The Industrial Design Process Part 2: Concept Design, Ideation and the Creative Day

How do companies go from a written document filled with strict deadlines and cost estimations to imaginative, well-thought-out products on the shelf? They do it with the help from a team of creative, disciplined and professional designers. Earlier we looked at part one of the industrial design process related to defining a product in its earliest stages. The following article builds on that by discussing the role of designers and the initial concept design stages they go through. These stages allow them to pour their imagination and ideas from their minds into a tangible, coherent set of thoughts and sketches.

Concept Design

In most companies, designers work to a design brief, product specification or play specification that guides their designs. These guides include some visual and written direction about an initial product opportunity that’s been identified. It’s then the designer’s role to make these ideas a reality. A professional designer has the ability to provide a large variety of designs in a quick and efficient manner. Many people can draw one or two ideas, but when asked to elaborate or iterate they often fall short. What separates the true design professional is depth and breadth of their presented ideas and vision in a clear and concise manner. Concept design generally means the use of hand-drawn or digital sketches to convey what’s in a designer’s mind onto paper or a screen. It can, however, also include sketch models or shape and form studies in a variety of mediums such as paper, plastic-card, cardboard, clay or foam. Digital sketch models are also a good way to explore early ideas, along with digital and hand-built mechanisms.

Draw from Your Imagination

There are a wide variety of ways to convey ideas, from hand sketches, block-in silhouettes and rough scribbles to thorough drawings, turnarounds and detail views. Call-outs are often added, further highlighting features of note or ideas that may not be immediately apparent.

This images shows various early stage sketches. The emphasis here is on speed and getting multiple ideas down on paper. The sheet shows techniques including; silhouettes, hand drawn pen sketches, digital stylus sketches and even a white board sketch. Anything goes at this stage.

What Makes a Good Sketch?

A good sketch conveys the designer’s ideas without being overly worked. Drawings don’t have to be crisp and sharp. It’s better to get several good ideas down quickly and relay multiple thoughts and ideas at a glance. The main focus at this point is to convey imagination and fresh thinking and not focus on or ‘noodle’ one idea.

Quality over Quantity

As in all things, quantity does not necessarily mean quality. So a designer should try to create multiple sketches reflecting differing ideas or sketches that, through iteration, improve the theme and direction of the brief. Repetition and alteration of one design should really be reserved for later stages of the process.

Unfortunately, it’s common to see one sketch repeated many times with slightly different parts being added. Sometimes designers will even pull out old sketches from previous projects. To this end, designers should make every effort to stay fresh in their thinking and style.

That isn’t to say that you have to reinvent yourself for each project, but it may be worth trying a different ideation or sketching technique when beginning a new project. Change your medium, drop your stylus and pick up a pen. Alter your brush type or try a new style. Even getting a change of scenery, work environment or background music can help change up your ideas and the way you present them.

Avoid ‘Polarizing’ the Viewer with Color

It’s often useful to keep sketches devoid of color in the early stage of concept design, unless it’s a salient selling feature of the item. It may be considered unnecessary at this stage, in order to save time and effort for idea generation.

Bias is also another very good reason to avoid adding color. Based on personal preference towards a particular tone or shade, viewers can become instantly polarized with the actual sketches and designs becoming irrelevant.

Black and White

For more complicated forms, a grey or black and white pass can be used to add light and shadow and, therefore, define the shapes of the design. This can be particularly useful when showing designs to people outside of the design discipline, as they tend not to pick up on forms as well as the educated eye.

The sketches in this image are more refined but are still considered early stage sketches. Additional details are added with more attention applied to line quality and accuracy to make sure ideas are clear.

Avoid Stifling Creativity with Reality

In most design environments, we work hand-in-hand with engineers or people from a sales and marketing background. Sketches should, of course, take into account any mechanical and technical limitations or retail and packaging requirements, but shouldn’t be so limited by these boundaries that creativity is stifled.

Then there’s the perpetual battle between design and engineers of style versus practicality. It’s always better to tone down the extravagant or imaginative than it is to jazz up a functional yet boring solution. Of course, a practical and functional product sells, but consumers are also driven by desire.

Use Teamwork

Imagination is only limited by the mind. So why not use more than one mind? It’s generally the norm to get the thoughts of more than one designer and work as a team to get the best results.

Some design firms will even use interdisciplinary teams to really mix up the ideas and styles being conveyed. This also avoids tunnel vision and repetition. A senior designer may guide the overall efforts of the team, but all thoughts at this stage are generally encouraged, even the obscure.

The Clock Is Ticking

Unfortunately due to the demands of the real world, there’s generally a specified time frame set for the concept process. The team will work towards a cohesive concept design presentation to meet this deadline. All sketches are compiled into one place; this can be a document or a space on a wall if everyone is in the same office.

The senior designer and design director will then perform an internal review to filter some of the work. To keep things focused, they’ll pick out ideas that fulfill the brief or really add something to the mix with a new idea or feature. Once the ideas have been filtered and refined, each design sheet is numbered, and each individual design or sketch is given a number or letter. All the sketches are scaled to be approximately the same size so they all have the same visual impact and prevent bias from anyone looking at them.

In parallel to this effort by the product design team, a similar body of work will have been put together by the graphics team for packaging and branding. This will work alongside the product presentation with designs and ideas feeding off of and into one another. These tend to not be very focused at this stage, as things like the name of the product may not even have been selected this early on. Regardless, this early review will still serve as a test to see if things are going in the right direction.

Comparison of two sheets with the same set of designs. The left set makes identifying details difficult. The eyes are drawn to larger images, along with color preference. The right set is exactly the same designs, but you can pay attention to details and make a design decision rather than an impulse decision.

First Review

Once the sketch ideas are collated together into one place, upper management may join the design director in narrowing down the selections. At this point in time, it’s often best to keep this group small to be efficient with the design selection. The phrase “too many chefs in the kitchen” can quickly become applicable.

The first review is likely to look at the larger picture and not just pick out individual designs. Features and aspects of designs will be highlighted as important or interesting and anywhere from one or two to several designs will be identified to continue working on.

This information will then be fed back to the design team, along with any additional ideas that may have developed from the discussion. The entire team could continue work for another round of ideas or, depending on time frames, one or two designers could be assigned the task of continuing the design development into the next stage of refinement.


Now you’re familiar with the early concept stage of the design process. We have outlined a variety of design methods and techniques, along with guidelines of what to do and what to avoid to be a successful designer and an efficient part of a design team.

In the next article in this series, you’ll continue through the design process with refining concepts, moving onto illustrating your ideas with presentation-quality rendering, and beginning to turn your ideas into 3D. You can also explore the various early stages of the industrial design process that a product goes through in Breaking Down the Industrial Design Process Part 1: Defining a Product and Setting Up the Designer’s Day.