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What Makes For A Great Design Concept?

Most glossy magazines focus on products you readers can actually buy. But that approach—while great for netting consumer buzz—ignores a huge swath of design: Ideas that, either because the capital or technology doesn’t yet exist, have yet to be manufactured. These concepts often represent where industries are headed and where the next great innovation will come from.

Let’s take, for example, the Artefact Design Group’s SWYP (See What You Print) printer, an enlightened take on what has become a symbol of frustratingly obsolete office equipment. The key breakthrough here is a large-screen interface that allows the user to preview and crop (with her fingers) what will end up printed on the page—which means no more annoying banner and margin ads or wasted paper. Artefact even rethought the clunky paper tray: A thin, fabric-lined aluminum sheet folds up neatly when not in use; when unfurled, well-placed creases make it rigid enough to hold paper.

Although Artefact used existing parts to model the concept, the studio isn’t interested in making it a reality, but rather to inspire others to rethink instances of outmoded, wasteful tech. As with all great concepts, they reverse engineered an object and process that we take for granted, and assembled an imaginary product that goes from asking "What if?" to asking "Why not?" That’s the tension that makes great concepts exciting—it’s how they push the existing world to better, not just some perfect world that no-one will ever inhabit. Hence our admonishment that Concept entries emphasize their feasibility.

But there are still concepts that make your head spin a little, and are great precisely because of that. These are visionary objects that offer a provocative glimpse of what our changing behavior and mores could imply for a not-too-distant future. Consider the Philips’s Microbial Home: A domestic ecosystem of gadgets that that harnesses biological processes to break down waste and convert it into energy. The keystone product: A kitchen island that uses bacteria to process vegetable scraps and human bathroom waste into gas for powering the stove.

What do these concepts have in common? They suggest what’s possible: beautiful, smart designs that balance human needs (beauty, ease of use) with respect for the planet (conservation of resources and materials). But they also use design as a lens for examining the world we live in today, and how it’s changing.

What concepts have you come across that meet these criteria? Have you yourself tweaked an everyday object to make it vastly more useful, or cooked up a revolutionary idea that will fundamentally change the way we live? We invite your entries.

Examples of concept design:

  • speculative client work
  • exploratory projects
  • concept products
  • prototypes
  • pre-production designs

James Corner

James is a registered landscape architect and urban designer, and founder and director of James Corner Field Operations, where he oversees the production of all design projects in the office. He is also chair of and professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. Major projects include the High Line, New York City; Freshkills Park, Staten Island; the Race Street Pier, Philadelphia; MGM City Center, Las Vegas; and the Shenzhen Qianhai Urban Design Plan.

Karl Heiselman

Karl is the CEO of Wolff Olins and leads the global business by shaping its strategy for growth and encouraging excellence in its creative work. With over 20 years of branding and design experience, Karl has helped create game-changing work for Wolff Olins’ clients including (RED), Skype, GE, PwC, Unicef, Current TV, New York City and Mercedes-Benz. Trained as a designer and now a chief executive, Karl firmly believes in the value of creativity to drive positive business and social impact.

Alison Moore

Alison is Senior Vice President, Digital Platforms, for Home Box Office, responsible for overseeing the strategy, development and operation of HBO’s multiplatform digital products: HBO/MAX GO,,, HBO Social Media platforms, as well as HBO/MAX On Demand and Affiliate Product initiatives.