New Article on Concept Design Tools

The nice folks at Digital Web Magazine published my new article on Concept Design Tools. It’s already received some nice reviews in the Twitterverse…

For those of you who haven’t seen Victor Lombardi’s new article on concept design tools, it’s a must read…

…it’s brilliant stuff and super accessible. It’s great to see solid thinking around the topic. There isn’t enough of it.

…great article on concept design!!!!

Here’s some reactions from bloggers I keep hearing over and over, confirming why I think this topic is important for digital designers. Steven Clark asks, Where is the breadth of our design?

where is our design process preceding the implementation phase? The moment we receive the brief we’re practically falling over ourselves to push forward, and implementation seems to go on at the same time that we’re figuring out what the product should do. This is as applicable to web solutions as to applications, we jump in boots and all with predetermined assumptions.

And Martin Belam writes

One strong theme that came out of it for me personally though was that, unlike industrial designers, when we make web applications and sites we tend to rush to wireframes and ‘colouring in’ before we have explored multiple potential solutions. Victor’s championing of questioning the brief looked like a good way to try and break out of that vice.

Since writing it I’ve already discovered similar work that’s been done over the past several decades. My approach is different in that the tools are simple and fast enough for any designer to use without having to learn a lot about method, but I will be spending some time with the masters to learn how I can climb onto their shoulders.

selective memory design concept tool

Presenting My Concept Design Work in Amsterdam, September 27

I’m happy the concept design research and development I’ve been doing has received some attention, even though I haven’t had much time to share my work. That will start to change next month when I present some tools for generating concepts at the 2008 European Information Architecture Summit in Amsterdam, where I’ve been honored with the closing plenary position.

Last year’s German IA Conference had a great vibe and a wonderful group of people, I’m looking forward to more of the same in Amsterdam.

Concept Design: Name the Baby!

When you create a product or service concept, you should give it a name. Sounds like a no-duh idea, but in the heat of the moment we forget to do this. Sometimes…

  • we give them numbers or letters. “You see the change in materiality here in concept 2…” or “Clearly Concept C is a total paradigm shift…” But this kinda sucks. It’s hard to remember how the concepts map to numbers or letters, and that makes it hard for people to reference the concept. “Um, you know, I think it was the second one, the one with the thingie…” And if people can’t reference it, they can’t talk about it, much less buy it.
  • we only have one concept, so we name it after ourselves.Our idea is to…” or “The Bixby Canyon Software System, from Bixby Canyon Inc., gives your plants just the right amount of water…” This feels good at first because you can publicize your company and concept name at the same time, and it avoids those messy, expensive naming exercises. But it falls apart when concepts grow up into products. Say when…
    1. you want to change the product or the product name, but people keep referring to it by your company name. You’re stuck, or you change it and risk lose brand recognition.
    2. you introduce a second product which means you now need three names, two product names and a company name, that need different identities. For a long time Symantec was synonymous with anti-virus software, and they had to work hard to be a company known for more than that.

An exception is when you (intentionally or not) have a naming system. Let’s say your company and your first product name is Super Fantastic. When the next product arrives, you name it Super Amazing, then Super Stupendous, and so on.

Just as you wouldn’t have a baby (or a company) without naming it, don’t birth a concept without naming it either.

Using Real Options to Value Design Concepts

The common way that financial people will judge the potential value of a project, or a design concept representing a potential future concept, is by building a model, usually a discounted cash flow model like Net Present Value (NPV). The calculation essentially asks, if we do this project and gain the profit we think we’ll gain, how much is it worth to us right now? That way we can compare it against our other options.

The problem with these models is that they assume the world doesn’t change. The model tries to predict everything that will happen in the project from beginning to end in order to arrive at a single numerical value. But in the technology world, there’s lots of change.

So peeps at the forward edge of product and service development have started using real options to value projects. Real options essentially breaks the project down into a series of decisions. At each decision point a number of outcomes can occur, and for each outcome there’s a probability it will occur. There’s also a revenue associated with each outcome that we receive if it occurs. By multiplying the probability by the revenue we get the value of the option.

This is often illustrated using a decision tree, as with this analysis of a drug in clinical trials

What’s the big deal? It turns out this is a better way to value investments in Internet services for at least three reasons I can think of off-hand…

  1. Versioning: The Web 2.0 way of doing things is to release our work in stages, the public beta being a perfect example. If the beta is a big fail, we stop there and cut our losses, or we go down a different path of the decision tree.
  2. Uncertainty: There’s a great deal of uncertainty in our work. Twitter, for example, is a big success, but at the cost of a very tricky technical challenge. Instead of an NPV model that would judge the value of the project to be either simply negative or positive, we can model this reality of “large audience / technologically expensive.”
  3. Fast Risk Management: The ease of building betas makes it tempting to skip a big financial modeling activity, especially if it can’t accurately reflect (i.e. predict) how customers will react. Creating at least a simple real options analysis can save a lot of investment before building a beta that is hard to emotionally trash once it’s built. And while it’s tempting to say predictions are impossible so we should just run a trial, few managers with any P&L responsibility will invest in that.

Real options isn’t a perfect technique, however. Proponents claim it supports decisions with “mathematical certainty,” but the probabilities are derived from managers’ experience and judgment which is subjective and imperfect. Getting a group of people to agree on the probabilities may be difficult, and once a project is up and running a team may be unwilling to revise their estimates downward to reflect new information, much less kill their own project. Still, for the kind of work we do it’s better than the old ways.


Tool: Business Design Concept Poster

Each semester I tweak my Business & Design class as I learn more about how to teach undergrad design students about business, and help them to blend business and design ideas rather than see them as two separate spheres (while relating cautionary tales, as with Ford bean counters who show up at the end and revise the design!).

This semester culminated with a poster that could encapsulate the artifact, consumer experience, and business model on one sheet of paper. Once we had all this information in one place, we could see that, for example, it wasn’t going to make enough money, and then use our research and idea generation techniques to tweak some aspect, such as the price, and watch how it changed other aspects, like the target audience.

For a one semester course, it was a lot for them to absorb, and the results will still look elementary to professionals, but they rose to the challenge and I think this format has potential to help designers and businesspeople see the connection between form, function, audience, costs, revenue, and business model.

Here’s three examples. Click through the link to see the high-res versions.

Looking for Examples of Digital Design Concept Processes

I’m storyboarding away and working on a section about design concepts: examples and processes for making them. This write-up of the Chamr concept process is a good overview, and I’m looking for more in case you know of any.

In a nutshell, the Adaptive Path team started with research, then expressed important principles and major user activities to design for. Then they brainstormed hundreds of ideas and filtered them. Then one team member offers a new idea that nails it. I’m guessing the team so thoroughly internalized the research and constraints by this point in the project that they could evaluate a new idea quickly, in addition to recognizing the sexiness of it.


Later… There isn’t much online, perhaps because the most mature examples are from non-digital design fields such as industrial design, architecture, and digital art. I have some hypotheses about why there’s little conceptual design in the software world, but they’re still half-baked.

I.B.M.’s Watson, Like a Good Designer, Thinks in Possibilities

After studying concept design for a while, I’ve come to the conclusion that the single best thing designers can do to come up with better concepts is to do more of them. Generating more options increases the chances we’ll find better ideas.

With that in mind, I perked up while reading What Is I.B.M.’s Watson?, part of the NY Times’s series on artificial intelligence, which incorporates a similar process as great designers I’ve seen…

Watson’s speed allows it to try thousands of ways of simultaneously tackling a “Jeopardy!” clue. Most question-answering systems rely on a handful of algorithms, but Ferrucci decided this was why those systems do not work very well: no single algorithm can simulate the human ability to parse language and facts. Instead, Watson uses more than a hundred algorithms at the same time to analyze a question in different ways, generating hundreds of possible solutions. Another set of algorithms ranks these answers according to plausibility; for example, if dozens of algorithms working in different directions all arrive at the same answer, it’s more likely to be the right one. In essence, Watson thinks in probabilities. It produces not one single “right” answer, but an enormous number of possibilities, then ranks them by assessing how likely each one is to answer the question.

Democratized Design at BMW

At the end of the concept design phase you’ll need to select among the concepts you’ve developed, and there are various methods for doing so: customer feedback (e.g. desirability testing), a decision market, an executive decision, a vote, and so on. The last option, voting, becomes more interesting when you keep the designers anonymous to keep the focus of the decision on quality.

In the case of BMW and their new Z4 they arrived at this…

by anonymously choosing these designers…

Most people are surprised the male-dominated role of BMW auto design was awarded to two women. To me that’s a useful case study for using an anonymous competition for not only getting to the best design, but also breaking through cultural barriers to do so.

Concept Art Book is Now Online

Concept Art is distinct from the design concepts I talk about here, but they do converge at the point of expressing a powerful image of the artifact. The Concept Design book, by Scott Robertson with a forward by Francis Ford Coppola, collects the work of seven concept artists, but the book has been sold out. I’m happy to discover they’ve posted this online version as a reference

Concept Design Book Concept Design Book rdinho10

Reverse-Engineered Concept: Waterfree Toilets

Here’s a reality we deal with all the time: toilets that use a great deal of clean, potable water in order to flush. This urinal for instance, requires one gallon, or 3.8 litres, just to flush some pee, which seems excessive:

Urinal with 1.0 gpf

The sustainability problem here has multiple facets: the availability of water, the financial cost of water for the building owner, and the energy needed to treat and transport water, just to name three. The latter challenge alone makes up a large percentage of every city’s energy expenditure.

Let’s say we were a toilet manufacture responsible for a great deal of this water use. How might we develop concepts to address this problem? Here’s how I would use two tools from the concept design toolbox:

The problem we’re trying to address here is very clear (as opposed to, say, create a toilet that people are more likely to buy). So we can play with idealized design to set our bar very high for solving this particular problem. A ideal design statement is:

A urinal which uses no potable water at all.

Then the team could play question the brief on this statement to generate variations. Here’s a few:

  1. A urinal which uses greywater.
  2. A urinal which flushes with something other than water
  3. A urinal which does not use water
  4. A receptacle that accepts urine that is not a urinal

…and so on. Then the team could take each of these statements and workshop them, sketching and sharing and playing with ideas. Each different set of constraints helps us think differently and generate different ideas, for example the first could have us thinking of all sorts of ways of capturing and routing greywater.

We could probably generate several plausible concepts using this combination of idealized design and question the brief. One of those might be the Falcon Waterfree urinal.

Waterfree toilet

And a little PR doesn’t hurt…

Waterfree toilet

Communicating Concepts

When I see concepts that are received well, the concept itself can usually only take a portion of the credit. Just as important is how the concept is communicated. Some of this is common knowledge: make it look good, choose the right level of fidelity, show it in context. Others are maybe not so obvious…

  1. Show what’s new, then stop. As opposed to stories which can take their time to create worlds full of intricate characters and details, effective concept narratives should only last as long as they can sustain interest, inspire, and present the new. When I’m done showing what’s new, I’m done with the presentation.

    The temptation here is to show everything the team worked on, because the work was hard and full of careful detail. But like a beautiful movie set, the rest is there to support the concept, not become part of the story.

    The Charmr concept is a good example, focusing on day-to-day diabetes management only.

  2. State the time frame. Setting expectations of the purpose and feasibility of a concept is often accomplished easily by stating the time frame for a concept; we perceive a concept for next year’s product very differently than a concept for 10 years in the future.

    I find it useful to think in terms of the three concept types described in the book Product Concept Design: A Review of the Conceptual Design of Products in Industry:

    • Product Development Concepts support the definition of the product specification, which is needed to set detailed goals of the design of the subsystems of the product and for the following phases of the design process. An example is the concept for the second generation One Laptop Per Child XO-2.
    • Emerging Concepts are created in association with technical research or the modification of products for radically different markets. They unravel the opportunities of a new technology or market and growing user needs, and facilitate the company’s learning and decision-making process. An example is IconNicholson’s Social Retailing.
    • Vision Concepts support the company’s strategic decision-making by outlining the future beyond the range of product development and research activities. There is no expectation that this kind of vision concept will be implemented, and therefore the technical and commercial requirements are less restrictive than in other kinds of concepts. An example is frog design’s Aura.
  3. Distribute a holistic presentation. Whether it’s a model, a document, or Web 2.0-style syndication, the elements of our concept should stay together in one media piece so that anyone who experiences it will understand it.

    While not a concept, the way Apple presents the iPhone exemplifies careful, holistic packaging. Starting with Steve Job’s keynote presentation and extending to the video guided tour the tone is exciting, educational, and includes all the relevant information in one media clip (I would embed them here, but notice that Apple doesn’t let me do that).

    Unfortunately forums like the Techcrunch blog can be brutal on concepts when the presentation doesn’t do justice to the concept. I think different presentation can change that.

Concepts as Inspiration


Concepts strive to sway opinion by eliciting emotions. Fundamental to this purpose is the new, the aspect that is beyond question different than what has been done in the past. The new is what causes the audience to pause and react.

This reaction can be polarizing (yes/no, this/that) in order to make progress toward a detailed design. This reaction can be stimulating, sparking new ideas to increase the number of possibilities. Effective concepts are carefully constructed to appeal to particular emotions.

Boredom is the enemy of design concepts.

A Quantified Value of the iPod Design

This study — Who Captures Value in a Global Innovation System? The case of Apple’s iPod — is one of the best I’ve heard of in a long time. The researchers traced the parts and assembly of the iPod and attributed the value generated by each step by part and by country. A few key stats: of a $299 video iPod, Apple gets the largest piece of the pie: $80. The other portions are relatively small; China only gets $4 for assembly.

Hal Varian of the New York Times made this key observation about how Apple’s capabilities generate their benefits:

The real value of the iPod doesn’t lie in its parts or even in putting those parts together. The bulk of the iPod’s value is in the conception and design of the iPod. That is why Apple gets $80 for each of these video iPods it sells, which is by far the largest piece of value added in the entire supply chain.

Those clever folks at Apple figured out how to combine 451 mostly generic parts into a valuable product. They may not make the iPod, but they created it. In the end, that’s what really matters.

I’m encouraged by studies that highlight the value of concept design given my work in this area. Here’s a question for you: how would you most like to learn more about concept design: a book? videos? something else?

Pratt COMD – Business & Design, Fall 2008

Victor Lombardi
Feel free to contact me with questions or comments…

  • email: victor (at)
  • AIM: vittoriolombardi
  • mobile: 347.249.9470

You can download the Class Overview that we reviewed our first class.

You can also see some of the final concept posters from students last semester.

And now there’s a video preview too…

December 9, 2008

In class we…

  • Reviewed our initial comp business concept posters

Homework for this week:

  1. Email (or, if it’s too big, use You Send It) the final comp design of your Business Concept poster before class.
  2. You do not have to print it out!
  3. Here’s how this assignment will be graded, on a 100-point scale:
    • Concept: 30
    • Execution: 30
    • Business Model, Revenue Model, Product/Business Description/Image, and Customer Experience Storyboard: 10 each
    • Spelling and grammar errors: -5 each

December 1, 2008

In class:

  • Review our rough sketch business concept posters


  1. A hard copy, comp design of your Business Concept poster, to the level of refinement as these examples.
  2. We will post them and discuss them in class
  3. Here’s how this assignment will be graded, on a 100-point scale:
    • Concept: 30
    • Execution: 30
    • Business Model, Revenue Model, Product/Business Description/Image, and Customer Experience Storyboard: 10 each
    • Spelling and grammar errors: -5 each

November 24, 2008

In class:


  1. Create a sketch of your Business Concept poster following the example in class. It should be
    • at least 11 x 17 in size
    • a sketch, like you saw in class. If you put a lot of effort into doing more than a sketch but the concept sucks, you’ll just have to redo all that work. So do a sketch and put your effort into making sure the concept makes sense.
    • nice enough to be clear, but it will not be judged on beauty, just on how well the concept is thought through. We’ll make it pretty the following week.
  2. Bring a hard copy to class so you can pin it up on the wall and present it to us.

November 17, 2008

In class:

  • Workshop our revenue models


  1. Refine your revenue models based on our work in class. Additionally, show how your profit can be four times as much as your costs. For example, if your fixed and variable costs come to $100,000, you should have profits of at least $400,000. If you need ideas for how to do this, see Tweaking Our Business Model and/or contact me.
  2. Email me your finished revenue model prior to class.

November 10, 2008

In class:

  • Play a “sweet” stock market game with our concepts, and talk about why some concepts did better than others
  • Talk about revenue models and review a sample revenue model
  • Create a revenue model for at least one of our concepts


  1. Research the revenue and cost aspects of our concepts and create a simple revenue model following the example in the class (Excel version, PDF version)
  2. We’ll review the models in class next week.

November 3, 2008

This week we spent some time identifying key challenges in your ideas and how you would address them, with homework to refine your concepts. For those how missed the previous class we repeated that lesson so everyone is synchronized again.

October 27, 2008

In class:

  • Talk about what expert designers do differently than novice designers, e.g. they practice, a lot. And they spend more time at the beginning of a project diverging from the original idea in order to find a great solution and a solution they can solve well.
  • Take the favorite of the ten ideas you did for homework and flesh out the idea, list the key challenges, and apply a creative idea generation tool to it: brainstorming, ‘yes, and…,’ or question the brief.

Homework for next week:

  1. Take the one idea we focused on in class and continue to expand it so you have a full product concept, resolving the major challenges. When you’re done you’ll have a sketch that visualizes the idea and three paragraphs of information:
    • Include one paragraph describing the business and/or product
    • Include one paragraph describing the customers’ experience
    • Include one paragraph describing how the business and/or product makes money
    • Include a sketch that represents the most important aspect of your business idea that you would want to show an investor. If it’s a store, you might sketch the interior. If it’s a product, you would sketch the product. And so on. The sketch should have this level of fidelity:

October 20, 2008

In class:

Homework for next week:

  1. Think of a business idea you would like to work on for your final project. Your assignment is to create ten concepts of this one business idea.
    • At least two ideas must use a differentiation strategy, e.g. if you idea is to create a cafe, one differentiation strategy would be a cafe with child care
    • At least two ideas must use a niche strategy, e.g. a cafe in Florida for senior citizens
    • At least two ideas must use a cost/price strategy, e.g. a cafe that hydroponically grows its own beans to lower costs
    • At least two ideas must use a Blue Ocean strategy, e.g. an eco-friendly cafe with no paper products; customers bring their own mugs
    • You get 6 points per concept. Each concept earns 2 more points if it helps the environment. Each concept earns another 2 points if it helps people in a special, additional way (think Starbucks’ employee benefits)
    • Your idea can’t be a cafe / coffee shop
    • Each concept can be written as one sentence. But make sure each concept makes sense; if you can’t defend it you don’t get credit.

October 13, 2008

In class:

  • Look at some real, neighborhood businesses and dissect their business models
  • Critique your storyboards

Homework for next week:

  1. Revised your storyboards based on the feedback and email them to Victor (see above for the email address)

October 6, 2008

In class:

  • Look at examples of business concept booklets and posters to see how they combine the design and business aspects of a concept
  • Get back your quizzes and look at the homework
  • Review the three generic business strategies, the BCG Matrix, and the Blue Ocean strategy for a quiz next week and then apply it to your coffee shop idea
  • Watch the IDEO shopping cart video and discuss IDEO’s process.
  • Look at different storyboarding techniques

Homework for next week:

  1. Do field research to learn as much as you can about your coffee shop idea from last week. From what you learn, glean at least five strong insights that can inform your design. To learn more about field research, you can read up on “corporate anthropologists.”
  2. Make a storyboard that tells a story about the most compelling part of your coffee shop customer experience in order to get funding from an investor.

Storyboard Examples:

  1. Illustration with no text (Business Link)
  2. Process photos and CAD drawings (Crisis management and radiation testing)
  3. Mood board style (McDonalds)
  4. Single-panel story (Space Elevator)

Storyboard Resources:

  1. 22 Panels That Always Work
  2. Microsoft’s Clip Art Gallery Live
  3. Free comic characters and scenes

September 29, 2008

In class:

  • Talk about the banking collapse and draw a concept map of the system
  • Take a quiz on the reading from last week
  • Learn a business model diagram and draw some business models
  • Do some 3-minute concepts and vote on which one we like the best

Homework for next week:

  1. Read the second section (chapters 4 and 5) of What the CEO Wants You to Know by Ram Charan. Learn any terms he mentions, we’ll have a quiz on these.
  2. Draw a business model of the Ford Corporation using the template we used in class and bring in a hard copy. To refresh your memory of how to do it, see What is a Business Model? and the Business Model Template

September 15, 2008

In class:

  • Review Coffee Shop experience and give the lucky winner his/her prize
  • Talk about the article reading
  • 60-second concepts
  • Guest speaker: Steven Matt from One-World

Homework for next week:

  1. Read the first section (the first 3 chapters) of What the CEO Wants You to Know by Ram Charan. Learn any terms he mentions, like velocity and margin. We’ll have a quiz on these.
  2. A C.E.O. Sells the Store “Visiting stores, quizzing the staff, critiquing everything in sight — and most of all, meeting customers — is at the core of how Mr. Drexler runs J. Crew.”
  3. Company Building for Eight-Year Olds. If an eight-year old can do it, you can too!
  4. Wanted: VPs of Design More designers are reaching the executive ranks. But where are they getting the general business knowhow they need?

September 8, 2008

In class:

  • Introductions / class housekeeping
  • Field trip to Luigi’s

Homework for next week:

  1. Buy the book: What the CEO Wants You to Know by Ram Charan
  2. Read ALTERNATIVES: Exploring Information Appliances through Conceptual Design Proposals
  3. Play Coffee Shop
    • Play the whole game (for 14 “days”) and try to make as much money as you can.
    • When you’re done take a screen shot of the screen showing your dollar total and email it to me, or print it and bring it to the next class.
    • Whoever makes the most money wins a prize. But most importantly I want you to understand how different decisions about making coffee result in different business performance.

Two Things Design Experts Do That Novices Don’t

In my research on concept design processes, I’ve come across two ideas that jumped out as vital behavior that differentiates expert designers from novices.

The first comes from Nigel Cross of Open University, UK, who seems to have studied designers and their processes more than anyone I’ve come across. In his Expertise in Design (pdf) he says (emphasis mine)…

Novice behaviour is usually associated with a ‘depth-first’ approach to problem solving, i.e. sequentially identifying and exploring sub-solutions in depth, whereas the strategies of experts are usually regarded as being predominantly top-down and breadth-first approaches.

While the protocol studies he cites contradict this, when it comes to digital design I find this explains why I see so little concept design these days. Both product developers and designers have a tendency to jump on the first great idea they generate and head down one path, instead of patiently exploring the space of possible solutions. The pain is only felt far down the line when development makes it obvious what doesn’t work and what could have been.

The other big idea comes from How Designers Work, Henrik Gedenryd’s Ph.D dissertation. In the third section (pdf), he observes how designers go about defining the problem to be solved, the most difficult part of the project. How the problem is defined can determine the success of the succeeding design task…

…the two contrasting attitudes make the whole difference between frustration and progress: Quist literally makes his problem solvable, whereas Petra finds herself stuck. The bottom line is that Quist who is the “expert” is acting as a pragmatist, whereas Petra, the “novice”, acts as a realist. And as we have seen, this accounts for a great deal of his superior performance. The choice of either position is not merely a matter of ideology, but has important consequences.

In short, experts are pragmatists, they re-set or re-frame the problem to make it solvable. Novices are realists, they take the problem as a given and get stuck.