Conceptual creative thinking

Conceptual creative thinking is a discipline.

I stopped teaching my undergraduate level course in multimedia design in 2005 when I made the decision to start Distinct Studios. I now realize that one can stop teaching formally but never leave education.

I believe a great teacher is one who is a live long learner themselves.   Creative technologist and by extension creative teachers  have an interesting challenge today in that that they need to teach students how to learn technology quickly.


They need to teach students to learn quickly because  students will need to relearn software tools, coding tools and technology  throughout their careers and professional lives.

I’m a good example of this need. I formally started working in digital media as a graduate student in 1992 when I began learning how to work on Silicon Graphics Workstation (SGI) and the 3D computer animation software,  SoftImage.

My tools are very different today in 2010.

Not better or worse.

Just different.

The design skills that remain consistent over time are critical thinking skills and concept development skills. Knowledge of how to develop themes and concepts in creative work and how they will relate to the needs of a client is essential.

Last week, I came across course notes from my 2004 undergraduate course in Multimedia Design. For this course, I had picked, MTIV, PROCESS, INSPIRATION, AND PRACTICE FOR THE NEW MEDIA DESIGNER, by Hillman Curtis.

I’d would like to share these course notes with you because I feel they still relevant today.

My teaching objective was that students develop an understanding of the importance of theme and concept into the development of  their work.

Below are lecture notes and excerpts from Process, Inspiration and Practice.


1. Targeting  the theme.

People will forget details in content but they will remember the overall theme.

Identify the central theme of the project.

” The theme becomes a guide that influences every design decision”

2. Theme will lead to style.

” By identifying the theme first, the design style will emerge.”

” The idea is to use all of your visuals, including motion to present a style that supports & draws attention to the theme.”

” PLAY  ” What’s the theme?”  when watching film, plays TV ads, and than observe how the visual elements  draw attention to the story’s theme.”

“Observe how the story is the vehicle for the theme and if it communicates the theme effectively. “


1. The sum total of all of the elements of a project is it’s concept.

2. A concept is a tricky aspect of any creative endeavor.

“Without a solid concepts all you is a bunch of disparate parts competing for attention instead of a collectively forming a whole”

3. A concept is an idea.  ” Designers explain the idea visually or through combining various media.  The concept is also the avenue through which the theme is illustrated”

4.  The designers job is to work toward the concept.

” Start with a number of ideas and possibilities and work your way through them until you end up face to face with something.”


1. “The storyboard is the formalization of the concept. “

2. It is where the project is visually realized.

” Involve the entire team in the storyboard process because you never know what creative collaboration will lead to the perfect solution.”

3. Constraints. Understand that there will always project constraints including medium constraints. ( could be  video, a website, game, Facebook page, anything. )… so Respect the constraints of your chosen medium!

4. Don’t stop Thinking! Designers need to develop a strong comfort level with change.

” If you feel something isn’t working or you are blocked, drop the method ( the framework) and try it a new way”

5. While working on projects, look at the work of others in your field and in others.  Looking at other work can motivate and inspire you to keep thinking about additional options.

6. Keep it Simple. This is very zen but remember that simplicity is complex.


The conclusion that I drew when sharing this text with young students and future designers was that our leading designers know that conceptual creative thinking is a discipline that you can learn.

I would add that it is a discipline that you will never stop learning.

If you would like to learn more about design start  by observing and studying design in your world on a day to day basis.

Integrate this study into everything that you do.


All the quotes from this lecture were pulled from the course textbook.