The Difference Between Concept Art, Concept Design And Illustration
By Neil Blevins
Created On: Jan 19th 2022
Updated On: May 20th 2022

Years ago I was listening to a few podcasts by Feng Zhu about the differences between Concept / Industrial Design and Illustration / Fine Arts, and found it really fascinating. I had not really given the distinction much thought before because there's so much crossover between the disciplines. Plus, the roles are something that have rapidly evolved over the last 20 years, so just when you felt you could classify the job, some aspect of the job had already changed. But when I got the chance to go full time Concept about 5 years ago, what makes a piece of Concept Art vs Design vs Illustration is something I've had to deal with on a daily basis, and I've seen a lot of confusion between these different skillsets / job types. So in this spirit, I'd like to discuss the differences I feel between the jobs of "Concept Artist", "Concept Designer" and "Illustrator" based on my experiences.

A Few Notes
Definitions

So before going into the differences between "Concept Art" and "Concept Design", lets focus on the difference between "Concept" and "Illustration". Each of these two jobs use artistic skills, and many people do both, but the purpose of each job is slightly different.

The decision maker in this case is may be your Art Director, may be the Production Designer, may be the Director of a film or game, may be a Producer or a Studio Head, may be the head of the Environment Department that has to actually build the thing you're concepting, anyone whose job it is to make a decision on how something looks or works.

Here's an alternate definition that's a bit simpler:
Now sometimes the best way to communicate a concept is through beautiful artwork. But sometimes it's not.
 
Now let's break it up a little further. Inside "Concept" are also 2 different categories, "Concept Art" and "Concept Design". The difference between these two jobs is a Concept Artist is usually making looser ideas at the beginning of production (sometimes called the "Blue Sky" phase), and the "Concept Designer" deals more with the details, how the thing actually works, mechanics, etc, and usually happens later in the production cycle.

So in a standard film or videogame project, you start with "Concept Art", move to "Concept Design", then sometimes require "Illustration". It seems simple, but first, many people can do all 3 of these jobs to some extent, which muddies the water. And second, many people don't really know which of these jobs they really need, and so lump the jobs into a single category. There is no official definition for these 3 different categories that everyone agrees on. And so we all muddle along trying to figure out what the clients really wants and needs.

Concept

Many people see all these "art of" books and think that that is what concept is. But the real purpose of concept isn't to be in a book. The purpose of the work is to make a project decision maker say "Yes, that's what I want for this project". Or even if the artwork you produce makes them say "No, that's not what I want", that's totally valid as well. When working on Pixar's "The Good Dinosaur", I presented some paintings that were too monochrome and spooky for a sequence, and the directors said as much. Some may have seen that as a failure, but it wasn't, because it prompted the directors to make the decision "We need this sequence to be more colorful and hopeful", so we walked out of the meeting knowing more information than when we started, which allowed another artist to make some awesome colorful paintings that got approved.

The art is a communication and decision making tool,
not art in of itself. And as such, the quality of the artwork has to be just good enough to get that go ahead, it doesn't have to be pretty at all.

As an example, artist Ryan Church once posted this pic from Star Wars Episode 3. This is frequently referred to as a napkin sketch, because it might very well have been drawn on a napkin at a lunch with the director:



This is the same Ryan Church that can produce artwork like this:



While you can certainly say one of these images is more finished and detailed than the other, in the world of concept, either image might be the one that the decision maker says yes to. It's more about the idea than the finished image quality, you are being paid for your ideas, not necessarily the beauty of the final image. Some people even go as far as saying that concept is disposable, it could be thrown away after the final product is made. While I wouldn't go that far, the point has some validity, the artwork itself is not the important part, the idea that leads to the final product is the important part.

I will add one big caveat to this though, and here's where more of the confusion happens. While final image quality usually isn't the important part, not all decision makers are the same, and some may want a more finished image to feel comfortable making that final decision, or may want a more finished image because they know it will be seen by someone else that will need more detail. But other decision makers may be fine with super rough, and be fine seeing that napkin sketch and saying "yes, that's what I'm looking for!" So its up to you, the artist / designer to know your audience, what's the minimal amount of visual refinement necessary to get the decision maker to say yes and continue to move the idea to the next stage in the project. In fact, level of final image quality is one of the first things I ask a new client when we discuss a project, to make sure I understand their needs. I show them examples of my sketches, my roughs and my final paintings, tell them approx. how much time each takes to make, and ask them what they would like.

So let's start with some examples of "Concept Art", "Concept Design", and some imagery that have elements of both.

So lets say my job is to concept a mothership in the clouds. Here's an example of the kind of painting I might make...



It gives you lots of information, such as lighting, the overall size of the ship, some of the major features (the big fins). It has a mood, a vibe. And it might be the kind of image that inspires the rest of the team for the project. So this would certainly be "Concept Art". However, what is the mothership made from, is that metal or cement? What sort of finer paneling make up the spaceship? Are those radio antenna or some sort of force field generators? This painting answers none of those questions, and would likely need more detailed paintings or drawings to explain those details. And that's what you'd get from a "Concept Design".

Here's a practical example from an actual project. While I was working on the videogame Disintegration for V1 Interactive in concept, they needed the concept for a futuristic jet / spaceship. So I produced these silhouettes as a first step:



Not very detailed, but they gave you the general idea on the shape. From these images, the creative director was able to say which one he liked the best, and instead of then having me do a more detailed drawing / painting, he felt he had enough information to hand this to one of his game modelers (who are making the final assets for the game) and they could finish the design in 3d.

So in this case, these images would count as "Concept Art". There are elements of "Concept Design" in them, I know enough about spaceship / airplane design to consider elements such as the cockpit, wings, engines, weapons, etc. But I didn't spend a lot of time deciding if, as an example, the cockpit was tall enough to fit a human, it was more about the overall look. In this case, the 3d artist would be the one to handle the "Design" process.

Here's a very different example from Disintegration, a base in iceland. Instead of having me do only simple sketches like I did for the jet, the creative director had me keep going until I had a more finished piece:



This is so finished it could possibly have been used as an illustration, but that was not its intent, its job was to inspire and inform the team making the environment, and the
creative director felt that this environment needed something more finished to communicate all the things he wanted for the team, such as atmosphere, shape language of the buildings, texture, amount of props, etc. This one "more finished" image could communicate all those things, instead of many rougher images communicating one thing each.

Some of the elements in this painting I'd consider "Concept Design", for example the buildings are set up to be the right size for a human to stand in, you have enough details to see the piping and materials. But if you needed to build the barrels that are on the ground, those are pretty rough, they give you the impression of barrels, but no details on exactly how the barrels look. So the barrels serve more as "Concept Art". Overall I'd probably consider this piece of artwork "Concept Design", since it has enough details to move forward without a ton of breakaway drawings of elements in the piece, but you can see how it's a bit of a hybrid.

Now let's move to things that are very much "Design". In another Disintegration assignment, they had already built a shuttle in 3d, but the creative director felt some of the details needed some tweaking, and he wanted to iterate in 2d. So he gave me a screenshot and had me draw over those details to explore what they could potentially look like.



So this would definitely count as "Concept Design", as it's focused specifically on details and how they would work.

So all 3 Disintegration images above, the spaceship, the iceland base, and the shuttle, they are all concept, and all are valid concept, and as long as they helped the team make the game, then they were all successful, even though one of them is far more finished looking than the other 2.

Here's a type of concept called a callout sheet, where I show a design and then show pictures of real world objects that inspire the materials of the design.



Over half of this image isn't even something I painted / drew / made in 3d, its photographs, but this is a great example of what a concept designer frequently does, they make this sheet to communicate to the materials team what your intention was for the various materials for the robot, and then the team take it and uses it to inspire the 3d materials they make for the final model that shows up in the film or game.

In fact, many days as a concept artist / designer have been purely about getting and organizing reference images, I don't even do the image making part.

Here's another example. I was speaking with a client who wanted to make sure a robot was plausible, and we spoke of the robot's joints. I'd been meaning for years to do more research into how the real robots of say Boston Dynamics actually work, so that weekend I watched a lot of videos and read articles and then made this image showing some of the most common robotic joints and how they moved.



This artwork is not pretty at all, its more of a diagram, but it was a great way to communicate something to the client. If I tried to explain how these joints worked in words, it would have been very difficult. But by making some simple 3d diagrams and arrows, it a was far easier to explain how a robot would actually work. In fact, some concept designers even do simple 3d animations, which would have been another way to show how these joints work to the client.

So while a Concept Designer can do beautiful imagery, stuff like the two images above is a far more common task.

Illustration

So while Concept may use illustration techniques to do their job, an Illustrator uses illustration techniques to produce a piece of artwork that ends up in the final product. The Concept Artist or Concept Designer may design a spaceship, but someone is going to build that spaceship as a 3d model for the film. The thing you see on screen is not the concept, it is the result of a team of people of which the
Concept Artist or Concept Designer is one member.

For an Illustrator, the result of their work is going to be in or be the final result. So for example, an illustrator may make a book cover.


Illustrator: John Harris

Sometimes an Illustrator comes up with their own concepts for the book cover. Sometimes the Illustrator is handed a character, like "Draw Spiderman for this comic cover", and they come up with the pose and the scenario the character is in. And its not just book covers of course, it can be merchandise like a T-shirt, it can be a tabletop game, it can be a promotional artwork online for a videogame. As an Illustrator, you might make a napkin sketch to get approval on an idea from the decision maker (which could be classified as Concept), but the end result is usually something far more detailed than what a concept has to be, since your end result is seen by the public as the final result of the project.

Here's an example of an illustration I made for a death metal album cover about 20 years ago, to which the band added their logo and album title.



I did this napkin sketch (concept) to show the client before they approved the idea...



but then I made the final image you see above, and it ended up on final products from CDs to posters to T-shirts.





While the final painting doesn't look all that different from some of my more finished concept pieces, the end result is for a different purpose, and different sorts of thinking went into its creation.

Another example, in a few months I'll be shipping my second book project called "Megastructures: A Visual Encyclopedia"...



In the book, myself and a team of other artists illustrate 40 different futuristic megastructures. One of those structures is the Ringworld, originally conceived by Larry Niven in his book of the same name that came out in 1970. Here is my illustration of a ringworld from 2016.



There is also a popular videogame called Halo that came out in 2001 (you may have heard of it), which takes place on a ring shaped artifact. Here's some concept art from Halo Infinite by Martin Deschambault from 2021...



Notice these two images have some similarities. But since the first one was for a book, it is illustration, and since the second was as part of the concept process for a videogame, it is concept.

And here's the box cover artwork from the first halo game...


Artist Unknown

There's lots going on in this illustration, including the ring in the upper left, and this may even have been painted by one of the Concept Artists / Designers who worked on the game, but since the purpose of this illustration was to be on the box cover, it is an Illustration, not Concept.

Why These Things Get Confused

We've discussed this a bit already, but here's a list of the primary reasons I feel these different jobs get confused...

1) Many concept artists and concept designers uses illustrator skills to illustrate their concepts.
2) Many concept artists and concept designers are also illustrators, they can do all the jobs depending on the needs of the project. Since concept tends to happen more at the beginning of a project, rather than laying them off when they're not needed, a company will transition them to making illustrations and marketing art at the end of a project.
3) Some clients want more finished illustrations for their concept, so the end result look very similar, even if they were made using a different mindset.
4) Some artwork generated by the Concept Department ends up in art of books, which is awesome of course, but it blurs the lines between concept and illustration since the concept in the book is now also a final product (the book). If you really want to classify a particular piece of art, I consider the intent of the artwork. If the intent of the work was concept, but then later it gets used as a cover of a book, it may now be an illustration, but I still consider it concept, because that's what the artist was thinking about when they made the work.
5) In film in the USA, the Art Directors Guild is the group that define among other things the credits you get for a specific job on a project. And as far as I can tell, they don't have a specific category for concept. But they do have a category for Illustrators added in the 1930s. And so many people doing concept type work will be credited as "Illustrator".

Two Different Mindsets

Since I've done both "Concept" and "Illustrations" before, you kind of have to wear two different hats, and swap the hat depending on which job you're doing.

Concept:
  1. Its about communication
  2. I am more likely to be a part of coming up with the idea.
  3. I am more likely to work on the beginning of a production
  4. When doing concept, I don't focus as much on final image quality (unless my client wants it), I focus more on doing fast iterations.
  5. I focus less on dramatic lighting unless the thing I am concepting is what the lighting should look like.
  6. I focus more on the idea, I try and put on my engineer hat and think about how the object would actually work in real life.
  7. I think more about how the object will look in 3d, since the final result will likely be seen from all directions.
  8. My job is primarily to paint or draw over screenshots, organize reference, make diagrams, callout sheets, rough sketches, and occasionally detailed finished paintings.
  9. And I'm usually part of a much larger team, since there's a lot of people after me who will take the artwork and turn it into the final product.
Illustrator:
  1. Its about making the final product
  2. I am more likely to be given an idea to then illustrate
  3. I am more likely to work at the end of production
  4. When doing illustration work, I generally spend more time refining the final image.
  5. I spend more time on adding detailed and dramatic lighting.
  6. I spend more time making sure I use contrast to make the image eye catching, because it may be on a store shelf with a thousand similar products and I want mine to be the one that catches the customer's eye.
  7. I focus more on how the image looks in 2d, since its likely this is the only angle we'll need a painting of.
  8. My job may require a quick sketch at the beginning, but then it's mostly about making detailed finished paintings.
  9. And its likely my team is far smaller, perhaps just myself and the art director, since I am producing the final product.
And then remember the differences between "Concept Art" and "Concept Design" as well...

Concept Art:
  1. I focus more on the big picture ideas
  2. I focus more on the feeling of the design
  3. I focus slightly less on scale
  4. I do more (but not exclusively) loose mood paintings / drawings
  5. I work closer to the beginning of the concept phase of production
Concept Design:
  1. I focus more on the details
  2. I focus more on the practicality of the design
  3. I focus more on scale
  4. I do more (but not exclusively) draw overs, diagrams, and callout sheets
  5. I work closer to the middle of the concept phase of production, and into production itself
It Takes A Team

When working on a larger project, say a large videogame franchise, the art director will likely need people who can do art, design and illustrations as part of their concept team. Ideally its good to have individuals who are excellent at all skill sets, but many people specialize more or are stronger in only one or two. And that's fine, as long as the final team has a good mix. I've seen before issues where a team has say too many illustrators or artists and no one good at design, and that can quickly lead to production problems. So ideally you want to make sure your concept team has a good balance of people so you've got everything covered, people amazing at blue sky inspirational paintings, people who get into the nuts and bolts of design, people who can make those awesome marketing images, and people who can do it all. Make sure you don't sway too hard in only a single type of person.

Conclusion

So if you want to get into this sort of work, remember the differences between these jobs. If you're interested in concept, be prepared to make a lot of work that may not be beautiful, and may never be seen by the public, but if it helps the team to produce an awesome film or game, then you have done your job well. And if you're an illustrator, be prepared for the fact you may be taking someone else's idea, and your primary job is to make that final detailed illustration sing.

Just to note again, these three jobs types have no official definition, so if you're looking for work and a company is looking for a "Concept Artist", don't assume that their definition of what that is lines up with the definitions I just gave. Apply anyways, they'll let you know if the job is right for you. But once you are hired, I think you'll see these 3 categories exist to a large extent, and knowing their differences may help you do each to the best of your ability.



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