An (Even) Deeper Dive into Conceptual Design


The very first step in conceptual design is understanding the problem situation. Only then, we can start thinking about the other two forms of understanding.

Many blog posts ago, I provided a closer look to conceptual design, preceded by an extensive discussion about the information architecture model (IAM) involved in this same part of the design process. Mostly, though, these two posts provided insights on tasks and activities involved in the analysis, simplification, and organisation of content, and key resulting outputs. In newer posts (here, here, here), I have stressed the role of conceptual design decisions in the creation of well-conceived solutions. This post unpacks the very first step of conceptual design, which is often forgotten or, simply, rushed: understanding. Conceptual design is complex, even more than we think it is, mainly because it is an internal process which occurs inside designers’ head. This makes it hard to be analysed through an objective, rational lens. In order to shed light on how this process works and how designers think, many theories have been discussed and models proposed (e.g. Schön, iXd, Lawson, Arnheim, Jones, Gregory, Cross, Moles to name a few). Overall, conceptual design is often described as a group of steps, phases or stages, each of them involving a sequence of activities and tasks flowing in a particular order (although in practice many of these may overlap, and the order may change). Regardless the model we feel more comfortable working with, it is important to emphasise the complexity behind conceptual design, and the fact that each information designer may adopt a different approach to move through this process to perform conceptual actions and tasks. In any case, the first step is understanding what conceptual design entails and why decisions made during this part influence the rest of the process.

Forms of (conceptual) understanding

Broadly speaking, conceptual design involves understanding the problem (to be solved), the audience of that problem, collecting and getting familiar with relevant content, making sense of that content (IAM), and making decisions in order to identify initial appropriate solutions for the problem. Moving forward into the process (prototype stage), one of these solutions may evolve into the final solution. Of course, the process can also circle back to initial phases because, for example, the understanding of the problem needed clarification. In short, conceptual design involves (at least) three forms of understanding:

  1. Understanding the problem itself (what needs to be fixed)
  2. Understanding the meaning of the content or data (the actual content that will be translated)
  3. Understanding the audience (level of visual literacy, education, needs, familiarity with content)

This post focuses on only the first form of understanding: what is the problem that needs to be solved?

Understanding 1: The problem

When a client contacts us to start working on a new project, understanding what the problem involves should be the very first step (this should be done even before signing a contract). Simply put: we need to know what we will be committing ourselves to do before even committing to do it. We need to know whether we have the skills to effectively tackle the problem or whether the client may need a different type of help or different sets of skills would be more appropriate (e.g. maybe those of a journalist or an editor, or a marketer). For this, we need to learn as much as possible about what the situation is, and how much or how little help is needed.

Often problems can be framed or unframed. The former type of problem is often “easy to solve, because defining [or framing] a problem inherently defines a solution” (Rith and Dubberly, 2007). When working with framed problems, all parties involved in the project (i.e. clients, stakeholders, experts, and designers) tend to be equally knowledgeable (or unknowledgeable) because the starting point is well-defined, and that definition is shared by everyone. The less framed a problem is, the more ambiguity is involved in the process. This type of problems is harder to solve, because every party has a different view and understanding about the same situation. “Framing” expertise is a key skill in these situations. Information designers are equipped with these skills, helping organisations make sense of these type of situation by organising content and providing structure to thoughts and ideas. Framing skills and techniques are focused on formulating:

  • A shared understanding of today: Description of the existing state of the situation that needs fixing
  • A shared idea of tomorrow: Description of the desired state of the situation that needs fixing
  • A shared action plan: List of actions and tasks that need to happen to fix the current state and achieve the desired one

Visual thinking. A first step to solve unframed problems is sharing the same understanding of the situation and being on the same page. To ensure that all parties are actually talking and thinking about the same “thing”, information designers often use visual thinking techniques. Creating visualisations helps externalise ideas and thoughts, and have a common object (e.g. drawing) to refer to. Visualisations of current (today) and desired (tomorrow) situation states are created during this phase of conceptual design. It is also important at this point of the process a clear identification of those areas where help is needed, agreement on goals, and establishment of actions for achieving the desired state.

Research. To expand today’s and tomorrow’s understanding of the situation, research should be used. A good starting point is reading what has been done before related to the problem. This involves going further from any documents provided from clients; however, research at this point doesn’t mean to gain a deeper understanding of the subject matter of the problem (yet!). First we are trying to understand the problem itself. Even if at first a problem seems to be unique, chances are that a similar problem situation (from a similar or different domain) has been addressed before. These learnings help explore possibilities that we wouldn’t have explored otherwise (because we didn’t know they exist!), making an action plan more focused and efficient.

Once we feel confident that we have a robust initial understanding of the problem-situation—i.e. we don’t have key questions without answers, and we know what needs fixing (there will always be a degree of uncertainty because things change and evolve, but it is important to minimise or keep this variable under control)—we will know whether we can solve it. And if so, we can start thinking about how to gain a better understanding of the content we will be working with (Understanding 2), and gain further familiarity with the intended audience (Understanding 3).

Rith, C., & Dubberly, H. (2007). Why Horst WJ Rittel matters. Design Issues, 23(1), 72-91.


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