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The Designer’s Toolkit: Mood Boards

By Chia Schmitz

A mood board is valuable to the creative process but is occasionally overlooked or is the first thing to go when a project’s scope needs trimming. Here’s our rationale on why mood boards are an essential tool — for clients and designers alike.

Photo by Mr TT on Unsplash

A frequent question we often encounter from clients is, “Do we really need to see mood boards?” Their phrasing or intentions may vary — perhaps it’s a quick turnaround and they’re looking to save time, or they’re budget conscious and hope to bring down costs, or likely, they’re just excited to get started on their deliverables and would like to skip anything that seems to delay the end result.

Whichever way the question comes up, the answer is always straightforward: Yes! You really do need to see mood boards.

Mood boards are simply a low-barrier tool to help teams make informed decisions, discuss aesthetics before design and ensure everyone is aligned and seeing eye-to-eye. Furthermore, mood boards help guarantee teams are collaborating both efficiently and effectively with clients. They’re beneficial to the design process, not only helping with client involvement but also with time, inspiration, communication, and demonstration.

So, exactly what is a mood board?

A mood board is a collection of images related to a theme. Mood boards are meant to express the vibe, feeling or general aesthetic of a future project.They can include photos, textures, colors, and typography. They are assembled to turn an abstract idea into a tangible one.

Mood boards aren’t literal or definite, but rather a stepping-stone to see if a collection of elements and images has the potential to play together — in a way both the designer and client hope for. Mood boards come into play at the halfway point, after inspiration research, but before an initial pass at a deliverable. Consider it a bridge between the two.

As a tool, a mood board helps designers allude to complex ideas early in the design process. It can provide a sense-check with team members or clients before intense design work gets underway. Mood boards make it easy to get feedback, fine-tune ideas beforehand and even explore different aesthetic pathways — all before starting design.

Really?

Yup! Mood boards also help keep projects running smoothly, ensure time and resources aren’t lost on wrong answers, and work as a North Star — a guide of sorts to signal where design should be heading, a reference if things become muddled or confused, and a reminder of the original design intention that was agreed upon. Powerful stuff, right?

There are endless ways to use mood boards — teams ranging from UX/UI engineers to commercial interior designers likely have different use-cases and methods in how they develop mood boards. In Freshmade’s design practice, focused mostly on branding and packaging work, mood boards are only one component in our quest to find the most successful solution — our search for functional, effective, and strategic answers continues through all phases and facets of our process. Let’s explore Freshmade’s three most fruitful uses for mood boards.


Three Ways to Use Mood Boards

1. Rapid Prototype Mood Boards

This entails quickly assembling mood boards to generate a multitude of loose answers — ideas that aren’t fully baked but merit exploring. In a short amount of time, ideas can be made tangible (enough) so that they can be discussed with others and feedback can be explored. Additionally, the designer learns through making and begins to see the barriers, traps, or wins of a potential idea. If an idea isn’t a success, there’s a chance to iterate. If those iterations, too, turn out to be duds, no harm, no foul since minimal time and resources were expended.

Rapid Prototype Mood Boards: Thought-starters for different fruit illustration styles

Pro Tip: The more ideas, the merrier. Using mood boards for rapid prototyping doesn’t require perfection, just something good enough to convey the idea. Don’t worry too much about organization or layout either — just aim for the gist or a quick-get.

2. Visual Territory Mood Boards

In the initial phases of a project, it can be beneficial to explore visual territories, the potential visual pathways or directions a project can take. By assembling a few options of what something could look like, we give ourselves the chance to see a spectrum or range of possibilities.

Visual Territory Mood Boards: Three distinct interpretations of a “modern and honest” food brand

Visual territory mood boards work best when an idea is already in place, but uncertainty exists about how that idea should be executed or a multitude of interpretations needs to be teased apart. A mood board in this case should be distinct. It should bring solutions to life. Unlike rapid prototype mood boards, which are loose, these mood boards should be tight and detailed. The goal is to demonstrate, provide evidence and visually articulate a path forward. These mood boards explicitly illustrate each visual territory’s angle or unique qualities.

Whether that’s an “A, B, C” interpretation of one idea or a variety of contrasting and unrelated options (“chocolate, vanilla, pistachio”), visual territory mood boards preview how, through different lenses, our final output could potentially turn out.

3. Reference Mood Boards

Occasionally, the task at hand is simple: It’s clear what needs to be made, how it should look aesthetically, and everyone is on board with the idea. In this (ideal) case, mood boards still come in handy — as a source of inspiration and reference.

Reference Mood Board: A collection of useful images, in this case, for illustrating a dog in a flat style

Reference mood boards serve a utilitarian function. They’re a designated area to collect images or items in a common style that can be consulted with during the design process. Illustrating a cartoon dog in a flat style? Find a few images that reference the project’s intention, that capture what needs to be made.

This method makes it easy to stage information pertinent to a project, ensuring relevance and ease of comprehension during the creative process. Seeing similar images pulled together helps clients, teams, and designers envision the endgame and can strengthen work.


Imagine this hypothetical the next time you’re starting a project: You’ve just been briefed (or you are the client providing the brief) and you need to create a modern and contemporary brand identity for a new restaurant. Perhaps you dive right in, without mood boards, and begin working hard to bring your idea to fruition, plunging headlong into the final phases of design. After spending time on the deliverable, you share your work (or, if you’re the client, you see it for the first time) and it’s a miss. The work is rejected because it’s not what the team or client had in mind.

Before that happens, we hope this article will convince you of the merits of mood boards. After all, what exactly does modern and contemporary look like? Depending on who you talk to, modern and contemporary could be expressed visually in a thousand different ways. Start with a mood board. You’ll save yourself the hassle of having to scrap good work that misses the mark. Happy boarding, y’all.

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