What Is the Conceptual Design Process?

by Stephanie Faris ; Updated October 29, 2018
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Anything that is successful has careful planning behind it. The first automobile, the advent of electricity and the smartphones that power everything we do today all were once nothing more than an initial concept. Part of refining a concept is coming up with a plan for its design. That’s where conceptual design comes in. Conceptual design is used by engineers and architects every day, but it’s actually a practice that can be used in any type of industry.

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  • Conceptual design is the first phase of the engineering design process and involves gathering information for the project owner.

What Is Conceptual Design?

Conceptual design is the first step of the multiphase process involved in creating a new product. Whether it’s a building, software application or gadget, it’s important to come up with a general concept before proceeding. The conceptual design phase is immediately followed by the schematic design phase. Conceptual design involves a team convincing the project owner that the idea is worth pursuing. Schematic design means ensuring the concept as sold is actually feasible.

That doesn’t mean that a team can’t determine feasibility before attempting to sell the concept. In fact, often design teams are working from an initial project brief, and the concept stage involves gathering information and researching the market. Many project plans now combine the conceptual and schematic design phases using the term “concept” to describe this stage of project development.

Starting With the Project Brief

To fully understand the engineering design process, it can help to start with the brief that kicks everything off. Briefing documents outline the need that the new product will solve as well as the client requirements. For engineering products, a project brief will describe the client’s goals for the new structure in the form of a statement of need. At this point, it usually hasn’t even been decided if the project is warranted. The brief gives the basic information necessary to make that decision and potentially move the project forward.

If the project is being initiated by a business, the brief may also spell out its role in the greater scheme of things. The brief may seek to demonstrate how the project will improve the business’s bottom line or save money long term. It may include an outline of where it fits in the larger corporate strategy or explore various alternatives, such as adding on to an existing building or locating the structure in a different part of town.

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Understanding Conceptual Design Teams

Once the project brief is in place, a team is then formed to review the brief and meet with the client to outline expectations. This process can vary dramatically from organization to organization. The project manager may be involved from the start or may come in after the project has been approved. Either way, at the conceptual design phase, a design team is tasked with turning the project brief into a concept that sells the project to stakeholders.

Often, teams find that when clients are excited about a project, they want to rush into production without taking the time necessary to think things through. It’s the job of the design team to ensure clients have all information needed to make good decisions in these early stages. This includes fully understanding the goals of the project and clearly communicating the budget and feasible turnaround times. A good design team takes the time to fully understand what the client wants, even if that client seems to want to rush things. A little extra caution at the outset can avoid costly mistakes and project slowdowns down the road.

Concept Criteria vs. Constraints

Two terms you’ll deal with during the conceptual stage are “criteria” and “constraints.” Criteria are the steps your design needs to take so that it’s successful. Constraints are the challenges you’ll face during the design process. By being able to define these from the start, you’ll be better prepared to deal with them. In identifying the criteria and the constraints, you’ll need to be able to determine the potential impact your design will have on people as well as the environment.

Project managers talk about the triple constraint, also known as the project management triangle. This theory postulates that a project’s biggest constraints are schedule, cost and scope. In this triangle, it is assumed that if you make changes to one of the three constraints, it will inevitably affect the other two. If a client asks for even a small change in scope, for instance, it will delay delivery while also upping the price. Alternatively, a cut in budget or a request to deliver things more quickly could affect the quality or scope of the deliverable. By being aware of these three major project constraints, design teams can plan from the start, thereby increasing their odds of delivering a quality product on time and in budget.

The Engineering Design Process

Conceptual design is the early part of a multistage process. Defining the problem in the form of a design brief, doing background research and specifying requirements are all part of the conceptual design and schematic design phases that kick off any new project. Once teams have moved through these phases, they progress to brainstorming solutions and choosing the best solution, at which point true project planning can begin.

When a team has decided on a solution, it’s time to do development work and build a prototype. Before construction can actually begin, the design team will also test that prototype and redesign it, repeating that process until they’ve resolved all problems. Although the steps of engineering design are listed in a specific order, it’s important to note that design teams aren’t obligated to follow those steps exactly. In fact, teams may change up the order or go back to a previous phase if they discover they need to once they’re further in the process.

Applying Engineering Design

No matter what type of business you run, it’s possible to apply engineering design concepts to your own projects. This is especially true of conceptual design, since it encourages teams to create and nurture ideas. If your business is kicking off a new marketing campaign, for instance, you can use conceptual design methodologies to put your idea into words. This means creating a project brief that details the need and your approach along with any constraints you’ll face along the way.

Engineers are also well known for the detail design methods they take. They may spend time drawing up prototypes for a proposed high-rise and then present those drawings to the client. The client can then make suggestions and changes based on that. Instead of a drawing, your project could have a storyboard or map that shows the exact steps you plan to take. Before you’ve begun work, your team or clients can take a look at these mockups and provide feedback.

Engineering Process vs. Scientific Process

The engineering design process is often compared to the scientific method even though they both have very different goals. The engineering method seeks to solve a problem through design, while the goal of the scientific method is to solve a problem through investigation. The steps of the engineering process are to define the problem, conduct background research, specify requirements, brainstorm solutions, choose the best solution, conduct development work, build a prototype, test and redesign.

On the other hand, the scientific method starts by answering a question, which is similar to defining the problem. Scientists then conduct background research, construct a hypothesis, test with an experiment, analyze data, draw conclusions and communicate results. Having these methods in place helps engineers and scientists remain consistent in their work.

About the Author

Stephanie Faris is a novelist and business writer whose work has appeared on numerous small business blogs, including Zappos, GoDaddy, 99Designs, and the Intuit Small Business Blog. She worked for the State of Tennessee for 19 years, the latter six of which were spent as a supervisor. She has written about business for entrepreneurs and marketing firms since 2011.

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