Joe Lesko | Blog | creativity, programming, and design

Creating With Concept

When an artist talks about the “concept” behind their work, people are often skeptical that it’s really just a bunch of intellectual BS.

That might be true for some artists, but I have personally found concept to be one of my most practical tools for all kinds of creative work.

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.

His definition probably still seems hand-wavey. Concept is vague, almost by definition, but I'll try to explain.

What Is It? 

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 that comes through in every detail.

Imagine a spiral galaxy like the Milky Way.

Photo of spiral galaxy

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 a beautiful spiral shape.

Concept is like the gravity of design. You can’t see it, but you know it’s there, keeping everything together and giving it 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?

A Real Life Example 

The first time I applied this approach was with the design of Totally Tiny Arcade, which was going to consist of about 30 minigames in a retro 8-bit style.

It was a fun idea, but it opened up hundreds of design decisions that I had to make, and I was honestly feeling overwhelmed by it all.

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.”

Like Alice falling into her imaginary world of Wonderland, the main character of TTA would be 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.

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

In the end, the concept helped me make decisions over the course of 8 months that would make the game feel like a cohesive whole.

That phrase doesn’t appear anywhere in the game or in the marketing, but the spirit is evident in how the game feels.

Concept Gives You Focus 

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 young game designers who want to throw all of their favorite mechanics into a single game. For example, “My game will be a massively multiplayer side-scrolling sandbox platformer with RPG elements, and a crafting system.”

When a new product is described only in terms of its list of features, that’s a warning sign that there is 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, it will help you avoid “feature creep” and let you to focus on features you are more likely to finish.

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.

More Posts