General Advice For People Wanting To Become Concept Designers
Some time ago, a young designer wrote an email to me asking for some general pointers and advice about becoming a concept designer for movies or games, as they were considering going down the path to becoming a professional designer. Flattered as I was (and still am when anyone asks for my advice), I felt at the time I could only pass on some very general ideas that I had picked up along the way from various sources.
Having rediscovered the little email conversation, I looked at the advice I gave back then and actually consider it worthy of sharing (as in, I believe I kinda had some good points that wouldn't hurt anyone looking for a career in this line of work).
With only some minor wording revisions (I should always double-check emails for speeling mistakes), I present to you pretty much what I said in the emails:
Learn About The Process Of Design
Concept design (also known as concept art and entertainment design), is design, therefore a process to solve a problem by which the designer must come up with various ideas and solutions to fulfill a brief set by a director, art director, or even a producer. Learning the process of design (researching the subject matter, then producing various rough iterations of lots of ideas and whittling them down to the best solution that fits the need) is a key component to learn when setting out to become a designer of any kind. Be it a visual effects concept designer or even a user interface designer, the general thought process of coming up with a solution is the same.
When coming to designing lots of ideas, you have to have a mind filled with so many fragments of what appears to be disconnected things in order to pluck solutions out of seemingly nowhere. It would be rare to speak to a concept artist who isn't interested in science, history, geography, other artists, movies, games, and seeing the world through travel (to name only a few areas of interest). Most concept artists for games and films are avid collectors of knowledge. They have a thirst for learning and just want to know as much as they can about all things. The more you fill your head with this sort of brain food, the more ideas you will be able to come up with. So visit museums, read books, listen to podcasts and watch a lot of documentaries but don't narrow your consumption to just what you're interested in. More often than not, coming up with a new idea is sometimes just a combination of two real-world examples.
There are no bones about it, concept design is a medium where you draw ideas. While the job is mostly about the idea itself and not so much the perfect finish of an illustration, learning to draw better will enable you to communicate your ideas clearly and sell them to the right stakeholders in the pipeline. Here you have to put in the legwork and learn about perspective, how 3D objects sit in the world, how distance affects the perception of shape, and how the human eye sees these. Learn about colour theory, how colours affect different moods, and how light works on a scientific level. Learning to draw and draw well isn’t easy but it is a game of milage and it takes time and practice and determination. Draw, draw, and draw some more.
These are very general tips for a generalist designer, but they serve as a base for eventually specialising in a subject. There are designers out there who only design vehicles for films and games, there are those who only do aliens and monsters. There are those who only draw modern-day environments (say like a Paris street for instance; I've been told that these sorts of designers are most in-demand) and there are those who are character designers or prop specialists. Entertainment designers for film tend to have a more realistic visual finish to their work, whereas, in games, there is more room for stylistic differences. And let's not discount the animation industry, with its own set of general practices and styles to follow.
It can take a long time to become an effective concept artist, and not everyone is suited for the role. You may venture out and prefer doing marketing illustration, or only like illustrating things for your own stories. The only way to know is to just do it. Make things and explore. You must be ok with the notion that this is a long journey too. Be easy on yourself when you have bad drawing days and always remember that the very best illustrators and designers out there, all started off shit and had to practice loads, and keep up that practice long after they had 'made it.'
Great learning resources:
Feng Zhu’s Design Cinema is on Youtube if you can't access his real-life school.
Schoolism, all online courses on the website have so much value and there is a real variety.
Learn Squared, more online courses that have been growing their library over time.
Aaron Blaise's online courses for illustration and animations.
Hope this advice helps and send you on your way!