I’m Chanpory, and this is my site on how to live and work better as a designer.

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Mood boardIf you’re a designer, the most dreaded thing a client can say is, “my wife really loves purple; so why can’t we make it purple?”

This happens even at the conceptual phase of design, when you’re exploring rough concepts before details such as color, imagery, and typefaces are nailed down. It’s easy to see why.

You create a bunch of logo ideas in Illustrator. You print them out on your fancy high-resolution color printer and then show the client. Although the print-outs are just rough examples of what a design could be, the inherent precision of your computer and printer will always make your work seem “finished.”

No matter how rough, the client can’t help but think, “ok, what I see is what I’ll get.” So, instead of the broader concepts, the client will zero-in on the details.

During early explorations, you can short circuit time-wasting debate about blue versus purple or Times New Roman versus Comic Sans by using mood boards.

Just like how an architect might gather paint swatches and materials to give you an impression of what your home could look like, designers use mood boards to evoke a concept and feeling of a potential design.

So what do they look like? Just think back to kindergarten. Like your first art projects, mood boards are collages that center around an idea, concept, or feeling. You can create them on the computer, but it’s more fun to literally to gather and paste photos, magazine cut-outs, and objects on a board.

Mood boards help you:

1. Separate concept from final form

Because mood boards look like free-form collages and evoke fond grade school projects, it’s harder for clients to see them as final design work. It liberates the ideas from the final details, allowing you and the client to discuss what’s more important: the concepts.

2. Build consensus in large groups

Clients with numerous stakeholders and decision-makers are notorious for taking forever to reach an agreement. One person likes red, another likes brown. Because mood boards don’t contain distracting details of the final design, it’s easier for the client group to discuss and reach consensus on the core concepts. Agreeing on a concept earlier makes it easier to agree on how to execute it later.

3. Involve more people in the design process

Because mood boards require little or no knowledge of computers and design software, anyone can help you create them–even clients. They can be involved in any part of the process, from collecting images and swatches to actually helping you paste them up. This fosters team-building and collaboration, but also reduces the risk of disagreements later.

4. Prototype rapidly

Designers all fall in the trap of wanting everything perfect. This quest for perfection wastes time when you’re just trying to pump out as many ideas as possible. Mood boards free you from worrying about execution, allowing you to prototype concepts rapidly and easily.

5. Avoid bullshitting

Because mood boards are quick and easy to make, they give you something to show to clients immediately. It’s proof you’ve thought about an idea and done some physical work. More importantly, it creates a point of conversation and an object to refer back to when making decisions.

A related aside: I recently heard about a practice at a design school–one which I won’t name–called the “air crit.” Here’s how it works:

A student gets up in front of the class and asks the teacher for an “air crit.” This means the student’s ideas are still rough but wants to get feedback before doing actual work. The student presents the ideas verbally, using phrases like “it could be about…” and “imagine this.” The student supports this presentation with lots of gesturing and pantomiming. At the end of the act, the student expects feedback from the teacher and other students.

In my design school days, this was called bullshitting. But now that it has a prettier new name, I fear it makes sound more acceptable in schools. An “air crit” is not a real crit. Imagine showing up to a real client saying, “hey, we don’t have anything to show, but we really did a whole lot of thinking; here’s our bill.”

When you’ve thought about the work, but don’t have anything to show for it, not even a quick sketch simple mood board, you should get a big fat F.

Examples

So now that you know the benefits of mood boards, also called “inspiration boards”, you’re probably anxious for some examples. To see them in all shapes and sizes, check out Flickr’s Inspiration Boards pool.

26 Comments

  • jeremy

    gravatarApr 5, 2007
    12:15 pm

    Hi there, love the blog and I read it daily for all of the useful tips. Just wanted to let you know the link to the inspiration boards pool has a ] at the end of the link that causes it not properly link.

  • Chanpory

    gravatarApr 5, 2007
    12:19 pm

    Oops! It’s fixed now. Thanks for reading catching that, Jeremy.

  • jeremy

    gravatarApr 5, 2007
    12:19 pm

    causes it to* not properly link

    That’s what I get for not proofreading.

  • Patrick Au-Yeung

    gravatarApr 5, 2007
    10:03 pm

    Chanpory, one thing I would add is that moodboards also help the design team narrow their focus during design exploration phase. Instead of going off on wildly different directions, you put parameters around what the design should achieve. That way clients can compare apples to apples during presentation, rather than having one being preferred over another due to some random element in one comp.

  • SheriVan

    gravatarApr 19, 2007
    9:20 pm

    Wow. Great idea. I tend to get snagged by the details. I love the parallel to kindergarten (or even 7th grade) collage projects. I’m still trying to learn to “just get it down” and not try to edit, edit, edit as I go.

  • James Ballard

    gravatarSep 6, 2007
    7:17 am

    While I’ve never done a “mood board” I am a big believer in baby steps (taking a project to completion in small steps) starting with loose pencils. This ensures everyone is looking at the concept, not the execution. My team can also rip through many more concepts and explore than the time it takes to execute a comp.

    You are spot on in this posting, as the client will always focus on a color or a font. If the type isn’t kerned just right, it looks off. And these subtleties will kill an otherwise brilliant concept.

  • john

    gravatarNov 4, 2007
    5:49 am

    well i have never heard of a “mood board” before but it`s really boring

  • Mahesh

    gravatarDec 16, 2007
    11:48 pm

    I think, Mood board is a nice concept unless you get the right pics related to the concept you are presenting, I think a mixture of sketches and collage will make a proper Mood board

  • Andrea

    gravatarJan 3, 2008
    1:54 pm

    Im a student and Ive just made my first mood board. I think theyre great!

  • megan

    gravatarJan 23, 2008
    10:48 am

    hi im megan i have made a mood board for my desighn technology and i think they are cool but complecated xxxx

  • Lucy

    gravatarApr 30, 2008
    8:04 am

    I think they’re a brilliant idea! I’ve just bought a house and will be making a board for every room!!!x

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  • Bill

    gravatarOct 28, 2008
    8:46 pm

    Don’t see why a mood board would be any less argued over than a finished set of logo concepts.

    Would a conservative financial services client understand something as abstract as a mood board?

    And of course, you can bet that even after the mood board escapade and final presentation of concept logos, the client’s wife is still going to dictate which color she likes best.

    Which brings us back to bullshit. Familiarize yourself with this fine language well, for the art of bullshitting will enable you to manipulate your client into something that works.

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