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 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 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 experiences.

A Few Notes
The Definition

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 Director, 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.

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 Design

Many people see all these art of books and think that that is what Concept 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 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 design, 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 art is disposable, it 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 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.

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 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.

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 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 scene 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.

In another assignment, they had already built a spaceship 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 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 3d, its 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 make 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 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.

This is something a concept artist has to do far more frequently than those beautiful finished looking hero images.

Illustration

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 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 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 title.



I did this napkin sketch 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 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 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 art.

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 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 art.

Why These Things Get Confused

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

1) Many concept artists uses illustrator skills to illustrate their concepts. "Concept Artist" and "Illustrator" are jobs that both use illustration skills.
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 different mindset.
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.

Concept Designer:
  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. My job is primarily to paint or draw over screenshots, organize reference, make diagrams, callout sheets, rough sketches, and occasionally detailed finished paintings.
  8. 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.
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. My job may require a quick sketch at the beginning, but then it's mostly about making detailed finished paintings.
  8. And its likely my team is far smaller, perhaps just myself and the art director, since I am producing the final product.
Conclusion

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.


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