

This is why you need to apply scrutiny to possible concepts. Can we implement this concept across the board? Does this concept promote the values the organization believes in? Will this concept age well as time passes? You should ask these, and other, questions so you aren’t forced to retool your design approach prematurely.

False positives

I can justify the use of almost anything in a concept. As such, I need to be honest about when a concept actually works—and when I’m only making it sound like it works.

Over the past week, I played with three distinct concepts for the Officehours identity. With the first, I played with the notion of expanding horizons. This afforded an opportunity for visual exploration. It also alluded to how you can discover new ideas by using the service. Next, I toyed with the notion of purpose, which is integral to what we’re doing. I thought about tying this to geometric illustrations that showed an innate sort of clarity/direction. Unfortunately, the connection feels wobbly.

Now, I’m contemplating something along the lines of goodwill. It’s still flimsy, and I’m unsure of the visual approach. Plus, the term seems too touchy-feely to me. It does reflect the nature of what we’re attempting to do, though.

As I look at the first two approaches, I see the problems with both of them. I call these false positives. They both passed through my filters (I’ll cover these in a moment) successfully. But, once I ran visual tests, I was less sure.

The first concept takes one part of what we’re doing and puts it ahead of many other aspects of Officehours. It might have led to an interesting visual approach, but I fear it could turn off some visitors (which would make it a poor choice). The second didn’t reconcile. No matter what I did, the visuals didn’t convey the underlying concept.

Fact is, even the direction I’m currently tinkering with isn’t working, yet. And, I should be working on it, instead of writing this blog article. But, I thought I should get these thoughts down now, while they’re still fresh. (Little did I know this post would become so sprawling.)

Concept melding

The first concept excited me. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but the set of visuals I collected made me vibrate. They would have added a whole new kind of life to Officehours, and I wanted to work with these treatments. Truth be told, though, I recycled the idea. I’ve been tinkering with another project over the past month. My concept for it is essentially the same as this one.

I call this type of mishap concept melding, and I’m guilty of having done it many times. It’s when you work on two projects at the same time, and characteristics of one bleed into the other. This seems to happen inadvertently, but it happens nevertheless. And I think I know why.

As you put shape to a concept, you’re creating a visual language of sorts. Alignments, colors, spacing, hierarchy, and all these other treatments are murky at first. But, as you work through them, they become clearer. With each element you build, the visual implementation becomes more defined. As this happens, you start to learn the implicit rules of this universe you’re building. (I know this sounds lofty. Bear with me. It’s the best way I can describe this stuff.)

These rules give you something to hold on to. As such, you tend to come back to these, even when you’re working on something else. At a certain point you look up from what you’re doing, and realize you’ve mushed two different things together. This tends to be to the detriment of both.

My reason for referencing false positives and concept melding is that both have tripped me up. Now that I know they’re real, I’m better equipped to get around them.

How we shape and test concepts

I know I need to wrap this post up. Let me do that by talking a little about how we develop and test concepts at smashLAB. Although imperfect, these approaches are easy to put in place. In fact, you’re likely doing something along these lines, already.

The first is a creative brief. It’s a one page document, in which you answer the following questions as simply as you can:

– What are we designing/promoting?
– What is the role of this communication?
– Who are we trying to reach?
– What do we need to say?
– Why is this true and relevant?
– What is the desired tone?

The second is a concept worksheet. This runs a page and a half, or less, and answers the following points:

– Theme:
– Idea:
– Rationale:
– Implied notions:
– What we like about this concept:
– Tone:
– How we achieve this:

Do your best to avoid bullshitting or writing lengthy responses when you work on these. The more clearly you can respond to these points, the more suitable your concept probably is.

Once you’ve filled these worksheets in, you’ll see some gaps. Sometimes these indicate a problem/weakness in your concept. At others, they tell you that you need to run some visual tests. This is where mood boards, style boards, sketches, and rough mock-ups come in. The trick here is to not go too far. Get stuff down fast, and then compare and contrast against your brief and concept. Where are the holes? Are they surmountable? What might make it work?

This process involves a lot of push and pull. When you test concepts, you often find that they don’t work. This can be maddening, at the time. In actuality, it’s a good thing. It’s a fast way to identify shaky concepts, obstacles, and dead ends.

Listen: I’ve already gone on too far, so I should stop. I need to get back to my concept problem, which still needs thought. If you want further clarity on any of the above, perhaps pick up a copy of my book, The Design Method. Truth is, parts of it are boring as shit—but, if you need new ways to solve design problems, it might prove useful.

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