The Difference Between Concept
Design And Illustration
By Neil Blevins
Created On: Jan 19th 2022
Years ago I was listening to a few podcasts by concept artist Feng
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 role of concept artist is something that has
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 fulltime concept design about 5 years ago, what makes a piece of
concept art vs what makes an illustration is
something I've had to deal with on a daily basis, and I've seen a lot
of confusion between these two skillsets / job types. So in this
spirit, I'd like to quickly discuss the differences between the job of
"Concept Designer / Artist" and the job of "Illustrator" based on my
A Few Notes
- For the purposes of this lesson, I'm going to use the terms
Concept Artist And Concept Designer to mean the same thing.
- I come from an animated film / VFX film / AAA videogame
background, so when speaking on these different jobs, I'm generally
going to focus on this portion of the entertainment industry. While I
will mention other areas of the industry such as the fine art realm,
comic books, etc, I don't have as much experience there and so this
will not be my focus.
- And thanks
to Feng and his podcasts on which some of these core ideas are based,
hopefully I've been able to add value by bringing some extra
perspective, examples and
ideas to the discussion.
So fundamentally, "Concept Designer" and "Illustrator"
are two different jobs. Each job
uses artistic skills, and many people do both, but the purpose of each
job is slightly different.
The decision maker in this case is maybe your Art
maybe the Production Designer, maybe the Director of a film or game,
maybe a Producer or a Studio Head, maybe the head of the Environment
Department that has to
actually build the thing you're designing, anyone whose job it is to
make a decision on how something looks or works.
- A Concept Designer's job is to communicate a visual
idea to help a
decision maker make a decision for a final product.
- An Illustrator's
job is producing visuals that end up being the final product.
Here's an alternate definition that's a bit simpler:
The core of why these two jobs can be confusing is because sometime the
best way to communicate a concept is through
beautiful artwork. But sometimes it's not.
- Concept Designer: Idea and Communication
- Illustrator: Beautiful artwork
Many people see all these art of books and think that that is what
Art is. But the real purpose of concept art isn't to be in a book. The
purpose of the art is to make a project decision maker say "Yes, that's
what I want for this project". Or even if your concept art 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
concept artist to make some awesome colorful paintings that got
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 design, either image
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 art is
could be thrown away after the final product is made. While I wouldn't
go that far, you should always keep your concept art, the point has
some validity, the art 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
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.
While I was working on the videogame
Disintegration for V1 Interactive as a concept designer, I got a chance
to do all sorts of different types of concept. For example, they needed
the concept for a jet / spaceship. So I produced these silhouettes as a
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.
But then a later assignment was for a base in iceland. Instead of
having me do only simple sketches like I did for the jet, he had me
keep going until I had a
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 scene needed something
more finished to communicate all the things he wanted for the team,
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.
In another assignment, they had already built a spaceship in 3d, but
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
So all 3 of these images are concept art, and all are valid concept
art, and as long as they helped the team make the game, then they were
all successful, even though one of them is far more detailed and
finished than the other 2.
Here's a type of concept art 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
photographs, but this is a great example of what a concept artist
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
for the final model that shows up in the film or game.
In fact, many
days as a concept artist have been purely about getting and organizing
reference images, I don't even do the art 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
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.
This is something a concept
artist has to do far more frequently than those beautiful finished
looking hero images.
So while a Concept Designer 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 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
art, it is the result of a team of people of which the concept artist
is one member.
For an Illustrator, the result of their work is going to be in or be
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 art), but the end result is
usually something far more detailed than
what concept art 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
I did this napkin sketch to show the client before they approved the
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 art work, 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
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),
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 art.
And here's the box cover artwork from the first halo game...
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 who worked on the game, but since the purpose of this
illustration was to be on the box cover, it is an illustration, not
Why These Things
We've discussed this a bit already, but here's
a list of the primary reasons I feel these two different jobs get
1) Many concept artists uses illustrator skills to illustrate their
concepts. "Concept Artist" and "Illustrator" are jobs that both use
2) Many concept artists are also illustrators, they do either job
depending on the needs of the project. Since concept art 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 art,
so the end result look very similar, even if they were made using a
4) Some concept art ends up in art of books, which is awesome of
course, but it blurs the lines between concept and illustration since
the concept art 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 art, 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 artists. But they
do have a category for Illustrators added in the 1930s. And so many
people doing concept art type work will be credited as "Illustrator".
Two Different Mindsets
Since I've done both "Concept Design" and
"Illustrations" before, you kind of have to wear two different hats,
and swap the hat depending on which job you're doing.
- Its about communication
- I am more likely to be a part of coming up with the idea.
- I am more likely to work on the beginning of a production
- When doing concept, I don't focus as much on final
(unless my client wants it), I focus more on doing fast iterations.
focus less on dramatic lighting unless the thing I am concepting is
what the lighting should look like.
- 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.
- My job is primarily to paint or draw over
screenshots, organize reference, make diagrams, callout sheets, rough
sketches, and occasionally
detailed finished paintings.
- And I'm usually part of a much larger team, since
there's a lot of people after me who will take the concept art and turn
it into the final product.
- Its about making the final product
- I am more likely to be given an idea to then illustrate
- I am more likely to work at the end of production
- When doing illustration work, I generally spend more
refining the final image.
spend more time on adding detailed and dramatic lighting.
- 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.
- My job may require a quick sketch at the beginning,
but then it's mostly about making detailed finished paintings.
- And its likely my team is far
smaller, perhaps just myself and the art director, since I am producing
the final product.
So if you want to get into this sort of work,
remember the differences between these jobs. If you're a concept
artist, 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 / game / whatever, 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. Both have advantages and disadvantages, and
many people do both jobs to some extent, but try and keep their
mindsets separate in your brain, so you can do each job to the maximum
of your abilities.