Savina Valeria Savina likes working with complex systems as a product designer. She pays all her attention toward one product and its competitors to develop her product faster.

Conceptual design: Definition, step-by-step breakdown

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What Is Conceptual Design

Delving into the realms of product design reveals a meticulous journey comprising distinct stages, each playing a crucial role in transforming an initial spark into a tangible masterpiece. At the heart of this creative process lies the pivotal phase of “conceptual design.”

In this article, we embark on a comprehensive exploration of what conceptual design entails, how it shapes the foundation of successful projects, and its profound impact on user experience and product development. Join me as I illuminate the steps that give rise to innovative and captivating designs.

What is conceptual design?

Conceptual design creates a framework for an idea before actualizing it as a design. The core duty of a conceptual designer is to creatively manifest a client’s ideas. Concept design constitutes the foundational phase of the creative product design process, encompassing initial stages where designers lay the groundwork for the entire project (production-ready design).

An idea serves as inspiration, while the design process functions as a tool. Transforming a basic idea into a tangible product is a complex endeavor. Although it’s tempting to envision a scenario where a mere idea magically results in a complete design, this approach often spawns more questions than answers. Bugs and inconsistencies can abound due to missing steps that underpin the product itself. These steps include:

  • Understanding the product, its ideas, and goals
  • Identifying advantages and weaknesses to competitors through market research
  • Defining the target user (user persona)
  • Outlining tasks the product should accomplish and its responses to user actions (acceptance criteria)
  • Considering monetization strategies
  • Determining the number of features for the MVP and subsequent launches within a reasonable timeframe
  • Crafting information architecture and user flows for various scenarios

Conceptualization comes into play as we approach the creation of the first wireframes. Here, we make decisions regarding whether to build upon existing frameworks or start from scratch. Each of these stages holds significance, instilling confidence in the designer that all aspects have been accounted for.

Can we omit the concept design phase and directly create the final product? No, it’s not possible to bypass one for the other. The conceptual design phase is pivotal because it’s during this stage that truly original, creative ideas emerge. Essentially, a concept serves as a blueprint, which is evaluated by the team responsible for executing product design, leading to the realization of a final product.

Design Process
Product design process

The importance of process and documentation for conceptual design

Throughout various design stages, challenges and obstacles surface. Armed with a well-laid plan, you’re better equipped to face these obstacles head-on. Time often elapses before initial design drafts, and clients may grow impatient, believing they’re paying for idle time. It’s essential to articulate the need for preparatory work as the foundation for a solid structure.

Based on the information they gather, the designer constructs an information architecture. Following the path of “product idea > user persona needs > solutions > successful implementation > goal achievement,” the designer incorporates all scenarios and acceptance criteria. With a foundational understanding of basic product functions, the transition to initial wireframes is viable.

And now we come to the second stage, with its pitfalls and difficulties.

The first sketches are minimalistic — what do we do?

Various types of design sketches exist, but during the creation of initial sketches, the emphasis isn’t on UI design but rather user experience. While you can refine the visual aspect indefinitely, releasing a product with poor UX guarantees failure.

In today’s world, users possess limited patience. Particularly for new products vying for a share of the market, clarity is vital. As users grow ever more discerning, the product should meet needs swiftly, effortlessly. While technologies like AI and personal assistants aid this, they don’t negate the importance of UX design.

This is where the role of a UX designer becomes paramount. They orchestrate the logic, define inputs and outputs for various scenarios, and establish hints for users along with system responses to diverse actions. Maximizing user engagement with minimal actions and swift, effective issue resolution is the goal.

This paves the way for discussing conceptual design in greater detail and sequence.

The stages of conceptual design

Visualize this design process as a tool utilized by the team to articulate key design ideas and their visual expression. Conceptual design aids in determining the desired UI design sought by the client; envisioning the final product’s appearance; and gathering feedback from the target audience.

Conceptual design
Conceptual design steps

For UX designers, conceptual design offers a gateway to delve into abstract concepts, proficiently communicate ideas, and evoke emotions in the audience. A production-ready design is one that users will interact with.

Conceptual design embodies an exploration phase wherein designers generate and cultivate abstract ideas that shape the project’s trajectory. Across various design disciplines, it lays the foundation for a product’s aesthetics, functionality, and user experience. By presenting a comprehensive and succinct concept design definition, it enhances SEO and draws the appropriate audience to the work.

Achieving success in conceptual design hinges on comprehending the design’s intent and vision. It entails defining core principles, aesthetics, and goals that steer the entire design process.

Let’s get into these principles so you can better understand the conceptual design process.

1. Identifying the problem or service required

In the realm of conceptual design, the initial steps lay the groundwork for innovative and purpose-driven solutions. This phase revolves around identifying the specific challenges that need addressing and defining the project’s purpose and objectives. A series of fundamental questions guide this process:

  • Why is this project needed? (The design process begins by uncovering the motivations and driving forces behind the project)
  • What is the purpose of the project? (Each project has a distinct purpose, whether it’s enhancing user experiences, solving a particular problem, or introducing new functionalities)
  • What problem is it intended to solve? (By pinpointing the challenges and obstacles to overcome, designers can formulate innovative solutions that directly address the issues at hand)

It is very important to define the problem your design is supposed to solve or the specific goals it wants to achieve.

A concrete example

Imagine a scenario where a client is a company specializing in creating laser-equipped guns for paintball events. When a player hits a target, laser beams create hit marks and tally points on a specialized “target” vest.

However, the company faces a dilemma. While paintball appeals to various age groups, it is often associated with images of violence, which clashes with the company’s aim to cater to a broad, family friendly audience. The company maintains a brand identity that steers clear of violence-related imagery.

In this context, the problem statement crystallizes:

Paintball, a sport with diverse forms and equipment, attracts participants from different age groups. However, its association with violent imagery is incongruent with the company’s inclusive approach, especially when catering to youth. The challenge is to redefine the image of paintball, highlighting the excitement and strategy it offers without perpetuating negative associations.

The role of a concept designer in this scenario is pivotal. They are tasked with crafting a website concept that not only effectively promotes paintball equipment but also addresses the company’s branding concerns, ensuring an inclusive and appealing tone.

By grasping the essence of the problem and aligning it with the brand’s values, the concept designer sets the stage for a design solution that not only meets functional needs but also resonates with the desired audience.

2. Internal analysis: To understand the client, its brand, and audience

Once you formulate a problem statement, define the customer, brand, and audience. Address the following questions:

  • Who is your customer? (brand story)
  • What is the mission? (brand personality communicated to the industry or market)
  • Who is the target audience?
  • What does the target audience expect in the design?
  • What innovative ideas will distinguish the brand?

Grasping these elements facilitates the conceptualization process, aiding in the exploration of concept design possibilities while highlighting potential limitations. It is the duty of the conceptual designer to integrate client branding effectively to meet both the client’s and their audience’s expectations.

Design Thinking
Design thinking

3. External analysis: Examining competitors

The foundation of concept design rests on research and inspiration. Designers must collect data and study precedents to craft their concepts. There’s a trove of information in what has come before; competitors can teach you what does and doesn’t work.

You need to address queries such as:

  • Which strategies are competitors employing?
  • How are they attaining their objectives?
  • Which features and functionalities differentiate them from you?
  • What do your competitors possess that you don’t?

Carrying out internal user tests on competitors’ apps and assessing which ones prove most effective is crucial. Investigating competitors also yields insights into industry norms. This empowers you to identify areas lacking effectiveness and to implement optimal strategies for your client’s business.

An indispensable tool for competitive analysis is the moodboard. As you transition from concept to final design, these sources of inspiration will guide your entire team in realizing your vision.

4. Verbal presentation or brainstorming

Transforming a concept into meaningful substance necessitates defining your concept, putting it into words. This phase is commonly referred to as brainstorming, during which you articulate your concept verbally. Organize your thoughts and ideas within a structure that can be utilized to evolve your concepts. This step encompasses brainstorming, mind mapping, free association, and delving into analogies. You’ve probably given all of these a try at some point!

Creative thinking methods for conceptual design


Brainstorming stands as a creative technique harnessed to spawn a plethora of ideas and concepts pertaining to a specific topic or issue. Foundational brainstorming techniques include:

  • Classic brainstorming: a collective of participants convene, offering unfettered ideas on a designated subject
  • Brainwriting: participants jot down ideas on paper or digitally, sharing these records for further additions
  • Reverse brainstorming: participants try to magnify or forge a problem. Subsequently, these issues are appraised as a source of ideas for potential solutions
  • SCAMPER: this is an acronym that can help generate new ideas based on existing concepts. Substitute, combine, adapt, modify, put to another use, eliminate, reverse
  • 6-3-5 brainwriting: six contributors each record three ideas on paper, subsequently passing on these sheets to successive participants who further refine or expand on the notions posited by prior contributors. This cycle repeats six times
Mind mapping

Mind mapping is a method for visually representing an idea in diagrammatic form. The central notion is positioned at the core, while related concepts are positioned on branching limbs, culminating in a tree-like structure. Designers frequently employ this in the initial design stages. This technique catalyzes idea generation, concept organization, visualization, and a comprehension of relationships and data arrangement before delving into more intricate design phases.

Mind Mapping
Mind mapping example
Free association

Free association represents a method of unimpeded associative thought, permitting designers to generate ideas grounded in personal connections and the subconscious. Initiated by a central word or phrase, this approach involves enumerating words linked to it either as a list or branching off the main term (mind map).

The objective of this technique is to aggregate interconnected thoughts into a unified entity. This method proves valuable in crafting logos and product names. By avoiding excessive analysis, you continually record significant words that surface until you have a full list.

For instance, if you choose “game,” it could be followed by terms like “excitement,” “competition,” “smile,” and “laughter.” From a design perspective, you can use these words through vibrant color combinations, bold fonts, and maximalist design approaches.

Furthermore, the construction of words can serve as a catalyst for generating design attributes (for the subsequent step) that mirror the essence of the concept.

Ultimately, it proves advantageous to consolidate these interrelated ideas into a coherent sentence or phrase that encapsulates the concept and its objectives. This practice bolsters the concept’s cohesion throughout the design journey.

Exploring analogies

Exploring analogies constitutes a technique for deriving inspiration and comprehension by dissecting and linking akin or comparable objects, processes, or ideas.

  • This necessitates exploring other products, interfaces, or processes that might share similarities with the project at hand
  • Gain insights into how these entities tackle challenges, offer usability, and generate appeal
  • Scrutinize their successful facets, identifying avenues for enhancements applicable to your own interface

5. Sketching concept drafts

The evolution of concepts from abstract ideas to tangible design elements is a crucial process. We employ techniques like:

  • Outlining
  • Storyboarding
  • Prototyping
  • Crafting moodboards

Once you’ve comprehended the project’s goals and necessary features, it’s time to give form to your ideas. Begin by outlining your concepts, sketching out layouts. Low-fidelity sketching on paper is a straightforward way to bring your ideas to life. Consider multiple options and arrangements (ideally three variations).A tried-and-true approach involves generating several smaller thumbnails that fit on a single page for effortless comparison and analysis.

Visual research serves as the graphical counterpart to verbal research and brainstorming. At this juncture, detailed refinement of initial sketches isn’t necessary. The primary objective is to visualize your concepts effectively.

This stage is pivotal because even though you might feel you possess a clear mental image of your concept, its appearance on paper is the ultimate test of its viability. Once you have a couple of sketches that resonate with you, transform them into more comprehensive, detailed renditions.

6. Develop your prototype

Designers are tasked with crafting designs that evoke specific emotions and heighten user experiences. This involves acquiring a deep understanding of diverse design elements such as:

  • Color
  • Texture and lighting
  • Experimentation with varied design techniques and materials

Concept design affords the opportunity to experiment with diverse design facets like proportions, layouts, and user engagement, culminating in a harmonious whole. Striking a balance between bold concepts and feasibility ensures that your conceptual designs are primed for transformation into tangible products.

Once you’ve etched out initial sketches, it’s time to produce a more intricate representation of your design. This is where prototypes or mockups come into play — models that can be scrutinized and critiqued by others. Perfection isn’t a prerequisite; these are blueprints, not final products. However, they should offer your client a clear grasp of the eventual design’s appearance.

Prototypes undergo testing by real users, and the ensuing feedback is pivotal in refining the interface and identifying potential issues. If the feedback is less than favorable, revisiting previous steps to devise improved solutions is par for the course. This iterative process is characteristic of the conceptual design journey, though it may necessitate several rounds of iteration.

Conceptual design is a dynamic process, demanding continuous refinement grounded in user and stakeholder feedback. Seek feedback early and consistently to guide design choices throughout the entire process.

Conceptual Design Process
Activity-based concept design process


In conclusion, conceptual design stands as the cornerstone upon which triumphant projects are erected. Employ research and creativity to master the art of concept design, thereby enhancing your product development process.

Efficient communication and presentation of concept designs play a pivotal role in garnering support and comprehension from stakeholders. Design compelling presentations, employ storytelling techniques, and harness the power of visual storytelling to effectively convey your ideas.

The conceptual design process constitutes a pivotal juncture within the product design and development trajectory. For UX and UI designers, the conceptual model serves as the maiden step in articulating the system’s intended functionalities to users.

Header image source: IconScout

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Savina Valeria Savina likes working with complex systems as a product designer. She pays all her attention toward one product and its competitors to develop her product faster.

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