Creating With Concept
When you hear an artist talking about the “concept” behind their work, it often sounds like a bunch of pseudo-intellectual babble.
While it has a justifiably bad rap in the fine arts, I've actually found concept to a very important and practical tool for design.
My inspiration came from the book Basic Design Index, by Jim Krause:
Concept is abstract, intangible, and untouchable — and yet, without its binding influence, the elements of a design fall from the page and land in the gutter.
Concept is notion; idea; direction; look-and-feel; the point behind the point.
That probably still sounds hand-wavey.
Concept is vague — almost by definition — but I'll try to explain why it actually makes sense.
Concept is that intangible quality that gives something an identity and makes it whole, whether it’s an app, a story, a game, or anything else.
Without a concept, you just have a random collection of pieces that don’t quite belong together, like a novel with a plot that doesn’t go anywhere, or a song that is just a bunch of random notes.
Imagine a spiral galaxy like the Milky Way.
There’s a massive black hole in the center, but it’s totally invisible.
Yet, the black hole is so powerful that you can see its influence on the billions of individual stars swirling around it, coming together to create a beautiful spiral shape.
Concept is like the gravity of design. You can’t see it, but you know it’s there, holding everything together and giving it a recognizable form.
So when I work on a new design, I always ask:
- What is the central concept?
- How can I make each part of the design relate to the concept?
I first applied this approach when I started designing Totally Tiny Arcade, which was a collection of 30 minigames in a retro 8-bit style.
I was excited about the idea, but it opened up hundreds of design decisions that I had to make, which was pretty overwhelming.
How would I know which decisions were good or not?
That’s where the concept came in, which I captured in the phrase, “A wonderland of 80’s arcade games.”
That phrase doesn’t appear anywhere in the game or in the marketing, but I think the spirit is evident in how the game feels when you play it.
Like Alice falling into Wonderland, the player is pulled into the strange miniature world of each arcade machine, filled with absurd enemies, hidden treasures, crunchy 8-bit bleeps, and 80’s synth music.
Nearly all of my decisions over the course of 8 months – from the screen transitions to the user interface design – were made easier by following this central idea.
And because of this, the game became more than just “a bunch of random minigames.”
The danger of designing without a concept is that you often end up with a Frankenstein monster of ideas, all mish-mashed together.
Each of its parts pulls in a different direction, and as a result, there’s no focus.
You often see this with young game designers who want to throw all of their favorite mechanics into a single game. For example, a “massively multiplayer side-scrolling sandbox platformer with RPG elements and a crafting system.”
When you can only describe a product as a list of features, that’s a warning sign that there’s no clear concept behind it.
A good concept will help you decide which features or ideas belong in the design, and which ones should be cut. Unfortunately, this often means you have to cut something that you really like.
However, in return for this discipline, you’ll be able to focus on the most important things and actually finish the project.
And better yet, the final design is more likely to click with your audience.
They will “get” it, because there is something there to “get”, even if they can’t quite put their finger on it.