Joe Lesko | Blog | creativity, programming, and design

Creating With Concept

When a creator talks about the “concept” behind their work, onlookers are often skeptical, thinking that it’s really just intellectual nonsense.

Regardless of the stigma, I have found concept to be one of my most useful tools for all kinds of creative work.

I was personally inspired by 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 sounds pretty hand-wavey. Concept is vague, almost by definition. But I'll try to explain.

Concept is that intangible quality that makes something feel well-designed, whether it’s an app, a story, game, etc.

It’s the spirit or personality of the thing.

Imagine a spiral galaxy like the Milky Way. There is a massive black hole in the center, which is totally invisible (literally!).

Yet, the black hole is so powerful that you can see its influence on the billions of stars swirling around it, creating the spiral shape.

Concept is like the gravity of design. You know it’s there, keeping everything together, but you can’t put your finger on it.

So when I work on a new design, I always ask: “What is the central concept?” and “How can I make each part of the design relate to the concept?”

* * *

I first applied this approach when I was designing Totally Tiny Arcade, where I planned to create around 30 arcade machines that each hosted an 8-bit mini-game.

It was a fun idea, but I was overwhelmed with hundreds of design decisions that I had to make on my own.

How would I know which decisions were good or not?

That’s where the concept came in. I imagined it as “A wonderland of 80’s arcade games.”

The main character would literally fall into each arcade machine, like Alice falling into her imaginary world. The mini-games were filled with absurd enemies, hidden treasures, crunchy 8-bit bleeps, and 80’s synth music.

Everything – from the screen transitions to the user interface design – was influenced by (and in turn reinforced) this central idea.

The concept helped me make decisions that made the game feel like a cohesive whole.

* * *

The danger of designing without a concept is that you often end up with a Frankenstein monster of ideas, all mish-mashed together.

You often see this with new game designers who want to throw all of their favorite mechanics into a single game. For example, “a massively multiplayer side-scrolling puzzle platformer with RPG elements. And a crafting system.”

When a product is described simply as a list of features, that’s a warning sign that there is no clear concept driving it.

A good concept will help you decide which features or ideas belong in the design, and which ones should be cut. Sometimes that means cutting something that you really like.

But in return, it will narrow your focus to something you are more likely to finish. And better yet, the final design is more likely to click with your audience.

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Joe has been designing and developing games and web apps for about 20 years. He is a self-taught programmer, and creates art and games in his spare time.

He currently works as a User Experience Prototyper at Netflix, on the Interactive Design team that created Bandersnatch.