Traps, Tricks and Strategies & Concept Development

From WikID

By Stefan van de Geer. As a senior design tutor, Stefan experienced many obstacles that students face during concept development. This collection of traps, tricks and strategies will support your learning process.


At our faculty, and specifically in our design courses, we devote considerable attention to the process of designing. Methods and techniques are described, experienced and used. They result in a well-defined and developed product. The basic cycle of designing, which involves structured phase models of the design process, morphological analysis, evaluation strategies (Roozenburg, 1991), helps the designer to achieve the desired result. One of the most important phases is the period in which the product is conceived.

This period starts after the analytical phase (defining the problem, analysing the target group, etc.) and ends somewhere in a phase of materialising the final concept. During this period, many decisions are made that have great impact on the outcome. If we divide this phase into two sections, we can derive concept-forming and concept development elements. For concept formation, several techniques and methods are available to generate ideas, such as brainstorming, morphological charts and Mind Mapping. Eventually, this path will lead to a basic concept. However, there is a shortage of supporting techniques for concept development. Trial and error seems to be the guideline in a phase in which uncertainty, change and stress are key issues. It is a phase that ends with a feeling of ‘Eureka!’ if everything comes together and the balance sought is found. Complex integration problems occur and there is a need for detailed information. We are still able to use the aforementioned methods and techniques in parts of this process, but reality is far more complex and every single action will affect the overall outcome. Considerations of price, manufacturability, material selection, construction, usage and form all interact with each other and put pressure on the designer’s responsibility. In contrast with the many methods and techniques for idea generation, there is a lack of similar methods for developing the concept into an end product that satisfies the defined requirements.

Delft’s experience of teaching design has enabled us to identify some ‘traps’ that constitute obstacles for students in making the right decisions at the right time. Obtaining an insight into the traps and devising ‘tricks’ to overcome them will help you to complete this phase successfully.


Narrow View

When confronted with multiple design problems, you may often be inclined to focus on one specific aspect or problem if it happens to be the easiest part of the total. You may put all your energy into tackling the problem, but at the same time forget about its relationship with other aspects of the design. Once discussed with the tutor, these relationships can be pinpointed and the enormous amount of energy spent on the single problem may turn out to have been a waste of time. You had too narrow a view. A narrow view can occur, for example, when operating in only one field. An example is focusing on shape and forgetting to consider the production method or usability. A narrow view can also occur in designing some specific activity, such as the rather quick choice of one particular principle of operation without identifying its influence on other matters. The danger is that this influence will not become apparent until the end of the project or until a discussion with the tutor at a point in time when the chosen solution has already been detailed. It would be far better to recognise the influence earlier, before a lot of time and effort has been invested.

Compensating Behaviour

Uncertainty, a lack of experience, a lack of knowledge and a lack of information – combined with the project deadline – may force you to adopt compensating behaviour. Although you realise that the problems are complex and difficult to solve, you are reluctant to force yourself to tackle the problem. You know you should, but you don’t. Instead, you fill your reports with copied information and treat a simple problem extensively on the assumption that the tutor will accept it as proof of your capability. An example is extensive research into operating handles, knobs and push buttons, which are copied from literature accompanied by handwritten text, which amounts to an exact copy of the original literature.

It is understandable why you could adopt this approach. You avoid the real problems, do not see any way to get to grips with them but want to produce something all the same. This behaviour sometimes acts as a decoy, in spite of the fact that it might help to set the mind at ease. Simply staring at a blank piece of paper is no help at all.

False Solutions

One of the most significant ‘traps’ is the development of false solutions. Given a certain design problem, most of you know that alternative solutions should be developed to allow an evaluation as a stepping-stone to the right choice. We know from experience, however, that students first report all possible solutions, including theoretical ones, only to discard all of them except one. If a hinge has to be designed, for example, you may typically produce a complete list of solutions for a hinge, like a hinge for the cover of a piano, a hinge for normal doors, welding hinges, a snapping hinge for plastic boxes, a simple pin-and-bushing, a plastic hinge made of POM like the ones used in cheap suitcases and so on. After making this list, your rejects the welded hinge because the product is made of plastics, the piano hinge is rejected because of time-consuming mounting, the snap hinge is rejected for its poor strength, the simple pin-and-bushing hinge is discarded because of its poor shape, the door hinge because it needs too much room. The last remaining solution is chosen because it is simple, cheap and fits very easily to the plastic base of the product. All of the rejected solutions are actually ‘false’ solutions. In effect, you automatically include solutions that are not solutions, on the pretext of allowing a responsible choice to be made.


Clamping occurs when you have developed a part but does not wish to relinquish it. To some extent, this is due to a narrow view, but your stubbornness or fixation can also play a role. It is not easy to let go of a solution once it has been developed, because other problems not yet recognised remain attached to the solution. Clamping often happens unconsciously. This may be the case if the design has been examined initially and judged to be more important than construction, cost price, assembly, ergonomics and so on. A single aspect is given dominance above all other aspects, creating the danger that you must exercise all kinds of manoeuvres to find halfway decent solutions to the other aspects. Sometimes you will recognise that the dominance of the single aspect is wrong, but will know that a lot of energy has already been devoted to it, the result being a tendency to avoid redesign.

Suppressing Individual Development

Another trap when developing concepts - more specifically in the early years of study - is that you play yourself entirely at the service of the design tutor because of the complexity of the matter. This creates a classroom approach where the tutor is often asked questions like “What should I do?”, “How far should I go in working it out?”, or “Is this OK?”. The report is produced for the tutor, because the workbook says this is what should happen. However, designers need to bear in mind that not all methods are equally usable at all times. Compiling a list of requirements using ‘process trees’ (LCAs) may result in a large degree of completeness, but it is cumbersome and time-consuming. What is more, after reading the report, people could be discouraged from using process trees. Slavishly integrating anthropometric data in a design may look tempting, but in many instances there are also other factors that influence dimensional characteristics. People usually wear shoes, they are clothed and the optimum ergonomic dimensioning is not always meaningful. Everybody will recognise that fold-up seats in trains are not intended to be sat on for hours on end. Matters of this kind result in dutiful activities in which a person’s own contribution is suppressed and thwart individual development.

Postponing Decisions

Putting off decisions can be right in many cases, but they do have to be taken as time progresses and the deadline appears on the horizon. Repeatedly postponing decisions can result in delays. If a tricycle has to be designed, it seems to make sense to decide right away to equip the vehicle with three wheels rather than two wheels or more than four wheels. If costs are an issue and the client does not wish to invest in producing wheels, an immediate step can be taken to obtain information about existing, obtainable wheels and a decision can be made fairly quickly.

Lack of Argument

Very often, a design tutor is unable to see why a decision is being taken. All the way through to later years, decisions are taken that appear to be based on nothing. An example is a student who has drawn eight different screws and then declares to have opted for screw A. That’s it. No further explanation. A decision sometimes stems from a gut feeling, but the point is that some kind of motivation and argumentation must always be given to support the decision. This matter is obviously related to a predefined basic principle, an analysis conducted earlier or a certain philosophy.

Some tutors say that during the course you must ask yourself “Why?” before everything that you do. There is usually a justification, but it is not always made explicit and in such cases the tutor has no option but to conclude that no arguments exist. The situation may be different after your study, as in the case of the celebrated designer who had designed a wonderful product, and when asked about the underlying motivation replied: “I may have laid the egg, but I’ll leave the cackling to others.”


Helicopter View

One of the most important attributes of the designer is the helicopter view. From time to time, it will be necessary to step away from the elaboration of a certain problem in order to zoom out to a higher level so as to survey the consequences of possible decisions in other areas. Only with such an overview you will be able to integrate your solutions and combine them into a whole. This applies to product properties, but importantly also to the path being followed and the process. Adopting the helicopter view early on in the development of the concept also promotes the will to change, helps to distinguish primary matters from secondary ones and thus to determine a strategy. Similarly, a helicopter view is indispensable when evaluating solutions for product properties. Everything is interconnected and the right decision can only be taken if you have an overview. The method of presentation - the illustration of the brainchild - can also have an influence in this regard. So show where the details are located in the design, make complete cross-sections instead of zoomed-in sketches that ‘conceal’ the rest of the product. This is advantageous not only for the design tutor, who needs to form an impression, but also for you as a student, because it facilitates a far earlier discovery of other problem areas.


Be aware that theoretically anything is still possible during the development of a concept into a sketched design. During the process, you obtain a progressive insight, more information and more experience, meaning that changes occur. Reference was made earlier on to the ‘trial-and-error’ aspect of designing. Still more slogans are conceivable, like ‘Designing means falling and getting up again’, ‘Designing is always two steps forward and one step back’ and ‘Designing is a jigsaw puzzle’. Choosing a certain principle does not mean you have to stick to it no matter what.


Complexity sometimes makes it necessary to inject a little structure. As a concept is developed, the paths that need to be followed become visible, allowing a conscious choice to be made about the direction to be taken – just like a certain distance can be covered during a walk by following a route marked by one particular colour. Following all the colours during the same walk will give rise to the danger of getting lost or going round in circles. So examine beforehand how much time there is and what goals must be achieved. A different analogy is the one with a jigsaw puzzle. When people tackle a jigsaw puzzle, they will not pick up an arbitrary piece to compare it with all the other pieces until they find one that fits it. Usually, people will create a framework, sort the pieces according to colour and try to form an impression of the result. Green pieces will generally be placed at the bottom and blue pieces at the top. However, a prearranged structure can also have a slowing effect. It often happens that a person has worked correctly in terms of structure and process, but that the product turns out to be unsatisfactory. From time to time, therefore, it can be beneficial to depart from the structure to examine the matter from entirely different vantage points. This, too, has to do with the helicopter view - step away and allow yourself to become detached.


A tool for injecting structure is formulating basic principles at every level of the design process. Performing a shape study is not merely a question of drawing all kinds of shapes and then choosing one. It can be preceded by formulating basic principles like “What impact do I want the design to make on the user and how do I translate that?”, “At what levels can I view the design and at what level should I start?” Try to define a certain philosophy on which to base the shape study. At a constructional level, too, it can be useful to formulate basic principles. And in almost all cases, an initial analysis of the problem or sub-problem can be instrumental in demarcating the scope for a solution and in creating a framework from where solutions can be generated. Conversely, it can sometimes be more comfortable simply to start sketching to form an impression of the possibilities that exist. As you sketch, a philosophy will unfold that can serve as a basis for taking decisions.


Taking all disciplines into account - designing is a multidisciplinary activity - the key to success is to find a satisfactory answer to all the aspects involved. Everything is connected with something else and the art is to dilute certain aspects in order to make others tastier. It is about finding a good balance between design, cost price, usage, production and so on. Few people are capable of excelling in all aspects, and it is an almost impossible task in Bachelor design projects within the allowed period of time. Striving to achieve the balance and the will to make concessions should obviously not result in a design in which everything just barely comes up to standard, because an excellent design can counterbalance a high cost price. The efforts must result in a design in which everything has been optimised. This optimum must be achieved within the defined requirements and wishes, while fulfilling the formulated basic principles and goals.

Knowledge, Information and Communication

It may be assumed that knowledge will always fall short of what we need and there will always be a need for information. Although a very large volume of information is available, we again have to contend with pressure of time and the goals to be achieved. But one thing is certain: during the development of a concept there will be a need for relevant information and specific knowledge. The strength of an industrial designer lies not so much in his own knowledge as in communicating with specialists and finding information. The products around us are a permanent source of information. When confronted with design problems, an analysis of existing products can yield immediate solutions or generate solutions. Similarly, by disassembling and reassembling products we can gain an insight and practical know-how that will undoubtedly prove useful at some stage. The design tutor will in some cases obviously be able to impart knowledge, or in any event provide advice on where information may be found. The technical documentation centre possesses a great deal of information and there is no ban on consulting a specialist or other design tutor at Delft University of Technology or at a company. Very often, short but informative telephone calls can be very helpful. On the process side, too, knowledge is necessary; carrying out a shape study or developing theoretical solutions can be preceded by an examination of the related literature.


Daydreaming is a final “trick” worth mentioning, obviously in the context of solving design problems. Design is more than a nine-to-five desk job, because a design problem should go around in your mind 24 hours a day, sometimes unconsciously but very frequently consciously. Just as the sleep cycle kicks in, the brain can briefly be reactivated to re-examine the design problem from every angle. Imaging is a good term for describing this activity. By calmly thinking through a problem once again, a new impression or image will often emerge, which may lead to a solution to problems. The designer will go to sleep with a satisfied feeling and immediately work out the details next day. This involves the well-known helicopter view. An example is a designer who is snowed under with problems during the day, holds meetings, hears counter-arguments to his proposals, has received more information that makes the problem even more complex and so on. Precisely at a quiet moment, at the moment of relaxation, the designer has an opportunity to ask himself whether his approach is correct and what the core question is. He may realise that the product must above all be extremely easy to operate. This boils down to a kind of proposition: “Let’s say that the user needs to perform only one action” or “Let’s say that the user needs to do nothing and that the...” and “Let’s assume that the entire product consists of only three parts...”. Based on basic principles of this kind, a door can suddenly open to all kinds of decisions, and problems disappear. This is obviously just an example, intended to demonstrate that dreaming can be a tool for tackling the design problem.

Find your own ‘tricks’ to overcome your ‘traps’


Awareness of the aforementioned traps and the informative comments made in the second paragraph should lead to a degree of reflection, but the question that obviously remains is this: “Is there a certain method or strategy for developing a concept?” Should you start with a rough idea and work it out in increasingly greater detail as you head towards the final goal, or is it wiser to attempt early on to make allowance for everything? Given the idea chosen at an earlier stage, it is first advisable to indicate why that particular idea was adopted. Which objectives will be achieved by means of this idea? Is there anything unique about the idea? And has the thing that makes this idea unique actually been requested in the assignment? Ideas are often challenging, because ultimately “they are just ideas” and it is true that just about everything is possible. When developing a concept, the important thing is to go on demonstrating or examining the possibilities of the idea. This makes the beginning of development clear and it is unwise to predetermine the end of development. Some information about this matter can be found in the workbook or is obtainable from the tutor, but to some extent the person involved will have to indicate how far a design will be elaborated and how this must be recorded.

The ‘Fish Trap model’ by Wim Muller

One of the few people to devote attention to the development of concepts is Wim Muller in the description of his ‘Fish Trap model’ (Muller, 2001). Muller describes the method, distinguishing three phases: the structural, formal and material phases. In each phase, variants (sketches) are drawn, which are subsequently categorised. By tracing common features within the categories, it is possible to develop representations into concepts in each category. In the formal phase, a start will be made on materialising the structure developed earlier as a basis. This is the phase where the product is given shape, based on a certain material embodiment. In the material phase, the production of the idea is once again the central consideration, with variation occurring particularly in the ‘making’ aspect. By categorising and estimating the use and treatment of the ‘solution types’ developed from the categories, this procedure leads to one or more sketched designs. Muller thus describes a method but the use of this method is no guarantee against avoidance of all the dangers described earlier. However, the method in itself does minimise ‘clamping’ and a ‘narrow view’, although if you slavishly follow this method without self-criticism you run the risk of ultimately being faced with a product that is far from ideal.

Describing Design by Kees Dorst

Designer and researcher Kees Dorst examines the properties and limitations of the present design methodology (Dorst, 1997). He developed a methodology that devotes attention to the practical side of designing, with subjects like learning through experience during design projects, the designing of an integrated product and the approach to a concrete design assignment. The thesis describes and examines five strategies against a backdrop of an actual design assignment given to nine experienced designers for completion within a limited time.

  • Abstract – Concrete

This strategy is built on a certain level of abstraction, where it is possible to define a central but rather abstract basic idea and to make allowance for all aspects of the design problem at that level. From there, the designer ‘descends’ to a more concrete level where reality starts to play a role.

  • Divide – Solve – Reconnect

This strategy first divides the problem into distinct subproblems, which are then solved before being reconnected to each other. This strategy appears eminently usable for the concept development phase, because the kick-off idea can easily be divided up into aspects that must then be elaborated in greater detail and, as such, can be regarded as subproblems. Experience in design education, however, is that ‘reconnecting’ frequently gives rise to problems. The individual parts can be solved, but forging them into a whole is not always a simple matter.

  • Adopt – Adapt

This strategy is based on adopting a certain solution structure, which is then transposed to the design problem. A comparison is possible with synectics, where you first distance yourself from the original problem in order to discover analogies and then reconnect them by means of a ‘force fit’ to the original problem. Dorst does point to the danger that, without a thorough analysis of the design problem, all kinds of assumptions will quickly be made and conclusions will be drawn hastily.

  • Prioritise – Solve – Adapt

To obtain a properly integrated design, this strategy first splits up the design problem into elements that have different priorities. It is obviously important first to solve the problems with the highest priority before making the fit with problems with a lower priority. Interestingly, dominance is held to be a trap in ‘clamping’. Apparently, the priority will have been set incorrectly in such a case.

  • Start – Correct

This strategy simply starts by taking a problem and correcting your standpoint as soon as a problem occurs. It resembles a glass maze, in the sense that you will get out of it sooner or later, but it can take a long time if you are unlucky.

Evaluation of Kees Dorst's Strategies

The first two strategies are particularly useful if it is necessary to limit the volume of information that has to be processed in one go. The ‘abstract - concrete’ strategy is used very little for the design of products. The last three are especially handy when there is a need to limit the number of connections between all aspects. The strategy of ‘adopt - adapt’ obviously requires previous experience of product design, which at the start of the second year of a design course is barely present if at all, while the ‘start - correct’ strategy is by definition highly untargeted and inefficient. The research conducted by Dorst demonstrated that the two best designers (of the nine) used ‘prioritise - solve - adapt’. This method therefore produces good results. At the same time, however, Dorst mentions that the strategies can also occur as a mix within one and the same design assignment. Moreover, it is not automatically so that the last strategy always results in a poor design. It is important to recognise that Dorst in his research advocates making a designer aware, by means of reflection, of his pattern of actions so that, if necessary, the right course can be set.


It may be clear that more than one road leads to Rome. It makes sense to use a process framework - like the edges of a jigsaw puzzle - within which a design must be created. A frame of this kind is formed on the one hand by the list of requirements and on the other by the designer’s own vision, making it possible to determine whether the chosen idea will fit into the frame. From there, it appears wise to divide the chosen idea into distinct sub-problems. No matter what design problem is involved, a prior analysis of the problem appears to be essential.

Such an analysis must answer the question of “What are all the things that are related to this problem?” Matters like ease of operation, manageability, assembly or safety are examples of questions that must be solved integrally.

A problem is never a stand-alone affair. The second step is to find solutions to the sub-problems. Various solutions are naturally possible, but they must not be ‘false solutions’. The choice of solution then depends in part on the other sub-problems. The choice will sometimes be postponed until all sub-problems have been resolved. Information plays a crucial role when looking for solutions, while customary methods for generating ideas are usable, like brainstorming, morphology, synectics and similar ones. It is always useful to include existing solutions (adopt-adapt) and solution structures. The helicopter view needs to be maintained at all times. It is necessary permanently to consider whether the path taken is the right one. And it will repeatedly be necessary to take decisions as soon as they can be taken. After all of the solutions have been identified and integrated with each other, there will be a feeling of ‘Eureka!’ and the development of the concept can be considered completed.

References and Further Reading

  • Roozenburg, N.F.M. and Eekels, J. (1995) Produktontwerpen, structuur en methoden, Utrecht: Lemma.
  • Roozenburg, N. and Eekels, J. (1998, 2nd ed.) Product Ontwerpen: Structuur en Methoden, Utrecht: Lemma.
  • Muller, W. (1997) Vormgeven, ordening en betekenisgeving, Utrecht: Lemma.
  • Muller, W. (2001), Order and meaning in design, Utrecht: Lemma.
  • Dorst, Dr. ir. C.H. (1997) Describing Design – A Comparison of Paradigms, thesis. ISBN 90-9010822-X.


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