How to think Conceptually

Ok, so Im a sophomore at Syracuse University in the ID program which is 5 years. I recently had a review of my work for the year by the professors in the department. They said that I had the skills down, but I wasnt grasping the conceptual side of things, which is what our program focuses on. Im not really sure how to go about getting better at this. Tips? Pointers? Reading material that might help? Anything would be great. Thanks!

Some images from your portfolio, or a link to a coroflot portfolio would be handy to understand where you are.

Im currently reworking it and adding a few new things after getting some feedback on another thread I started. The rework should be up this weekend.

This is going to sound bad. But I think the key to a lot of the conceptual talk is just being very good at BS-ing. Try to sell your projects when presenting them. You pretty much need to become one of the best car salesmen around (or even billy mays or the sham-wow guy).

I was given this talk during my 2nd year as well and to be honest I still have trouble grasping the whole conceptual thing. It’s the whole poetry side of design that I think the teachers were trying to get me to think about. I’m a very technical oriented person btw. It’s funny to me that I ended up getting an awesome conceptual designer role right out of grad school. I used my technical skills to really push the concepts behind my designs. I really believe that it’s hard to sell something that is all fluff unless it has a solid foundation to it.

I guess the best advice I can give you is to really think about the reasoning behind your designs. Try to tell a good story with them. Keep working hard on your technical skills but try to really understand the “why” of what you do.

Hard to make valid/relevant comments to that kind of feedback, without context, but based on the 6 slides here goes:

There are some people (designers) who are entirely conceptual, and some who are entirely form-and-skill focused. Gross stereotype: RCA grad program in ID vs. the latest grads from China. SU seems to lean more to the conceptual side.

One way to think about this, which could be evident in your slides, is by considering the entire system that the product “lives in” - or as Don Carr once told me, “the product landscape”, or in another metaphor, the 360-degrees.

Its not enough any more to make a backpack and have pockets here, an iPod sleeve there, and foamy back panels. The conceptual part of the design focuses on the relationship between backpack, wearer, and activity. The design details and features come out of that relationship.

Hard to recommend where to go next; for me, reading good journals and books is a source of inspiration NOT of form and style but of approach and concept. Metropolis magazine, though heavy on architecture, has insightful interviews with designers that provide this kind of context, which then manifests in the final building.

I’ve never designed a sneaker however. How to think conceptually about a sneaker. Ask Yo!

April in Syracuse - is it above freezing yet?

First off, your a sophomore, its OK, you are still learning. So on both a skill tip, this is the guy to beat:

I think benchmarking is a great way to see what other people are doing: a great bench mark is this: pretty much the complete package

The first thing I would recommend is to put people first. If I see another 80’s mash up basketball I’m going to … … … Think about the person. Reconstruct the world they live in, who they aspire to be, what competes for their attention. Then start thinking about the brand you want to design for, and how that brand might service the needs of that person. So, just to make it a simple example, if we were talking about a young professional male, who likes sports, and was concerned about his personal fitness, and lets say the brand is Nike. You might start to think about his needs in the gym, in his daily road runs, and weekend trail runs and what Nike makes best, footwear. From there you could start to construct the performance and aesthetic parameters for several pieces of footwear that encompass a collection of products that work together. The keep going, does that roll into a gym bag, a travel bag, an trunk organizer (don’t take that, I might do that now that I thought of it), how a collaboration with a tech giant like Apple with Nike plus might play into this collection, how it might integrate with apparel and so on.

It’s not just about a singular item. There are plenty of people that can design another flashlight, or another fork. What can you bring to the table to move the product category further and help to improve life?

Now sketch that really well.

I’ve briefly skimmed the replies, so I hope I’m repeating too much.

I have found success by CONSTANTLY searching for what’s out there and observing my surroundings.

I am always looking through blogs, going shopping (this could be for women’s handbags, mens jackets, furniture stores), attending museums. I believe the more you see, the better you can curate/remix/or improve on. I bold connection in a furniture piece could become the backbone of a watch concept. I look for things that I love as well as things that I hate. I try to have an opinion about everything I interact with and push myself to label things as “good” or “bad” without an in between. This keeps me from being wishy-washy in my own work. I have a “rolodex” in my head so as I sketch, I can think “that was working (visually and functionally),” or “that was a pain but it could have been good if…” Zooming out to bigger picture, I think “seeing” as much as possible helps you understand the why behind things or what the concept was. By understanding the concept behind something successful, I think you will be able to understand if your own concepts stack up.

Observing takes my first point to a more human level. As the first point stresses seeing things, the second is about seeing people and watching how they are interacting with things. Push yourself to watch what people are using and how, what they are wearing and what it says about them, and what they are doing. If you can begin to draw interesting perspectives from observing people, you will be able to create concepts that are more than just cool looking. They will talk to people at a different level.


it helps to imagine people you know and think about how they would react to a product. of course you need to keep in mind that their tastes are not necessarily representative of the group you think they represent.

evaluate choices that you make during your design process on

A) how much will this cost (try to think of similar cheaper options, lowering the cost will allow you to splurge elsewhere, make the product cheaper and more accessible or generate more profit)

B) how will the customer react to this (apple are masters of this, most of their biggest products are nothing special on paper, but are put together in a way that captivates the user)

C) how will the client/boss/board of directors/investors react to this? (Unless you are investing all your savings and making a product on your own, you will need somebody’s help and approval to get to market)

also taking a look at your portfolio

Indoor planter:

what is the material? if this whole thing was injection molded plastic, it would be a hideous design. On the other hand with creatively chosen materials it could be a great design. What is it trying to accomplish? Is there a particular demographic that does not buy automated planters now but might buy them with a cuter design? Will the “plant” shape help sell more planters to the people who buy automated planters now? Will the biodegradable plastic biodegrade in the presence of UV, water, plants, and bacteria? Will the tree trunk block the sprinkler spray? Where does the water come from? Do you have to fill it every day? Is there a bulky reservoir that has to be put somewhere? Does it have to be hooked up to the plumbing, costing the user hundreds in plumbers bills?

Backpack: If it is a backpack intended for every day use, why the flashlights? I’ve never once wished for flashlights on my everyday backpack. Plus, they would add a lot to the cost. If it is a camping backpack that might have use for some flashlights, why is it so tiny?

I may be wrong, but I believe your tutors are trying to tell you to be more adventurous, more Blue sky, maybe come up with ideas for future objects.

To free up your thinking, try to take something familiar and redesign it in style/materials/use for five years time, then ten years, fifteen and twenty. It sounds like a really hard thing to do and you wil have to do research into future predictions/materials etc, but it may put a different perspective on your work and force you to consider things which you can then incorporate into your current designs. For me, conceptual is experimental, maybe it’s not quite possible to make just yet, or due to materials - too expensive, but it is about pushing things forwards, not repackaging a familiar product.

A long time ago as one of my final year projects, I wanted to design a computer. I’d read an article about a prediction that in the future we’d all be working from home as due to new technologies (email and internet video - it was that long ago!) people would no longer go into work. This raised issues regarding work/life balance, whilst people thought they’d have more time with family etc they found the reverse was true as they never left the home office, the computer was always on, calling them back to just do a little more, they found it harder to separate work and home life. It wasn’t my best project, but in the end I designed the computer to look like familiar objects - the monitor was a picture frame, the hard drive looked like a plant pot. The idea being that when not in use, the true function was disguised. Had I not researched and found a future prediction I would have probably done a simple restyle, which would have had far less substance.

You can apply this to many things, but it should always be research driven. For example 5 years ago I heard about scientists experimenting with ultrasonic vibration to clean clothes. This would mean washing machines would no longer need a drum/large motor. Maybe they could even be table top devices? How can this be related to a more user centric experience? How can this new technology/idea be used to make the way we load, empty, clean the device better than what we have now. Just that one snippet of information throws up loads of questions and possibilities!?!

If you design for now, (in terms of styling, use etc) so you make your work look like the stuff currently on the market, then by the time it’s been approved, manufactured, safety tested, marketed and sold, the design you do today will be two years old. No one will want it, because the style/material will have moved on. Apple verses everyone else is a good example. Try to jump things on a bit. Maybe your tutors are looking for this conceptual type of thing?

Thanks guys. I really appreciate the advice. Im just trying to grasp whatever is lacking so that I can progress as far as possible during my time in school. You all bring up valid points that I didnt consider. Im gonna work on it. :smiley:

Figured since I already had a thread here…I reworked the original portfolio pages I had posted, then took my last few project pages in a completely different direction. Would love some feedback. That completes the majority of my work from my first year in the I.D. program. I have sketches and stuff that ill throw together eventually. I left the first set so that you guys could compare.