Creative Problem Solving Process

Art 200/ Art 260 / Greg Clayton

3rd Stage: Define

Creative Problem-Solving: Define               ( Personal Concept Definition )


Here you define your own goals — this stage is where you make the project truly your own.
You describe the objectives that you, personally, consider worth pursuing.
You develop your concept statement, which is a form of an artist's statement.


Write out your goals — clarify your concept in words.

When you are forced to put your priorities into words, you have to boil things down to essentials.

For a lot of us, thats hard — which is sometimes a clue that it is important. Words are less 'fuzzy' than our imagination — so words can be a useful bridge to making our conceptions real — they take us one step closer to concrete form. We don't write in order to fill a page with words, we write because we must process our ideas and explore our own thoughts before particular words go down on the page. 

Initially, you might write out at least three goals that your solution should achieve.  Note that there are several approaches to concept statements discussed below.  No artist's statement is likley to address all of these approaches — but often two or three aspects are addressed.

Here is where all of the goals that you use to guide your decisions get clear and focused...or more focused.   Thus this is a statement about your objectives — just what is it that you are trying to accomplish in this design or this solution?  Recall that design is fundamentally an intentional act — here is where you explore, refine and define your intention.

Later on, during the Select stage you will make choices about which ideas to actually use. You will select ideas according to which ideas best express or best achieve the goals that you define here. So the objectives you define here influence everything you do later in the process of developing your work.

Problem-Finding In Your Own Words — in practice, the actual problem that you are trying to solve is not obvious. When we aim for the wrong problem, we generate inappropriate solutions and waste time and energy.
So, take time to restate what the real problem-to-be-solved actually is in your own words.
The client or the teacher may have described what they want you to do — but in their words. Their words reflect their way of thinking, their paradigms and their vocabulary. To make this thing your own, you've got to discover how you would describe the challenge at hand — explore what you're aiming to accomplish in your words.

Moreover, you have to discover what the real problem is. Many descriptions of problems actually lead us away from solutions and away from understanding. The best designer, thinkers and researchers are able to glean the real problem — their own version of what needs to be solved.  A part of creativity involves seeing the world in a way that most others miss, or have not yet noticed.  But we don't merely arrive at designs that others have not seen, we see the problems that others don't see -- or see familiar problems in unfamiliar, fresh or surprising ways.
Take time to invest yourself in the current design problem — what is it that really has to be figured out in order to arrive at a successful solution?

Define – to determine essential goals of the project. To define what the solution must do.

Develop your Concept Statemen
t — which is an expression of those goals. Your concept statement defines or declares what you, personally, are aiming for.

Make the project your own — own it and define it. Instead of operating on the client's general description, explore and describe what you and only you will accomplish. Here is where you make this design different from all the solutions of all of the other designers who are working on the same project.

When you reach the Evaluate stage, you again will compare what you have actually created to the goals you define here. So, here is where you define your own personal standards of success — your concept statemet is a mission statement, a sort of constitution that will guide later creative, expressive and formal decisions.


Concept Statements & Concept Development


Concept drives form.
   Or, if you like, form follows function.                 
( pro/con essay; graphic design basics);
        And matter manifests logos.


In all successful design there is first an intent, a purpose and a guiding conception of what is to become.
The strength of that concept has more impact on the success of the final design than any other single factor — you've got to develop a worthwhile concept before you can expect a worthwhile design.


A concept statement is a concise statement of what your design will accomplish and how it will accomplish it. There are many ways to explore your concept — different perspectives from which to view your aims. Explore as many perspectives as possible so as to better see what your creation can be — just what is its potential?

Successful concepts respond to a clear understanding of the problem.
What is the problem?
The problem is whatever situation prompted the design — often a client needs to market a product, or to create a space in which employees can be more effective at their jobs. An artist might want others to become aware of something they are overlooking. Those are problems in need of a solution.

A concept statement might include a kind of designer-written problem definition.
While there may be a client or a teacher that introduces a problem, you must translate your understanding of their requirements and goals into your own words, sketches and ideas. Your concept statements are where that happens — here is where you make the design problem your own.

Designers serve others by devising and creating solutions to problems. We are a service industry in the sense that we serve the problems of others —  we work to find, design and implement solutions for certain types of problems. Concept statements explore how our solutions serves others by solving some need.

Concept statements acknowledge that form follows function (functionalism); design flows from concept.
Design itself is a series of purpose-driven decisions. Every design involves many interrelated decisions. Most of those choices do not involve black-white, right-wrong answers. Most choices are between several plausibie options. In order to evaluate the benefits of each alternative, we must reference the function or purpose of the design — what is this thing for, anyway?
The more clear we are on the function, purpose or intended influence of the final design, the more easily we can choose among the many creative options that we explore.

The more clear your concept, the more clear your design choices.

If you have not clarified the concept that drives your design, how can you possibly make those choices that constitute the acts of design? Designers choose concrete forms in order to manifest their abstract concept. If the concept is vague, there is no way to choose one form from another.

Fine artists, especially use their concept statements as an initial draft of their artist's statements.
The artist's statement expresses the motivation or the goals or the process of your expressive work to your audience.  They want to understand your work.  Often a written account of what motivated you helps them understand your work, and helps them connect with both you and your work.


Exploring Concepts — Varying Perspectives on the Problem and the Solution

How can I explore my own concept?
Each of these types of concepts, below, focuses your attention on particular aspects of your particular problem-solution — they offer you a way to get deeper into your own ideas, your own intentions, into your own values and priorities.

Explore the questions attached to each type of concept in order to better get to know your own intention — your own unique and personal goals for the design. A successful design meets a need. The self-reflection involved in concept-develoment helps you establish your direction, preparing your thoughts and perceptions to get on with the fun of creating need-meeting solutions.

These concepts are described, in part, via questions — questions that you can ask yourself while exploring your concept.
These are not the only questions you might ask, but are starting points. Many designers, scientists and researchers have discovered that the right questions prompt useful insights and discoveries. So a designer needs to build up a "toolbox of questions" — a collection of questions that prompt you to notice what you would not otherwise have noticed.  
Good questions expand our awareness.

Try out some of these questions noted below while writing your notes on concepts — see if some of them help open your eyes a bit.

A disclaimer:
Not every kind of concept is really helpful for every project. But you don't know which perspective will offer the key to insight into the solution you want — so explore as many types of concepts as possible.

Also, not every question prompts insight into the problem. But, as noted above, you don't know which questions will provoke insights into the current solution. So, again, explore as many questions as possible. Keep asking more questions or searching for deeper, more complete or more elaborate answers to promising questions — or keep looking for simpler answers.


Types of Concepts

This inventory of concept types is not complete — I doubt if it ever could be. But this collection of concepts provide a helpful variety of perspectives from which to think about and look at any creative problem.

Content Concept | Response Concept | Impact Concept | Graphic Concept |
Art Historical Context Concept | Contemporary Art Context Concept |  Contemporary Culture Context Concept |
Source (Seed) Concept | Parti | Functional Concept | Interactive/Feedback Concept | Process Concept |
Priority Concept | Concept Summary/Thesis

Content Concept

— Describe the message, meaning, information or mood that you want to convey to the viewer/user.

What is the message you want to communicate? (denotations)
What is the emotion you want to express? (connotations)
What ideas do you want to allude to? (references)
Advice from a creative pro -- "you need to figure out what you're trying to say"

Note that a message, meaning or information tends to be denotative — overt data or information is conveyed to the viewer or user.
What information do I want them to get — to understand, to become aware of?
What point of view do I want them to consider?
What paradigm do I want them to step into?

What do mood or attitude do I want to associate with that message?

Mood, of course, emphasizes connotations, attitude or affect. In practice a message is conveyed with attitude or connotations attached, but it is worth noting that, strictly speaking, the connotative and the denotative messages are separate issues to address.

This type of concept statement can overlap with a "Response Concept" (below), but here we're looking at the core message conveyed, not what we motivate the viewer to do or to feel in response to that message.


Response Concept

— Describe what you want the viewer/user to think, feel or do in response to your design.

We don't design objects or images, we design user experiences — nothing else.
Let me say that again: we do not design objects. We design experiences.
The objects that we concieve, design and create are means to an end, and that end is a user experience.
I am attempting to influence another human being. My designed object is merely a medium for establishing a connection with that human being.
Thus, when I design, I must consider the experiences of the end user.
Otherwise I'm simply being self-indulgent and selfish.

So what do I want that experience to be?

Do I want them to laugh? get angry? feel like they're in a familiar and comfortable place?
Do I want them to be motivated to do vote for something, to buy something, to protest, to buy flowers...?
Do I want them to be conscious and aware of something?
Do I want them to feel that some issue is much more important or urgent?

Every color on the canvas, every frame of the movie, every phrase in the poem is nothing more than a stimulant for the experience that we aim to induce in the viewer. A response concept describes the human response that you would like to inspire, incite or induce in your viewer, listener, participant or reader.
This is the outcome you are aiming for.

Reality check: You do not control the viewer.
You have no direct control over how the viewer or user will respond to your work.
You have means of influencing the user.
Sometimes you can manipulate a reaction.
In general, however, keep in mind that you are attempting to only influence another utterly free-to-choose human being. Let go of control and exercise influence.

Alt:  Consider the difference between getting person to take action, and getting a person to change their point of view — to change how they feel about something.

See also Interactive/Feedback Concept We have more technologies for interacting than ever before -- and we are only beginning to understand how facilitate and use user interactions and feedback loops.


Impact Concept

— Describe how you will get the viewer's attention.

Today each of us is utterly inundated with an onslaught of images, forms, messages, opinions, signs, texts, tweets and cluttersome expectations. For you, as a designer, to capture the attention of such busied people is no small challenge. Your audience does not owe you their attention. They do not have to look at, ponder, study, use, respect or enjoy what you create. They do not have to buy what you are selling.
It is thus your job to offer them something worth giving attention to, and it is your job to get their attention from all of their incessant distractions.
How will you do that?

What strategy will you use to impact the viewer? What tactics might get their attention, hold their attention, or keep your work in their memory? What will you do to get the viewer to voluntarily take time to explore and consider your work? Recall that every viewer is ultimately a voluntary participant. You might, in some bizarre circumstances, require or coerce your viewer to look at your creation, but they still will not open themselves to what you have to say unless you treat them as a voluntary viewer.

The tactics necessary for getting and holding a viewer are varied, but too often neither studied nor consciously applied.

Will you use humor?
Will you shock?
Might you juxtapose a known with an unknown?
Will you assault or challenge their cherished beliefs?
Could you reinforce or validate their point of view?
Will you present something familiar and comfortable from their everyday experience?

Are there memories that I can remind them of? Pleasant ones? Unpleasant experiences?
Are there hopes I can tap into — can I remind the viewer of their own dreams and aspirations?
Can I tap into their fears or their prejudices? Can I expose what they want to deny or keep hidden?
Might I juxtapose something that they like with something that they don't like?

Alt:  Consider an Impact Concept versus a Memory Concept. 
Getting viewer's to pay attention is one challenge. 
Getting them to remember is another.

See also: Interactive/Feedback Concept Interactions are a key tactic for grabbing a viewer's attention.


Graphic Concept

— Describe the appearance of your design.

What do you know about the look, the visual traits, formal traits, stylistic traits, the visual components to include. What forms (visual design), media (craft, materials, processes), or structures might you use in your design?

What are the prominent, active, dominating graphic traits?
Will line or texture be prominent?
Do I want to use bold contrast or subtle contrast?
Will you use pure, formal symmetry, or a more dynamic assymetric balance?
What materials might I use? Manmade metals and plastics? Rustic, natural and organic?
What structure or organization? How orderly? (very clean and carefully arranged? or random and haphazard?)
What graphic hierarchy should I develop — which elements must be noticed first? What should be noticed last? What's the focal area to be?

Also: Material Concept: What materials, media or technologies do you intend to use or exploit?
Might fabric or fibers work?
Might collage or assemblage offer freedom?
Might light or flowing water be effective?
Could a growing plant, moss or mold work?

Also: Structural Concept: What structural systems do you want or need to use? A branching tree or a bifurcation? A pyramid? A Grid? A flowing serpentine curve or a spiral? A looping system? There are many kinds of structures that provide stability. Some provide flexibility. Some structures organize rather than providing physical support (e.g a grid for a magazine layout.)

Art Historical Context Concept

— How does your work respond to some topic or dialog that has gone on amongst earlier artists, art historians or art critics?

You might revisit the concerns that motivated the French Impressionists — you could reapply their concerns with modernity, with leisure, with the passing moment to contemporary life.
You might explore issues of classicism, or of romanticism — points of view that continue to inform our thinking and our form-making.
You might explore the formalism of mid-20th c. abstractionists, or the dream analysis and psychotherapeutic interests of the Surrealists, or the thoughts of randomness and spontaneity of Dada, or the pessimism and pain that seems to thread through German Expressionists between the World Wars.
Pop artists have surveyed, ridiculed and iconized mainstream commercial culture — join Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg in their critique of the street.
The Italian Futurists, Russian Constructivists and others, wrote manifestos declaring their purposes and motivations — and their intent to influence culture to come.  How might you revise, rethink or upturn those manifestos for today?  What portion of what they said still rings true?
Artists have been intentional and serious about their ideas and their pursuits as long as we have evidence of arts existing — the pre-historic cave painters appear to have been exploring spirituality and causality in those deep, dark places in which they created.

Successful artists and designers know the historical roots of their own work as well as the work of their time.  Your art historical roots ground you in a long-standing conversation about what it is to be human, and how we might live in this world with integrity.  Your art historical roots expose you to ways of speaking visually and effectively.
Edmund Burke's oft-repeated statement that "Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it" applies to artists as well.  We who don't know the depth of our art history can produce only pale mimics of the masters of the past — or clumsy reactions to the past.  When we know why those masters did what they did, then we can join the conversation — we can add to it.

Contemporary Art Context Concept

— How does your work participate in a discussion or dialectic that is active amongst artists and critics today?

Many artists work hard to respond to the works and the ideas that other artists present.  Each work is, in a sense, a part of a conversation.  So a contemporary art context concept explores the conversation that you are joining, the point of view that you want to contribute to that conversation, the aspects of the current conversation that you disagree with or those that you agree with.  Basically, your artworks put your two cents into the mix. 

How do you feel about contemporary realism, about the revival of academicism, about interactive artforms, about increasingly digital art-production methods?
What do you think of kitsch and banality, of randomness and of systems, of post-modern ecclecticism and multi-cultural aquisition?

Notice that you cannot contribute to a conversation unless you have been paying attention to that conversation for some time.  Jumping into any conversation abruptly, without familiarity with the background, context, key issues and such is, well, embarrassing.  So, as an artist or a designer, it is necessary to follow the works created by the leaders in your field — follow them over time. Find out how their conversation got to where it is by going back weeks, months, years or even decades so that you can understand what your peers are trying to work out, and why it is so imporant, and why it is so difficult.  That is, participate in your profession.  Then get ready to profess what you believe into that profession.

Contemporary Culture Context Concept

— How does your work address issues, events, personalities, trends or problems in culture at large?

Artists work to be relevant to their time.  We create works that comment on, raise awareness about, and hopefully influence the issues of the day. 

You might address political concerns, or legal or legislative issues. 
Your work might look at social problems of poverty or injustice. 
Your work might declare your position in matters that divide people.
You might raise awareness of and lend dignity to the overlooked, the dispossessed or abused individuals, groups or creatures.  

Your work might deal with rampant technology or obsessions over social media, the price of fame, the price of gas or the price of cell service.
Your work might deal with ecological disasters, disagreements over the validity of ecological threats, varied solutions, reasons for resistance, or concequences of indifference.
Your work might take positions on abortion, homesexuality, gender bias, race relations, historical revisionism or infomercials. Not all are equally weighty, of course.
Your work might explore tensions between believers of different faiths, between different doctrinal conclusions, between different generations of believers, or the tension between believers and an increasingly secular culture.

In order to address contemporary culture, you do have to be familiar with the active issues.  While you, in fact, are living in the contemporary millieu, if you are to discuss matters, it really is important to hear and understand what others are saying — and where they are coming from.
Have you been talking with your friends or with strangers about such ideas? Do you argue or do you share your viewpoint? Do you stay out and leave well enough alone — or are you engaged? Your ideas, and your point of view will change when you present your reasonings and hear those of others — as iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.
Have you been reading the news? Newspapers, magazine, online news outlets, opinion blogs? Are you exploring how different sources view the same issue — or are you just listening to the same voice over and over? There are a lot of plausible points to consider on all sides. You may well be right to hold your position, but take time to understand those who differ. Often they teach us something.

Source Concept or Seed Concept       (alt Parti?)

— What object or idea might you use as a source of inspiration?

A Seed Concept is an object of inspiration from which traits and relationships and sometimes meanings might be derived.
A seed, for instance, has all of the information needed to manifest the forms that can and will grow from it. Look for a seed that might inspire solutions to your design problem. Look for objects or concepts that might become informative metaphors.

Could you, for instance, create a business card layout inspired by an octopus?
...could you design a restaurant inspired by a lotus blossom?
Your final design need not look at all like either an octopus or a lotus, but might involve symmetries, coloration or curvilinear traits or other relationships informed by your source.

What might you select as a basis for imaginative exploration of possibilities beyond familiar solutions?
Might you "bring in" something completely outside of the function or purpose of the design, and yet still extract ideas and relationships from that source?
What might you look to for insights, forms and relationships that might then be applied to your design?
You're looking, here, for something to inspire your imagination and to inform your design.


[pahr-tee] (from the French, having to do with a decision, a distinctive point of view, a distinctively different choice, or a division, as in a political party that is unique and distinctive due to their particular positions or values.)

Architects use the term Parti as a sort of core graphic concept
— the bare-bone essential form prior to later details and specifics. A parti is the essential, simplified, underlying structure, gesture or movement of a design. It is the simplest gestalt to which a design can be reduced.
A parti can be stated, but is more often a thumbnail sketch or gesture drawing serves.


Functional Concept

Functional concepts are driven by overt functional needs — that is, designers conceive, design and create solutions that meets some functional, purposeful, utilitarian need. Thus those functions need to be clearly defined and their implications explored. The designer creates objects that serve people's functional needs — making tasks easier. The so-called functional arts include architecture, interior design, industrial design as well as the crafts, furniture design, fashion design, ceramics, etc. Graphic and web design are certainly functional in that their solutions serve a mission or purpose; many pieces aim to persuade or inform -- which is a valid and often complex function. In fact most of the arts have some functional component and some degree of responsibility to fulfill some functional concerns.

If your design serves any sort of function, then explore and detail as many aspects of those functions as possible.
Answer the question: what functions must this design provide?

— What tasks must the user of this design be enabled to do?
— How do I communicate with the user so that they know how to use this?
— What are the easiest and most intuitive ways that a user might communicate with this design? (software interface design; industrial design)


Interactive/Feedback Concept

(see also Response Concept) Interactive and Feedback concepts reflect the tools and media available to

What involvement could I use from the user-viewer?
How might I let go of control of my message, and allow others to engage in and even drive the conversation that I start?
How might my users/viewers become co-authors?

How might the viewer/user want to change or refine what I present? What options can I offer?
What technical means of interacting might I use?
All aspects of the web are driven by user-interactions -- the foundation are simple buttons and links. Buttons express some choice and alter something. Links take us where we want to go next. Other user actions allow us to create content -- whether typing a tweet or modeling a skyscraper.
How can you provide your user choice, freedom, alternatives?

Feedback is a more elaborate and ongoing form of interaction -- thus likley a separate topic.
Basically I want to start a process that others continue.
How might I generate discussion, debate or brainstorming among my users -- particularly users who have never, and may never, meet face-to-face?
We are a culture rich in means of feedback and rich in technologies to support ongoing exchange and evolution of ideas. In print media, there are good old-fashioned letters to the editor. More common are blogs with feedback, user reviews for every Amazon product in the universe, tweets and email threads. Crowd sourced projects allow ideas to be honored, or ignored, by interested strangers.

How might you stimulate and facilitate a groundswell of user response?


Process Concept

What working methods might you use?
What experiences or steps might you engage in as a means of provoking ideas, insights and decisions?
What sort of feedback might you engage as you develop your solution?

Where might you go to create? What might you listen to? What research might you read?
What might you do just before you begin a creative session?

Might you use a survey or interviews to get views, reactions or ideas from other people? ...and then work in response to their input?
Might you use social media to initiate a discussion? ...or post images for people to respond to?

Process concepts address your working methods, your creative process, your feedback — your way of getting from blank slate to completed solution.
Many designers and problem solvers develop methods rather than overt objectives for their work. They trust that they will discover worthwhile ideas, forms and solutions if and when they enter into conditions that force them to see things in new ways, or force them to make decisions, or force them to let go of controlled and logical decision-making. For such artists, process itself is an overt contributor to creative outcome — the designer becomes a partner with other stimuli or feedback systems or even with randomness itself.


Priority Concept

— (do this after you've explored the prior concepts)

After exploring your other goals, take time to identify your top priorities.
—Which of the other concepts will dominate your design process and decision-making?
— What do you most want or need to accomplish in this design?

You might continue and rank the top three, or top five priorities. This may help you decide between alternatives later on.


Concept Summary or Design Thesis

— (do this last, after reviewing everything you've written, sketched and researched so far.)

This is your brief description of what your solution is all about. This is the "tell it to your boss" and "sell it to the client" sales pitch.

Describe the essential, distinctive, defining traits of what you aim to create.
Write a brief summary of your distinctive solution.

What will your design be about?
What will it look like?
What shape, color, balance might you use?
What imagery or text?
What do you want to get across?

This Concept Summary is handy when you need to describe your ideas to others — it becomes your "sales pitch" that introduces others to your solution. In practice, that's important. In most design professions, you've got to get clients or art directors to go along with your concept before they will approve it. So, you've got to figure out a way to concisely explain, present and defend your ideas.
Your concept summary is a useful part of that presentation.

Extended concept statements might include rationale that explain or justify the objectives and choices made by the designer — why aim for this? Why attempt this strategy? Why these priorities?
These matters are needed to communicate and validate your solution to others.

Glean your best ideas and insights from your concept notes and questions — figure out what is most important to you and most essential to the success of your solution.

Remember — simple is better; focused trumps fuzy.


Does your concept pass the Elevator Test?

How do you know when your concept is ready? When is it good enough?

Though there are no absolute rules for a concept statement, one useful test of a "good concept statement" is the elevator test.

In many real-world situations you have only brief and scarce opportunity to sell your ideas to others — you will encounter unexpected opportunities to present your concept and get it accepted and approved. You've got to be ready to explain your idea when that opportunity appears.

Its been said that a good concept statement, or a good sales pitch, must pass the elevator test. Imagine that you arrive at work and happen to get on the elevator with the executive in charge of the division responsible for the project you've been brainstorming on — the person who will decide "yes" or "no" on your project. Imagine, also, that you've got a great concept for the project, but nobody has been willing to listen to it. But now, the key person is locked into the elevator with you.
What do you do?
You tell her your concept before the elevator door opens.
That's your window of opportunity.

The idea, here, is that everyone is absurdly busy. They — and we — don't have time to listen to each and every idea that comes along, especially when most idea people want an hour of your time, or even 15 minutes, to present their pitch. There aren't enough hours in the day — and many concepts are not worth listening to. Therefore, the 'burden of proof' falls to the idea person. It is the creative thinker's job to find some way to explain, present and sell his idea in a very, very brief window of opportunity — thus the elevator test.

The elevator test says, if your idea cannot be communicated in the time you have on your elevator ride, then your idea is not yet boiled down to its essence — it is still too vague, too diluted or too compliicated.

If you cannot present the essence of ...
a) how your solution effectively solves a real problem and...
b) how your solution is distinctly different, and even superior,
then your concept statement doesn't pass the elevator test.

You're not yet ready for prime time — or, at least, your concept isn't.

Your job is to get to know the problem and your solution so well, that you can express its essence during that elevator ride.
30 seconds.
50 words.
Really quick.

Boil your concept down to absolute essentials.
If your concept is more than 100 words, edit it down.
50 is better.
25 is great.

It's hard. But it's doable.
In practice, it's essential

Focus your mission — it makes everything downstream easier.

The purpose of a concept statement, then, is two-fold:
it clarifies your own intentions to yourself,
it provides a concise means of communicating your intended design to others.

This is a stage of intense concentration on the problem.
Focusing on the problem prepares you for the next stage, Incubation.


Articles and Videos on concept development and concept application

Art & Architecture — the Louvre, I.M.Pei...

Sustainable Design concepts within the design process


Creativity | Creative Process | Prior Stage—Analyze | Next Stage—Incubate

Accept | Analyze | Define | Incubate | Ideate | Select | Implement | Evaluate | Let Go


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