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
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
A Few Notes
- 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 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
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.
- Concept's job is to communicate a visual
idea to help a
decision maker make a decision for a final product.
- Illustration is producing visuals that end up being
the final product.
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.
- Concept: Idea and Communication
- Illustrator: Beautiful artwork
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.
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,
what I want for this project". Or even if the artwork you produce makes
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
having me do only simple sketches like I did for the jet, the creative
director 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 environment 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.
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
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 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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
I did this napkin sketch (concept) to show the client before they
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
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.
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 / Designers who worked on the game, but since the purpose of
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 different jobs get
1) Many concept artists and concept designers uses illustrator skills
to illustrate their
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
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.
- 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.
- I think more about how the object will look in 3d,
since the final result will likely be seen from all directions.
- 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 artwork and turn
it into the final product.
And then remember the differences between "Concept Art" and "Concept
Design" as well...
- 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.
- I focus more on how the image looks in 2d, since its likely this
is the only angle we'll need a painting of.
- 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.
- I focus more on the big picture ideas
- I focus more on the feeling of the design
- I focus slightly less on scale
- I do more (but not exclusively) loose mood paintings / drawings
- I work closer to the beginning of the concept phase of production
It Takes A Team
- I focus more on the details
- I focus more on the practicality of the design
- I focus more on scale
- I do more (but not exclusively) draw overs,
diagrams, and callout sheets
- I work closer to the middle of the concept phase of production,
and into production itself
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
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.
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.