By Michelle Barnett
21/05/2020
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Why do we use mood boards?

Mood boards are a great tool in any designer’s arsenal. A mood board is simply a collection of images and examples, presented to a client as part of working out the visual style of a project.  These examples are hand-picked by the designer and are full of ideas, exploration and inspiration.  They represent a range of options that would work well for that brand.

If the images contrast each other, then the mood board is there to help you choose a direction for the visual style. If they are similar or arranged around a theme, then the goal is to confirm or fine-tune that style.

But as designers, why do we ask our clients to look through these images? Shouldn’t we be doing it ourselves?

Here’s why we think mood boards work so well…

It’s hard to describe images using words!

When clients come to us with a project in mind, sometimes they already have an idea of how it should look. And sometimes they don’t. In either case, we start with talking about their brand values. Often we’ll have them use our Brand Words tool to work out how we need to represent their brand. But sometimes this stage can get a little tricky, because one word can have multiple meanings.

People interpret the same word differently. When asked, “Is our company Traditional?”, one person will take that to mean ‘vintage and respected’ and say yes. Another will think of ‘stifling and overly formal’ and say no.

It happens to everyone. Every time a dozen eggs has to name colours for our web development, we have the same discussion. Is it Duck Egg? Teal, or maybe Aqua? Malachite? We start googling items to see if the colour matches closely enough. Sometimes the word we’re searching for doesn’t even exist. It’s so much easier to just be able to point and say ‘That one!’

At this point, the best way to clarify exactly what we mean is to switch from words to pictures. Mood boards let us skip using words entirely.

When they said ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’, this is what they meant.

Mood board selection for Higher Holcombe

Mood boards for Higher Holcombe. View project here >

Mood boards let you see all the options at once

It’s much easier to look at 10 images and and get an instant overview than it is to read slowly down a list. Doing it this way reduces the number of stages your brain has to go through to get all the information. Humans are visual creatures, and design is a visual medium, so we should use visual tools. It sounds very logical, but it’s easily forgotten in a world of emails and text messages.

Better for Web design

As well as branding, we also work in web design. As the possibilities of web development have expanded, movement, animation, and a wider range of layout options have been thrown into the mix.

Web layouts really don’t translate well into words. How would you even begin to describe a layout made of lots of interacting elements? Or the difference between the desktop and mobile versions of a responsive design? Some parts might even be moving, or responding to your clicks with modules that appear or disappear as you need them.

Hierarchy (the order in which you look at those elements) is also really important to web design, and the only real way to check if it’s right is to look at it. Letting your eye move naturally around a layout and seeing where it lands isn’t something that can be conjured up in any other way.

Motion graphics

If web layouts are hard, motion graphics (anything animated or filmed) is worse. As well as being images to start with, motion graphics work in two additional vectors- time and position. How do you explain the shift of a parallax, or the pace of a gif?

The only way to really describe the acceleration of a rocket or the curve of a wave, short of resorting to mathematical formulas, is to actually make that motion somehow.

If we’re in a face-to-face meeting, hand gestures suddenly come into play. But the rest of the time it’s much simpler to just provide examples that people can actually see, and ask them which one ‘feels’ right.

Mood boards selection for Real Talk

Mood boards for Real Talk. View project here >

Mood boards are quick and fluid

Design is a process, and the ideas don’t always get nailed down on the first try. If none of our ideas sparks a client’s interest interest we can easily swap in some new images and send them a new mood board within hours. Likewise, if the client has eliminated some options, we can create a smaller mood board with a whittled down selection to help clarify their remaining choices.

When we send mood boards to clients, we ask them not just to tick what they do like but cross out what they don’t. It’s a really tactile way of getting people to be decisive. Nothing feels quite as final as scribbling something out with a Sharpie!

After this initial decision making, we’ll combine elements from the most successful images to give them a few options. Knowing which direction NOT to go in saves us a lot of time. It’s just as valuable as knowing what the favourites are.

Mood boards empower the client.

Mood boards come in at the early stages of a project. The conversation they ignite with our clients helps us get to know each other, and lets them be involved right from the beginning. Commissioning a design can be frustrating from a client’s perspective, because there’s a lot of waiting around before you get to see anything. Having clients involved in mood boards gives them confidence that, right from the beginning, we’re on the same page and moving in the right direction.

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