If 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.
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.