24 pro tips for creating inspirational mood boards

When trying to convey a design idea, moods, feelings and fluffy stuff like that are hard to communicate. So professional designers will often use mood boards: a collection of textures, images and text related to a design theme as a reference point.

Mood boards can be a great way to convey your design idea, win pitches and get an early sign-off. Telepathy would save a lot of time but sadly for most of us it’s not an option. What I’m thinking and feeling about a creative idea, my intended vision for a piece of work, is limited to how good my verbal communication skills are at expressing this to project stakeholders.

Mood boards help others to ‘get inside our heads’ in order to convey a thematic setting for a design or to explain function in piece of work.

That said, mood boards can be a pain to create, with many hours spent trawling image galleries, websites, books and magazines looking for that perfect image to sum up your intended feel for the work at hand. So here are a collection of tips to help make your mood board making more effective – and double your chances of winning that pitch!

Gathering inspiration

01. Look beyond the digital world

Mood boards: ITV News site
Made by Many used copies of Picture Post to inspire their redesign of the ITV News site

When putting together mood boards, it’s easy (and therefore tempting) to just use Google Images. But just because you’re working on a digital product, don’t just look for digital-based inspiration. For example, whilst working on the ITV news website, digital innovators Made by Many looked at copies of the veteran Picture Post magazine in order to express how powerful and effective an image plus a caption can be for telling a news story.

Real world inspiration such as this can be a very powerful ‘convincer’ when putting together a board for a client.

02. Take pictures when you’re out

Real world inspirations are all around us. So use the camera on your phone to take pictures of everything you see that inspires you – whether that be a bird in flight, a great use of typography on a sign, or the brickwork on a building. They don’t have to be great photos in the traditional sense – it’s all about capturing thoughts, impressions, themes and feelings.

Creating the mood board

03. The basic concept

Mood boards: the basic concept
What you leave out is as important as what you choose

Have you ever had the misfortune of going to a gallery exhibition and it just not doing anything for you? You weren’t ‘touched’ by the exhibition or ‘moved’ by what was on show – and other similar emotive profusions. It’s very easy to shove a load of stuff together and call it an exhibition; it’s an absolute talent to curate threads and synergies between works and call it an exhibition.

When putting together mood boards, think of yourself as a curator rather than a collector, and try to have meaning and threads from one image to the next. It makes for easier interpretation.

04. Choose the right format

Mood boards: Unicef
A mood board for Unicef

Find out at the outset whether your mood board is going to be presented in person or emailed to the client. The answer will decide whether you produce an offline or online mood board. The distinction is not trivial: the two formats demand very different approaches.

An offline mood board will generally be looser in style and require the extra kick and emotive spark that comes from it being presented to a client. An online mood board should be tighter and will generally need to work harder to convey a theme or style.

Mood boards: Unicef final design
The finished UNICEF design

05. Build things up around a large image

Whether it’s being electronic or physical, the layout of your mood board needs to give prominence to key theme images, then surround these with smaller supporting images that enhance the theme.

Again, it’s a subliminal trick. When someone looks at a large image on your board in their heads they’ll have questions about it – which they’ll quickly scan the rest of the board to find answers for. If you place smaller supporting images around the larger image they should do this job for you by clarifying the messaging given in the larger one.

06. Get tactile

When making a physical mood board, don’t be afraid to get, well, physical. Traditionally mood boards are made from foam board and cutting this stuff up with a scalpel and spray mounting cut-out images onto it can be a pain, especially if you’re not dexterous with a blade. But it’s extremely effective as a presentation tool. The tactile nature of cut-out images glued onto boards enhances the emotiveness of what’s being explained.

It may seem like a ridiculously old fashioned thing to do, but perception-wise it’s a real ace up your sleeve as a designer. Just be careful with your fingers on that blade…

How to pitch mood boards

07. Show your mood board early

Mood boards: Dark Punk images
Mood images for a Daft Punk packaging design

Generally mood boards are considered to be separate to pitch or presentation work; they stand alone to show mood and tone. This is standard practice, but consider instead making them part of your pitch or presentation. Remember, you’re trying to use subliminal visual tricks to make a client ‘get it’.

In this example Luke Prowse and I used mood images (such as shots of 2001: A Space Odyssey and a builder’s hard hat) to show the kind of grandeur and style we wanted to associate with a pitch for a Daft Punk packaging design.

Mixing these in with the presentation – rather than bolting them on at the end – proved more effective in communicating this to the client.

Mood boards: more Dark Punk images
Combining the mood images with the presentation helped win the pitch

08. Save the surprise

It’s important to make sure that a well-meaning project manager doesn’t email an offline mood board ahead of the presentation ‘so they know what we’re presenting’. For an offline mood board it’s far better to let it all sink in to the client’s mind as you showcase it, rather than come armed with lots of questions before you even start.

09. Get involved in the pitch

If your mood board is being presented to the client, try to be involved yourself. It makes no sense to have something which originated in your head being communicated by someone else, because that way meaning can become muddled in a Chinese whispers-type mess.

10. Keep things loose

Locking an idea or a style down in a mood board can be detrimental, as the client will feel shoehorned into going with a particular style. Keep everything a little loose and don’t make everything look too finalised.

If you’re using preview images from image libraries don’t worry about the watermarking on them – it all adds up to a ‘hey look, we can change this – these are ideas’ feel to the board.

11. Watch the audience’s faces

When you’re presenting an offline mood board, watch the faces of those you’re showing it to. Ignore any verbal client ‘oohs and ahhs’ but instead watch their facial and emotive reactions as they look around the board. This will give you a much more honest take on whether the board is doing its job and if they’re reacting well or badly to what you’re showing them. You have to put these people ‘in your mood’ so ignore their mutterings and watch their emotive reactions.

General pointers

12. Hone your mood board skills

Mood boards: Landor
Landor use mood boards within their company to express themselves to other members of the team

Brand gurus Landor Associates use a form of mood board to showcase themselves to other members of the team. Formed of nine images in a 3×3 grid, it gives their fellow work colleagues an insight into what that person is like; their interests, loves, passions, cares and worries. If you ever want to test out your mood boarding skills – the ultimate challenge at making mood boards – try this out and showcase it to your colleagues.

13. Text it up

Don’t ignore the power of a few isolated words on a board. They’re fantastic show-stoppers and give your viewer pause for thought as they have to mentally read what’s in front of them. Big, bold words juxtaposed together work very well at creating drama, tone and meaning for any project.

14. Make the theme obvious

Obscure references can be fun but try to have a number of relatable items or ‘touch points’ featured in your mood board. You want to let others in, so being deliberately obtuse will earn you no points at all. It’s much harder to be clear and use imagery to sell your vision than hiding behind a pile of incomprehensible references just to fill the board out with. But it’s worth the effort to do so.

15. Aim to spark an emotional response

Think a little bit left of centre if you’re presenting a mood board to a client. What would give them a genuine emotive response to? Real word objects are good for this. If you were inspired by the beach, bring in a shell. If your eureka moment happened on the bus, bring in the ticket. This type of thing intrigues people’s brains and gains that all-important emotive reaction.

16. Don’t make presumptions

Presumption making can be the difference between a successful mood board and one that’s dismissed as being too cerebral. There’s a danger of expecting too much of the audience – that they’ll ‘know what you mean’. Chances are they won’t. So if it takes a few more references, images or textures to get what’s inside your head into a client’s then add them in.

17. Test your mood board

Finally, don’t forget to test out your boards before you send them off. Remember, it’s not a game of Pictionary, so if your testing audience have to ask too many times what an image means or why it’s there, then it probably shouldn’t be there in the first place.

18. Have fun!

The whole process of creating mood boards should be fun – a refreshing break from the often tedious tasks of the jobbing designer. If you’re not having fun then it’s a sure sign you’re going about things the wrong way…

Uses for mood boards

19. Use mood boards to brief designers

Mood boards: images for Tom Baker
A mood board for Tom Baker’s work on The Avengers cartoon series

Following on from the previous point, mood boards are a good way to brief a creative. Don’t be afraid to go into detail. This mood board was compiled for animator Tom Baker as a mood and style guide for creating cartoon versions of The Avengers TV series characters.

Instead of relying on one example of character, several types were found in many different poses which helped Tom a clear take on the style and direction of the piece.

Mood boards Tom Baker's final Avengers designs
The finished characters for the Avengers animated series

20. Use mood boards to speed up client signoff

Mood boards shouldn’t just be for pitches. Consider preparing mood boards to show other similarly themed projects, websites or functions before creating polished visuals.

‘I’ll know it when I see it’ is a phrase most of us are familiar with. But to hear this when finished artwork comes back from a client is gutting, signifying that it’s back to square one. Using mood boards at different stages of the process can help you avoid this happening.

Further reading

21. Reasons why mood boards are worth the extra time

Mood boards: Reasons Why it's worth your time
Why are mood boards so important?

A lot of learning how to do something is about learning why you’re doing it. Here, designer and founder of creative agency Digital Surgeons, Peter Sena, explains why he thinks mood boards are so effective, and how to make the most of them.

22. Creating an Effective Mood Board

This seven-minute video tutorial by David Perel of Obox walks you through his personal method in creating mood boards, which is broken up into manageable stages.

23. Gain Efficiency With Mood Boards

Think you don’t have time to create mood boards? Joel Steidl at Aten Design Group explains how using one can help things move faster, saving you time in the long run.

24. Mood Boarding Methods for Web Designers

Stephanie Hamilton explains the benefits of the mood board in the web design process and how to go about it.

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