Category Archives: Design

what is concept design?

One of the more difficult parts of doing work without easily identifiable artifacts is describing what you do.

When I get asked what I do for a living, I usually answer by saying “design strategy and research.” Which almost always brings on a second question; “what the (expletive deleted) is design strategy and research?” At which point I wonder how much this person really wants to know. If I sense it was a throwaway, usually I’ll just respond by saying something like, “oh, you know, websites and stuff.” Then we can get back to the more important questions of sports and weather and TV shows.

But every once in a while there will be a followup question, and I’ll realize that either the person is either involved in the design business (or the design of business) or they are just curious about what differentiates design strategy from other forms of creative endeavor. I’ve tried various approaches to describing it, and heard or read of many others through the years. None of them are completely satisfactory.

Sometimes I’ll start in with my own niche, and discuss the importance of storytelling in the design process.

“Working from as clear a strategic goal as I can develop with my client or partner, I engage in a combination of observation and interviews, through which i develop an understanding of the persons who might be helped by the product or service. Then, this research is applied to the generative process through a combination of models, scenarios, and prototypes, often generated in a collaborative environment. Finally, we critique the alternatives and iterate to a greater level of fidelity.”

Then they say, well, yeah, but what do you do?

So then maybe I’ll move in with a quick synopsis of the Tim Brown/IDEO talking points about the value of Design Thinking. Or the idea of the ‘anthrodesigner’ (as put forward by Dori Tunstall), who encourages her students to become hybrid researcher/designers who are adept both in observing and creating.

Or maybe the description of Transformational Design as put forward by Hillary Cottam and the Red design team of the British Design Council in 2006:

Transformational Design:

1) Defining and redefining the brief: Whereas traditionally designers are brought in to follow a brief, the transformation design approach involves an analysis of the wider implications of a design problem.

2) Collaboration between disciplines: Recognizing that complex problems need to be addressed through a multI-faceted approach, we rely on collaboration for results.

3) Employing participatory design techniques: Advocating bottom-up design methodology – involving users and front-line workers in the design process. Making the design process more accessible to ‘non-designers’.

4) Building capacity not dependency: Transformational design seeks to leave behind not only a designed solution, but the tools, skills and organizational capacity to respond to change.

5) Designing beyond traditional solutions & ‘systems thinking’. Applying design skills in non-traditional territories, and also creating non-traditional design outputs. ‘Systems thinking’ is the ability to consider an issue holistically rather than reductively.

6) Creating fundamental change: Transformational design aims high: to fundamentally transform systems and cultures.

Great, interesting stuff, and brilliantly done by firms like Stone Yamashita. But, it’s a lot to throw out at a cocktail party. Maybe there’s an easier way to talk about designing something intangible, or at least apparently intangible.

So, I was intrigued when I heard about this new idea, promoted by FORA, a Danish quasi-governmental group, called Concept Design. Concept Design is, according to the subtitle, a way to “solve complex challenges of our time.” There is not a whole lot of information on concept design available on the web (yet, at least), though the paper is available for download from the FORA site as a PDF file.

According to the paper,

Today’s companies are seeking answers to the question “what?”. What should companies focus on? What problems should the companies’ innovation solve?

In the past companies wanted answers to the question “how?”. How do we develop a new product? How should it be designed? How should it be marketed, and how should the company be organised to achieve the best solution?

This feels pretty accurate to me, though of course it risks oversimplifying the design process. Once concern I have is that the term ‘concept’ feels a little thin, for instance in comparison to the idea of ‘transformation’, though it does point to the formative stages in the process where design strategy is particularly appropriate.

The paper goes on to say

Concepts are solutions to unsolved problems or new solutions to problems that are solved in a poor manner. A new concept can be a product, a service, or a combination of products and

The task of creating concepts is referred to as concept design. For the purpose of this study, a model was created to describe concept design based on the processes and competences applied in concept design. Concept design works abstractly with questions on what should be produced rather than on how it should be designed.

Concepts and business strategies are approached strategically, and multidisciplinary work is performed using a combination of competences from business management, social science and design.

According to the following diagram, concept design lies at the intersection of business, design, and social sciences.

What’s the difference between transformational and concept design? Perhaps concept design has the potential to focus more narrowly on a particular problem, rather than working on a the broader idea of organizational change, though certainly there is overlap between the two.

The writers of the paper did a great job of vetting their research, and the document includes case studies from a wide range of companies in Europe and the United States, including IDEO, Frog, Lego, Philips, Gravity Tank, BBDO, and others.

I’m not entirely sure if concept design is an idea with legs or not, though it has been adopted by the AIGA and appears to be a topic of conversation at the 2008 Torino World Design Capital events. At the very least it provides some new ideas.

And maybe something to talk about over dinner.

A Model of the Creative Process

Continuing on in the ‘models of design’ theme, here is a model of the creative process I put together for a presentation I gave to 350 toy designers at Mattel in Los Angeles last week (a pretty cool group of people). It’s a variation and adaptation of the process developed by James Webb Young in A Technique for Producing Ideas. In my mind, there are four different phases in the creative process: Gather, Gestate, Create, and Critique.

The Gather phase correlates with research, but involves both specific and general information. Specific information about the project and its background and goals, but also more general information on the context of experience. Gathering should be done in as non-judgmental a way as possible (though of course we all bring our own history to bear), which is why ethnographic techniques (observation, etc.) have such value in this process.

Gestate is the process of ‘mulling over’ – it might involve noodling around, or thinking, or taking a walk, but it’s not aimed at created the final product. It’s hard for our minds to move straight from research to solution; this can be described as the time for lateral thinking.

Create is where the ideas are generated. At their best, ideas come forward in unexpected ways and at unexpected times. We need to get them out there without worrying about whether they are the right idea or not. Sometimes the right idea comes out of the wrong idea. Creating can be done alone or in small groups. There is always a tendency to engage in critique during the generative phase (especially when working in groups), but that makes coming up with ideas much more difficult.

Critique is where we refine and revise out ideas, explore other combinations, and connect our ideas back to the mission and vision of our project (whatever that is). This can be done in groups (through charrettes, for instance), with the goal of moving the process forward toward greater fidelity. Critique can be destructive if it gets personal, but it can also be very constructive and is in fact a generative act.

Of course, the process isn’t really linear (or circular), so we need to consider variations on the process. Which leads to a diagram that looks like this (a little messy but perhaps more accurate):

Every person and group has a slightly different process for generating ideas; especially when we’re working together we need to consider how best to achieve the goal of creating the best solution. The loops in the process can (and I believe should) be rapid and iterative, but this doesn’t mean that it’s an endless process.

Time and resource limitations restrict the amount of opportunity for iteration, and it’s important not to forget that we are creating something – the artifact of our creative endeavors also pushes the process forward. Sometimes enough is enough, but the awareness of the process helps to give a structure to our endeavors.

What is Design Thinking?

This summer when I was at Mike and Kathy McCoy’s High Ground gathering in Buena Vista, Bill Moggridge of IDEO handed the attendees a xerox copy of a hand-scrawled 2×2 diagram. I wandered around with it in my notebook for about 4 months, and finally decided to transcribe to the digital realm this past week.

Bill attributed the diagram to Hugh Dubberly, Rick Robinson, Stafford Beer, and Christopher Alexander (which pretty much sums up the pantheon of the design modeling gods); through a quick web search I found one version of it online uploaded by Shelley Evensen of Carnegie Mellon from a presentation she gave earlier this year located here in PDF format.

Although this diagram doesn’t make any claims toward describing what design thinking is (or design strategy for that matter), I think it obliquely provides loads of insight into the value of research and prototype modeling.

In a typical, non-reflective approach, it’s very easy not to leave the ‘concrete’ world, attempting to move directly from “What is” to “What is might be like”. In a sense, this is a typical human approach; I do it, my clients do it, we see it all the time in our day-to-day lives.

But when we’re designing systems, when we’re designing for use, we need to get out of our own heads and not just run to the first solution that presents itself. So, instead we can move from the concrete to the abstract, where we develop models of our understand of what is (research). Then, that model is turned into the ideation/generation mode (prototyping). From this, we move toward concrete ideas of “What it might be like”.

When we take the time to explore research and prototype models – in other words, when we engage in design thinking – the design process yields significantly better results. Add in the potential for iterative cycles, and you have a strong foundation for improved solutions.

DoubleButter is Better

This is the best story I’ve heard in a long time. Apparently sometime today a couple of entrepreneurial local furniture designers delivered and installed some nicely designed benches to both the Libeskind addition to the Denver Art Museum and the brand new David Adjaye Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.

They apparently did a meticulous job on the installation, and the benches look fabulous. The only potential issue? They were engaging in guerrilla design. To the best of my knowledge, no one has been arrested. Yet.

Oh, and they videotaped the whole thing. Watch the video at

Or on youtube at:

Chase DeForest at Ironton Studios

I’m looking forward to the show that opens at Ironton on Friday November 2nd for a number of reasons. First, the work is constructed with terrific craftsmanship and attention to detail. Second, it shows that boundaries between art and craft continue to break down (and therefore supports the value of the local and the artisinal). And third, it just plain fun.

The show is called “Sporting and Recreation: Furniture” and the work is by Chase DeForest. Chase has an MFA from RISD, teaches Industrial Design at Metropolitan State College in Denver, and works for the Denver Office of Cultural Affairs on the Clifford Still Museum project. And somewhere along the line she finds the time to create her own work (as shown below). More information is available at or

Losing Control

Khoi Vinh made a presentation called “Control” at the AIGA Next conference here in Denver; he was kind enough to put the slides up on Slideshare. The presentation is worth viewing for a couple of reasons. First, Khoi builds a logical argument and presents it in a way that is understandable in the form of a slideshow (whereas my presentations look like a series of seemingly unrelated pictures with neither rhyme nor reason).

But more importantly, Khoi is getting at something very important in how the practice of design is changing in an interactive world. He is primarily concerned with interactive design, but I believe the logic of what he has to say is just as pertinent to designers working in any highly collaborative situation. The basic concept (if I’m getting this right) is that traditionally designers used control to manage the presentation of the narrative, while in the interactive world, the narrative has been replaced by a conversation. In this respect, the designer needs to become accustomed to losing control.

I don’t disagree with this argument, though I would argue that there is still a narrative (or story) at work both within the design process and in the product. Designers are now beginning to speak about ‘metadesign’ as the process of building a framework to allow others to participate in filling in the blanks. Using the same logic, there is a kind of ‘metanarrative’, an opportunity for the audience to become engaged in the process of creating the story.

Concepts of this sort are not foreign to other design fields; for instance, architecture is most effective when it encourages human dialog. But the process of design itself is now opening up to a broader collaboration; open source and wiki projects are an example, but it applies more broadly through people-centered design processes. Designing for these types of projects requires the invention of narratives and the openness to accept the potential for stories we never imagined.

Khoi does a great service to designers by pointing out the importance of opening up new forms and processes of design; in many ways the new worlds of design (in particular) are as foreign to us as film was during the time of the Lumiere brothers, and we are mostly just looking with awe (or confusion) at the Trip to the Moon.

Building a better remote

There are few components of modern life more confusing than the television remote control. For our home TV, we have three remotes, each of which is required to do some arcane bit of trickery (cable, tv, dvd), and none of which are in the least intuitive. In a hotel room this weekend, I pushed the big green button at the top. Nothing. The orange button? Nothing. Turns out the power button was tiny and at the bottom, and the up, down, left, and right buttons didn’t change the channel or the volume.

On Core 77 this morning I came across one possible solution; the designers at Art Lebedev have posted their approach. I love the look of it, though I’m not sure it’s quite solved the essential problems involved. But, at 20″ long, at least you’re not going to misplace it.

Designing What’s Next

Next week more than 2,000 designers will be heading to denver for the AIGA 2007 conference. One of the presentations I’ll be looking forward to seeing will be made by Khoi Vinh, the design director at

Khoi will be speaking on the topic of ‘Control’. Here’s how the program describes it:

There’s a fundamental shift going on in design: CONTROL is passing from designers to design consumers, and it’s changing the way we practice our craft. For most of design history, we’ve judged the best designers on how successfully they’ve exerted control in their work. Control over ideas, over typography, over imagery, over the means of production–the more control the better.

It’s interesting that someone who works for the New York Times, one of the most carefully controlled websites in existence, would choose to talk on this topic. In this case, I mean ‘carefully controlled’ as a compliment – for the dozen or so years I’ve been using the web, has been my primary news portal for all of them. Of course, Khoi does other terrific design work as well – his blog, is a fantastic source of information on a variety of topics. And, he also takes good care of his dog, mister president, which is the best name ever for a dog.

I’m interested in his presentation because for the past nine months I’ve been working with a number of other Colorado designers exploring the topic of what’s next in design. We’ve talked about (and designed the conference materials by) collaborating in small groups, doing rapid prototyping, using design charrettes, and a lot about giving up control.

We’ve had over 30 different designers working on various components of the conference marketing collateral, and we developed a ‘brand’ that was all about providing a framework for design, rather than a heavily controlled set of rules. It has been a robust and valuable discussion, an exciting exploration, and a lot of work.

Now, as the conference approaches, we’ve launched an opportunity for the conference attendees to get involved in the discussion; through we’re hoping that the framework we’ve created will provide a launchpad for more discussion and more design innovation. We’ll be adding some additional features as the week goes on (including flickr photo tags) but at this point we’re hoping that conference attendees will add their profiles and their thoughts on ‘what’s next’, venues for visiting, and ‘bird of a feather’ events beyond the substantial events already sponsored by the AIGA.

None of this would have been possible without the substantial efforts of numerous colorado designers, including my core group cohorts, Fred Murrell of RMCAD, Craig Rouse of R Design, and Jason Otero of Art & Anthopology. is largely the result of a collaboration between myself and Sean and Todd at DayJob. Now, we’re giving up control. Visit and help decide what’s next.

Denver Urban Forest

During the course of the next month, including during “Next: the AIGA National Design” Conference, a series of banners will hang on California Street between 14th Street and the 16th Street Mall in downtown Denver.

These banners have been designed by a combination of design professionals and students. The project is called Denver Urban Forest, and is an offshoot of the Urban Forest Project that was presented in New York last fall.

The Urban Forest Project was conceived by Worldstudio in conjunction with AIGA NY and Times Square Alliance. The original event brought together 185 designers from 21 countries to create an outdoor design exhibition throughout the Times Square area in New York.

A similar project took place in Portland Oregon recently; the banners are created in a fabric created from 100% recycled plastic bottles, ecophab, and once the presentation is complete they will be turned into tote bags and sold to support colorado design initiatives.

Jordan Carver from Agency made this happen. Congratulations to him for pulling it off.