What’s the Difference Between an Idea and a Concept?

Posted inDesign Culture

There are ideas, and then there are concepts— they may sound overly similar, but they’re not one and the same. While ideas are the results of a thought, concepts are the holy grail of the creative world. They’re the reason ad agencies burn the midnight oil. They’re why designers push pixels. They’re what photographers are always looking to capture. A finalized concept— unlike an unrealized idea— makes you go, “damn, I wish I thought of that.” 

In my senior year of college at the University of Colorado Boulder, I took a Portfolio class designed to help us bulk up our portfolios with concepts that would inspire interviewers to, you know, hire us. While I had very few expectations going into the course, its power hinged on the idea vs. concepts theory. Our instructor Dan Ligon, Teaching Associate Professor at the university’s Advertising, Public Relations and Media Design department, was constantly coaxing us to push our initial ideas past their perceived limits. Sometimes with just a simple, disappointed shake of his head, we knew we didn’t yet have a concept; when we did have a concept, it felt like we’d cracked the code. Ligon’s concept approval meant everything to us Portfolio students, although getting there was quite the uphill battle.

I’m a few years out of college now, but what I learned has stuck with me many years later, and it looks like Ligon is still getting plenty of mileage out of it. During a recent scroll through my LinkedIn, I saw that Ligon had given a talk at the 17th International Design Principles and Practices Conference on none other than his research on ideas versus concepts. I was intrigued for many reasons: what did this research entail, and second: is there a faster way to come up with a concept instead of just a plain old idea? 

I had the unique opportunity to sit down with Ligon and discuss his research— insights I would have loved to have in college. “I’m sure this would have been nice to know years ago, but it wasn’t until after working with all of you guys that we could really start understanding it,” he told me. “So the big thing is: What is a concept?” 

Throughout our conversation, Ligon underlined that while he was trying to teach us the difference between an idea and a concept, my fellow students and I often struggled to understand because he didn’t yet know how to articulate it. He knew there was a difference, but he only discovered how to explain the formulaic approach around it after the fact.

“A concept is something more than just an idea: it’s an idea with an insight,” he continued. “The interesting thing was I needed this information when I was working with you guys: really diving into what an insight is.”

Looking back, it feels like our brainstorming process was missing something. When we were in class and Ligon would say, “Show me something I haven’t seen before,” we couldn’t seem to get to the “eureka moment” because it felt more like a guessing game. But in his new findings, Ligon’s been able to help both students and professionals understand the formula to get to the “big idea” concept in the first place.

According to his new research, “concepts jump out,” he said. “Ideas with new, novel, or radical components stand alone. They’re not just purely subjective.”

He goes on to share the classic story of Archimedes: when the mathematician was in the bathtub, he noticed that the water level in the tub rose as he got in and wondered if he could use this phenomenon to determine the volume of irregular objects. This led him to the discovery of the principle of displacement, but his iconic “eureka moment” comes from radically thinking about things in a different light.

Ligon shared the brief he used in his presentation to showcase his research, which went something like this: “Come up with a concept to sell a brick, but it can’t be used to build a structure.” We then walked through ideas from research participants that potentially felt like concepts, like a pet tombstone or a hard hat tester. We determined that these ideas lacked insight because better options exist, so why would you use a brick when there’s already a potentially perfect alternative?

Then we moved on to concepts from participants, and Ligon explained why these ideas were smarter and had an insight attached to them. These concepts included a “Worst Shooter Trophy” (a play on the basketball phrase “shooting bricks”) and a template for learning how to carve Egyptian hieroglyphs. These concepts followed the brief: they contained an insight, and creative directors judging along Ligon’s framework unanimously selected them as concepts, thus proving the point that they’re not subjective.

In a recent Entrepreneur article, Stanford d.school professors Jeremy Utley and Perry Klebahn determined that a great idea would occur with the ratio of 2000 possibilities to 1 delivered solution.

“Stanford says you’ll develop one concept with every 2000 ideas, [but based on my research], it’s one concept to 1203,” Ligon said. “So out of the 716 ideas, we had only six concepts. Here’s where it got interesting: as we normalized the result and removed the duplicated ideas within our dataset, we only had 2254 single, discrete ideas. And when we normalize it, that means that for every unique concept someone comes up with, you probably need about 376 ideas [to get there].”

This number solidifies that concepts aren’t easy to come up with and helps students and creatives work towards a numerical goal, with the hope that one in at least 376 ideas will be a winning concept.

“I’ve never had a number in the past; I’ve had creative directors say, “Bring me a bunch of drafts— how many till I see something good?’” Ligon said. “[Concepts are] not as rare and uncommon as Stanford is arguing, but at least one in 376 gives us something to work with.”

And why is this research helpful? “The research tells me concepts aren’t subjective,” Ligon concluded. When creatives give their ideas parameters and can come up with ideas that fit them, it’s simpler to get to the concept phase. “It’s not dependent on who’s the professor, who’s the creative director, or who’s the big thing,” he said. “If it’s a concept, it’s a concept, and it jumps out off the page.”

If you’d like to learn more about the research, the video below breaks down Ligon’s recent talk.