What makes a good conceptual design statement? – working notes

Gateshead Millennium Bridge

Gateshead Millennium Bridge

Today I am working on course material related to defining what is a good conceptual design. I think, in construction at least, it is quite difficult to identify good conceptual design from the finished project. One can judge a finished project on the basis of the final outcome, but unless you have had an overview of the whole design process, it is hard to know how much the final project resembles the original concept design.
One clue is in competition sketches, if they are available. It is tempting to suggest that if a simple early-stage sketch exists that closely resembles the final project, then we have a good conceptual design. Good examples might include Paxton’s sketches on a napkin for Crystal Palace or the Utzon’s competition sketches for the Sydney Opera House. But (and I’m not suggesting it was the case for these two examples) it is not beyond designers to create a post-rationalised concept diagram. And while this idea of the simple sketch is also beguiling, it is much more appropriate for projects that resemble a sculpted object, rather than a complex system.
From a training perspective, if we were to stand in front of a building and seek to judge the quality of the conceptual design without knowledge of the early-stage design process, I think we’d be on shaky ground. The approach we will adopt instead is to spend time defining what a good conceptual design statement looks like so that designers can judge the quality of their conceptual designs at the start of the project.
There are lots of definitions of what a good conceptual design statement is. My colleague Ed McCann has pointed me towards a helpful description from the world of interior fit out. In his book Shaping Interior Space, Rengel describes the three elements of a good conceptual design statement as:
1. Talking more about the solution than the problem
The place for the statement of the problem is in the brief.
2. Selective
Here he means it talking about the dominant factor which is going to define the design approach. Is it a question of how a long span is going to be achieved, huge forces are going to be resisted, or what the human experience is.
3. Economical
Careful use of words to pack the most into the fewest words.
These three elements are something I can work on with a group of learners. We might begin by asking them to compare different conceptual design statements, and get them to elucidate these rules; and then get them to create their own statements.
One key modification I will make to this set of rules to make them equally applicable to sketching as to words.
If you are reading this and have either your own definition of good conceptual design statements that you use, or particularly good examples of conceptual design that you’d like to share, then please comment below.