What is the difference between a conceptual design and a conceptual model?


  • What's the context?
    – Midas
    May 10, 2016 at 14:15
  • Its for an interaction design module I am taking. A previous exam question asked to explain both but I do not understand the difference.
    – AB279
    May 10, 2016 at 14:37
  • Is your course based on a particular textbook, author, or anything like that? Many terms in this industry are still nebulous; "conceptual design" could mean design that is mentally engaging or abstract (probably used this way in more of a graphic-design-related context), or it could mean the design of a framework of concepts, as in a mental model...or something else.
    – Nate Green
    May 10, 2016 at 17:23

3 Answers 3


As others asserted the terms can be ambiguous, depending on context.

From my experience:

Conceptual design

A non-committing design, that often captures high-level ideas without the details.

"For this specific problem with have sketched 5 conceptual designs."

The name also stands for a phase during the creativity/problem solving process - once the problem is understood we move to the idea generation phase and diverge by coming up with many alternative conceptual designs. After that we start converging by analysis and synthesis and the optimal solution than goes through a detailed design.

An illustration showing the design phase, starting with generating many conceptual designs, then moving to detailed design.

Conceptual model

The field of conceptual modelling is vast. It is a multi-disciplinary field dealing with modelling of concepts.

"To understand technical debt better, we devised this conceptual model."

The guru in (and to some extent the godfather of) this field, John Mylopoulos, categorises conceptual models into:

  • Dynamic
  • Static
  • Intentional
  • Social

All these constitute a conceptual model:

  • Entity-relationship diagrams
  • Class diagrams
  • I* diagrams
  • Domain maps
  • User flows
  • Site map

In fact, you can argue that nearly every diagram that involves nodes that represent concepts and their relationships is a conceptual model.

Here's a conceptual model capturing the social aspects of agile development:

A model showing various concepts related to the agile process.

  • Just a suggestion - it may be worth you clarifying your initial statement "From my experience:" so that the OP and others know in what field your experience is in.
    – Monomeeth
    May 10, 2016 at 21:58
  • @Monomeeth, thanks for the suggestions. That would be "in the field of UX", but isn't that obvious?
    – Izhaki
    May 10, 2016 at 22:24

In a sense, they could be considered two phrases for the same thing. The core difference is that a conceptual model is more nebulous than a conceptual design. Conceptual design implies visualization, which while it can still be very basic (doodles on a cocktail napkin), is still somewhat more "realized" than a conceptual model. A conceptual model can be virtually anything.

For example, a conceptual model for a user signing into a website could be:

User enters username and password and clicks a button to submit

Whereas a conceptual design might be a crude drawing of the sign in form.

  • 2
    Quite curiously, conceptual model has much more visualization than a conceptual design, although on some specific cases the distinction is not clear and the conceptual design is used with a visual approach, specially in industrial design. I think the question is really broad and very difficult to answer unless it refers to a very specific discipline and even an author
    – Devin
    May 10, 2016 at 18:36

I think the question itself is rather ambiguous. Looking at the definition of conceptual (Google define search):

relating to or based on mental concepts.

and then the definition of concept (Google define search):

an abstract idea

If you use the term conceptual with model in its definition (Google define search):

a thing used as an example to follow or imitate

Then you get "a thing used as an example to follow or imitate something relating to or based on mental concepts".

And the term conceptual with design in its definition (Google define search):

a plan or drawing produced to show the look and function or workings of a building, garment, or other object before it is made

Then you get "a plan or drawing produced to show the look and function or workings of something relating to or based on mental concepts".

I think what this all means is that a conceptual design could describe a conceptual model, and a conceptual model and be translated into a conceptual design. But in either case you still need some way to realize a conceptual model or a conceptual design (i.e. implementation).

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