Conceptual Design

Conceptual design: Translating ideas into 3D visualizations

Explore the impact of conceptual design, transforming abstract concepts into tangible solutions and navigating problems in real time as they arise.

Rendering of the conceptual design for a free-form building and plaza

During the conceptual design phase, designers explore and visualize high-level concepts for the project.

What is conceptual design?

Conceptual design is the initial phase where designers generate high-level ideas, define problems, analyze feasibility, and visualize a project’s overall vision and goals.

Conceptual design in architecture and urban planning


In architecture, conceptual design is a fundamental process involving defining goals, research, ideation, and refining design concepts communicated through models and visualizations. Feasibility analysis and client feedback guide concept selection and provide a foundation for detailed design phases. This iterative process translates ideas into built environments. 


Conceptual design proactively addresses various aspects of the process:

  • aligning with the client’s vision
  • optimizing spatial planning
  • integrating context
  • addressing aesthetics
  • resolving technical challenges
  • considering budgets
  • incorporating sustainability
  • ensuring positive user experiences
  • complying with regulations


This early exploration and analysis supports informed decisions, minimizing the risk of revisions and establishing a robust foundation for successful project realization.


Urban planning

In urban planning, conceptual design phases shape the vision and strategy for cities through analysis, stakeholder engagement, and goal-setting. Planners explore concepts for land use, zoning, transportation, and infrastructure to optimize urban form and density and integrate sustainability and resilience. Visualization aids communication of these elements, and the phase concludes with implementation strategies.


During the conceptual design phase, urban planners can proactively address challenges such as:

  • inadequate infrastructure
  • mismatched community needs
  • unsustainable development
  • traffic congestion
  • inefficient land use
  • social inequities
  • environmental degradation


Stakeholder engagement, sustainability integration, and efficient transportation planning are key components that lay the foundation for inclusive, resilient, and sustainable urban development aligned with community needs.


Aerial view of Khed City, an infrastructure development project in India, in Phase 1 of its plan

 In urban planning, conceptual design may begin with analyzing the land use and environmental features of the urban area. Image courtesy of Kalyani Group.

From sites to cities: Divergent paths in conceptual design

The conceptual design processes in architecture and urban planning share common elements but diverge in scope and emphasis. In architectural conceptual design, the focus is on individual buildings. It begins with a detailed site analysis, considering topography and climate, followed by program development through discussions with clients. Architects explore forms, materials, scale, and proportions, ensuring efficient internal circulation and functional relationships. Visualization tools, such as renderings and 3D models, aid communication; and feasibility analyses consider technical, economic, and regulatory aspects. Iterative client feedback refines the design.

Conceptual design in urban planning takes a broader perspective. The process starts with analyzing the entire urban area, including land use, transportation, demographics, and environmental features. Stakeholder engagement, goal setting, and exploration of land use and zoning concepts follow. Planners address transportation and infrastructure planning, green spaces, and public realm design, and consider density and urban form. Sustainability and resilience are integrated and visualizations are used for effective communication. The phase concludes with developing implementation strategies for phased changes.

While both fields involve analysis, stakeholder engagement, and visualization, architecture tends to focus on individual building design while urban planning encompasses the organization and development of entire urban areas.

Benefits of conceptual design software

Using software for conceptual design in architecture and urban planning offers numerous benefits, enhancing efficiency, accuracy, and collaboration throughout the design process. Here are some key advantages:

Visualization and 3D modeling

Architects use software to create realistic 3D models, providing tangible representations of design concepts. In urban planning, the tools help generate 3D models for entire urban areas, simplifying communication and understanding of proposed changes.

Iterative design and rapid prototyping

Conceptual design software accelerates design iteration for architects and urban planners, allowing quick adjustments in real time for architects and testing and refining urban design scenarios for planners.

Performance analysis

The software enables architects to conduct performance analyses such as energy efficiency simulations and structural assessments. In urban planning, the software supports traffic simulations, environmental impact assessments, and other analyses, informing decision making and optimizing designs.

Collaboration and communication

Conceptual design software supports seamless collaboration for architects, enabling real-time file sharing and teamwork. In urban planning, collaborative platforms enhance stakeholder communication, including planners, community members, and government officials.

Data integration

The software streamlines decision making for architects by integrating data on building materials, costs, and regulations. In urban planning, the software’s data integration tools facilitate evidence-based decision making by incorporating demographic data and land-use data into designs.

Time and cost efficiency

Conceptual design software expedites the design process for architects, facilitating the efficient generation and evaluation of multiple design options. In urban planning, the software streamlines plan development, potentially reducing time and costs.

Autodesk software for architecture and urban planning

Improve project outcomes with conceptual design and modeling tools, and real-time analytics

Civil engineering design and construction documentation

Geospatial and engineering BIM platform for planning, design, and analysis

Conceptual design stories

Conceptual design rendering of the Hovinbyen area in Oslo, Norway, showing street gardens, and open promenades.


Designing a city within a city

A global engineering firm uses Autodesk Forma to design a vibrant new neighborhood in less time.

Image courtesy of Skanska

3D rendering of Hengsheng Avenue Interchange Node

Chongqing Architectural Design Institute of China (CQADI)

Easing congestion in a Chinese city’s streets

See how the Chongqing Architectural Design Institute uses the Autodesk AEC collection and BIM to realize reconstruction goals on time and on budget.

Rendering of greenfield site development near Kuala Lumpur

WDI Studios Pvt. Ltd.

Developing a 100-acre township with conceptual design

An architecture and interior design studio uses Autodesk Civil 3D, InfraWorks, and AutoCAD to minimize site development costs.

3D rendering of a neighborhood layout in Autodesk Forma


Revolutionizing city planning in Sweden

AFRY used Autodesk Forma to maximize space and add new buildings in Swedish neighborhoods, enabling efficient design iterations and better stakeholder communication.

Conceptual design resources

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Learn about concrete alternatives inspiring new design possibilities for construction projects.

Frequently asked questions (FAQ) about conceptual design

What is conceptual design?

Conceptual design is a crucial phase in the design process where designers generate high-level ideas, explore abstract concepts, and establish the fundamental vision for a project. This early stage emphasizes creativity, problem solving, and innovation, encouraging brainstorming and exploring various design approaches. Designers define the problem, generate ideas, and visualize concepts through sketches and diagrams. Feasibility analyses are conducted to assess the practicality of different concepts and the process involves iterative refinement based on feedback. Effective communication of conceptual ideas is essential, laying the groundwork for subsequent detailed design phases.

What is an example of conceptual design?

In conceptual design for a sustainable office building, the focus is on generating innovative ideas and addressing environmental challenges. Architects brainstorm features such as energy-efficient design, green roofs, and eco-friendly materials, defining the overarching vision for a sustainable structure. The problem of minimizing the carbon footprint and creating a healthy indoor environment is clearly articulated. The design intent is communicated to stakeholders using drawings and 3D models. Feasibility analysis considers practical aspects, including construction costs and adherence to green building certifications. The iterative process, guided by feedback, refines the design.

What are the steps in conceptual design?

Conceptual design begins with defining the problem or opportunity, followed by thorough research to gather relevant information. Creative brainstorming and idea-generation sessions lead to developing concepts, which are then assessed for feasibility in terms of technical, economic, and practical considerations. Visualization through drawings, models, or renderings helps communicate design ideas and an iterative refinement process incorporates feedback from stakeholders. Effective communication of the concepts, along with documentation of the design process, ensures a shared understanding. The final step involves selecting the preferred concept based on analysis, feedback, and project goals.

How is conceptual design different from schematic design?

Conceptual design and schematic design represent distinct phases in the design process. Conceptual design is the initial stage where designers generate high-level ideas and establish the overall vision for a project through creative exploration, problem definition, and feasibility analysis. It sets the foundation and direction for the project. Schematic design follows, translating these high-level concepts into more detailed plans. Designers refine spatial relationships, layouts, and key design elements, producing drawings that serve as the basis for further development. While conceptual design establishes the project’s vision and goals, schematic design provides a more detailed framework for implementation.

Where does conceptual design fit into the phases of architectural design?

Conceptual design is the initial phase in the architectural design process, where architects generate high-level ideas, define the project’s vision, and conduct feasibility analysis. Following conceptual design, the process moves to schematic design, refining and translating these concepts into concrete plans and layouts. Design development further details the design, incorporating technical aspects and specifying materials. Construction documents are then prepared, serving as the basis for bidding, when contractors submit proposals. Finally, the construction administration phase involves overseeing the construction process to ensure alignment with the design intent.

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