Creating with Concept

When you hear someone talk about the “concept” behind their work, you might be skeptical that they are hiding behind… well, intellectual bullshit.

Like this painting, for example:


Melancholy Paradox & Metamorphosis II

by Joe Lesko (Price: $3,500,000)

Regardless of how you feel about modern art, I have found concept to be one of my most powerful 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.

In other words, concept gives a creation — whether it’s an app, a story, or a game — a sense of wholeness. It pulls all of the parts together into a clear sense of identity that the viewer can connect with.

Concept is that intangible quality that makes something feel well-designed.

Imagine a spiral galaxy like the Milky Way.   There is a massive black hole in the center, which is completely invisible (by definition!). Yet, it’s so powerful that you can see its presence on the billions of stars swirling around it.


Concept is the gravity of design.

So for any given element of a design, I always ask:  “How can I make this relate to the central concept?”

I first applied this approach when I was designing Totally Tiny Arcade.  I had planned around 30 arcade minigames, all tied together with a meta-game that involved navigating the arcade itself.  I was overwhelmed with hundreds of design decisions that I had to make on my own.

How was I to know if I was making a good decision at each point?

I kept going back to the concept, which I imagined as “A wonderland of 80’s arcade games.”

From that idea, I had the main character literally fall inside each minigame, like Alice falling into her imaginary world.  I filled each game with absurd enemies, hidden treasures, crunchy 8-bit bleeps, and 80’s synth music.  Everything – from the screen transitions to the pattern on the carpeting – was informed by (and in turn reinforced) this one idea.


Totally Tiny Arcade (PC, 2007)

The danger of designing without a concept is that you often end up with a Frankenstein 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. e.g. “A massively multiplayer side-scrolling arcade platformer with RPG elements. And a crafting system.  And a puzzle-based tactical combat system.”

When you describe something simply as a list of features, that’s a warning sign that there is no clear concept.

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 help narrow your focus to something you are more likely to finish, and the final design is more likely to click with your audience.