Product Design is all about creating useful things which solve real problems. Sometimes, in a moment of inspiration, the designer or inventor realizes the problem and the perfect solution simultaneously. However, these neat “eureka” moments aren’t always so common. More often, the designer realizes and defines the problem over time and must iterate for the optimal solution. This big-picture process is known as “Concept Design”.
Concept Design is typically the first part of the design process. It precedes any engineering, 3D CAD Modeling, or prototyping. That’s because, where these other steps are about detail, concept design focuses on the big picture.
Defining the problem
Before all else, a concept designer must make sure that they fully understand their problem. The designer might encounter the problem themselves or interview people who regularly deal with the problem. The designer’s goal is to create a list of “requirements”, or attributes which the solution must possess to be useful. These attributes should be generic qualities, like size, weight, and specific function.
Very often, product requirements will come into conflict with each other. For example, a physical product may have conflicting requirements for size and weight- the users may desire a large sized object and something light-weight. When requirements come into conflict, it’s up to the designer to weigh these requirements against each other, determine which is most important, and compromise for the optimal solution.
Concept Generation and Iteration
Once the problem is broken down into product requirements, the solution can start to take shape. In rare cases, the perfect solution is obvious and presents itself right away. More often, the designer must generate several potential solutions, each addressing the problem differently and suiting different requirements. These different potential solutions are known as “concepts”. To represent and communicate these concepts, a designer may use “concept art”, an elegant discipline of sketching using lines and simple shapes to efficiently illustrate physical objects.
An example of professional concept art from Emergnt’s Industrial Designer, Grace Fetzer.
When it comes to concept design, the goal is not to define every detail about the product. If asked, the concept designer may not know precisely what kind of screws hold their product together or what the exact dimension of the feature they illustrated is. That level of resolution isn’t worth the time and energy since most concepts will ultimately be discarded. Instead, the concept designer’s focus is on the big picture- how each concept generally meets their requirements as compared to the others. They might use descriptors like “big”, “small”, “strong”, “light”, and “durable” rather than get specific.
One important technical aspect which we like to consider during concept design is manufacturability. Designing things which are expensive, difficult, or impossible to make is an easy trap for product designers to fall into. That’s why we always involve both engineers and industrial designers in our concept design phases.
Ultimately, the designer must chose one concept to proceed with into detailed technical design. This is done by weighing the concepts against the requirements and choosing whichever fits them best. Sometimes, the designer sees promise in a combination of elements from two separate concepts. Often, returning to the requirements can lead to the creation of new concepts. That’s why this process is often described as “iterative”- it may take two or three cycles before the optimal solution can be identified.
If the concept design process has been executed correctly, the product owners can proceed from here with an increased confidence that they are pursuing the optimal solution for the problem at hand.
A product design expert, Jeremy cultivated his skills working in manufacturing and rapid prototyping facilities. His design experience ranges from consumer products to government contracting, and he is known for end-to-end support on every project.
M.S. in Mechanical Engineering, Georgia Institute of Technology.