A Context For Developing Design Concepts

Visual Communication: A Context For Developing Design Concepts

Kenneth R. Jr. Tremblay

In the applied design fields, developing concepts is crucial for solving design problems. A teaching unit was implemented to introduce interior design students to design concept development through visual communication. Using an approach termed self-conferencing, students initially experimented on their own with multiple design concepts through free-hand sketching. More complex drawings were completed as students received feedback while focusing on their selected design concepts. Evaluations of the teaching unit were positive, as students creatively explored various concepts through visual communication to solve design problems.


Similar to most college majors, entering students in the applied design fields have varied academic backgrounds, experience levels and communication abilities. The purpose of this paper is to introduce a strategy that addresses issues in the development of design concepts utilizing visual or graphic communication as a primary tool. Design concepts are essentially ideas for solving design problems (Abercrombie, 1990), such as determining how to arrange a classroom environment that fosters professor-student interaction. The development of design concepts is critical to the overall success of any project in interior, architecture, landscape, industrial and graphic design. As applied design educators, the challenge is to identify teaching techniques by which concept development can be presented to students with various skill levels.

In this study, a teaching unit was created to introduce sophomore-level interior design students to concept development through visual communication. Visual communication in design includes freehand sketching, utilizing two-dimensional and three-dimensional drawing techniques, constructing three-dimensional models and computer animation. The objective of the teaching unit was for students to form a solid information base which they could utilize to explore design concepts through graphic means. As a requirement of concept development, students must effectively communicate with themselves to test design ideas and understand space. In this teaching unit the focus was on graphic means to strengthen students’ awareness of concept development, including encouragement to incorporate the design elements of space, form, line, texture, light and color as well as the design principles of balance, rhythm, emphasis, scale, proportion and harmony (Nissen, Faulkner, & Faulkner, 1994).

Literature Review

In addressing the sixth annual Design Communication Association conference, Hershberger (1994) stated that teaching design students the means by which space can best be represented and how the general public might respond to these representations is a crucial area of applied design education. Effective graphic communication is obvious to clients and builders as they need to visualize how a space might be realized. For example, before adding new lighting and sound controls, projection systems and other “smart” technologies in a classroom, college administrators need to visualize the aesthetics and functionality of that classroom through drawings completed by designers. For both the design student and practicing professional, design concepts must be developed as an integral part of beginning work on graphic representations of space to be presented to clients.

Linking design concept development with visual communication has implications for the process by which the designer communicates with self. According to Benedict (1996), if drawing and drafting techniques are taught in the context of concept development, then the means of visual communication (e.g., drawing tools, techniques and media) addressed in the classroom are effected by their support of the design process. Design students might be taught to begin exploring design concepts through preliminary sketches using simple drawing tools, and then to utilize more complex manual drafting and computer-aided design techniques as the design process evolves based on the selected concept.

In the past, students of interior design typically became involved with the generation of advanced three-dimensional drawings in the classroom before developing design concepts. This practice brings to light the critical reinforcement of design concept development and visual communication. Arriving at a conclusion (in this case represented by drawings) before developing a design concept often results in poor design, or places focus on the product as opposed to the process. Concepts comprise the foundations of most other fields of study as well, and must be considered before students can accurately develop models, computer programs or scenarios.

As stated by Goldschmidt and Weil (1998), design is best understood as an outcome of thinking processes. Eggink and Laseau (1996) described the importance of what they referred to as intra-personal communication in conjunction with a freehand sketching approach. This form of communication might also be termed self-conferencing, suggesting that in the initial stages of design it is not necessary to have others involved. Experiences in eye-hand interaction that occur in free-hand sketching provide support for the interaction of thought and visual representation, allowing the student to formulate and test design ideas before presenting them to appropriate recipients. The design student must recognize that self-conferencing is an integral component of design concept development, proceeding from free-hand sketching to more specific manual drafting or computer-generated graphic representations.

Interior design programs utilize different strategies to teach design theories related to the ordering of space and composition with the objective of presenting ideas with clarity and simplicity (Schwartz, 1997). Whatever the method selected to communicate design, students exposed to various graphic techniques often respond positively to a systematic process of design development. Simultaneously, the introduction of design concept development can be discussed and incorporated from the initiation of the process.


A teaching unit implemented in the interior design program at Colorado State University assigned sophomore-level interior design students the task of manually generating six three inch by three inch squares, in part to become familiar with line weight and the use of design tools. Additionally, basic notions of geometric form were addressed and design elements and principles were reviewed via lecture and demonstration formats. This focus reinforced several objectives relating to design concept development previously discussed in general terms during the introductory interior design studio course. Effective teaching techniques as identified by Phillips (1998) such as setting clear project goals, using concrete examples and encouraging student questions were utilized.

Students were then asked to choose one or more of their images to develop into a two-dimensional expression of space using free-hand sketching. This task forced students to carefully consider a variety of design concepts. As is true of most college students, design students typically struggle to generate ideas and often proceed with the first solutions that come to mind, rather than carefully exploring the myriad of existing possibilities. Self-conferencing combined with the task of generating a variety of sketches helped students to select the design concept that best resolved a design problem.

Scaled, plan view drawings (i.e., views looking down into the interior space after a horizontal cut has been made) were then required as part of the project. Students were encouraged to think about “carving out” space to generate the desired forms and to “feel” the effect of such forms within the given plans. The plans generated from the initial geometric squares could be modified at any time during the process to communicate an overall design concept. Self-conferencing continued during this project phase resulting in a productive period of conceptualizing and introspective thought. Selection of the developed design concept and resulting space plan occurred at this point.

The next phase of the project included the introduction of conceptual volume of the space, accomplished through the drawing of elevations and top or roof views. This technique of orthographic protection consisting of vertical and horizontal cuts to show walls and views looking downward into a space was utilized as a means for expanded expression of the created space. Students were now able to express specific spatial characteristics of their designs by thinking in terms of three-dimensional form. Graphic representation and written information pertaining to each design were individually evaluated by student and instructor, and then discussed in a group setting.


A formal evaluation was completed at the end of the project. This evaluation was based on the general quality of the graphic representation such as line weight, lettering, accuracy, composition of the visual presentation and creative approach to concept development. During the evaluation phase of the project, each student generated an axonometric drawing illustrating a three-dimensional view of the entire space while completing design revisions. Students continually refined their designs emphasizing concept and presented their solutions to best illustrate the design concept of the created space. The emphasis was placed on the refinement of basic concept principles as a simultaneous occurrence with graphic expression, now with feedback from others.

Students completing this project felt that they were better able to visualize space. They were especially impressed with their own abilities to generate and test design concepts that were eventually represented in their final drawings. The majority of students realized that they needed to develop a keen sense of self-criticism to assist in choosing the best solutions from the conceptual possibilities and personal visions they generated.

As recommended by Ediger (1998), a self-evaluation by the instructor was also performed. It was determined through this self-evaluation that the content contained in the teaching unit was meaningful, based on feedback from students. Creative thinking was assessed by focusing on original solutions as illustrated in the completed designs. Engaging in a self search for multiple solutions about a design problem at a sketchy, preliminary level resulted in better design solutions. The teaching unit implemented in a classroom setting was considered to be appropriate in cultivating self-conferencing as an integral part of the design process, with an increased emphasis on multiple concepts and greater sophistication of solutions.


The teaching unit described in this paper incorporated a graphic “building process” represented by specific forms of visual expression technique: free-hand sketching, two-dimensional drawings and three-dimensional drawings. As students worked toward a solution of a design problem, the integral expression of design concept occurred. Creativity in design concept development was successfully encouraged. Helping students reach their creative potential is crucial to innovation in all fields of study. The understanding of visual expression in the context of design concept development enabled interior design students participating in this teaching unit to experience a more complete creative process.


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Benedict, W. M. (1996). Beliefs for creating more inclusive beginnings. Presentation, 7, 8-18.

Ediger, M. (1998). Determining success in university teaching. College Student Journal, 32, 121-124.

Eggink, H., & Laseau, P. (1996). Drawing in context: Responding to new realities. Presentation, 7,34-39.

Goldschmidt, G., & Weil, M. (1998). Contents and structure in design reasoning. Design Issues, 14,85-100.

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Schwartz, B. (1997). Learning to write and diagram, writing and diagramming to learn. Journal of Interior Design, 23, 42-50.

KENNETH R. TREMBLEY, JR. SUSAN A. KREUL-FROSETH LAWRENCE VON BAMFORD BRIAN H. DUNBAR Department of Design and Merchandising Colorado State University

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