Cobalt-60 The Cobalt Blog

Thinking Inside the Board: Using Mood Boards to Generate Ideas and Build Consensus

By Sue George and William Harris

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Let’s say you’ve been selected by a client to define their new brand or design their new website. Where do you begin? It may seem like you have a blank slate to do anything, but, in reality, the slate isn’t blank at all — it is filled with preconceptions, biases and preferences, owned both by the client and the client’s particular market.

“Mood boards can help you pinpoint a design direction,” said Mark Miller, Art Director at Cobalt Communications. “They’re a great way to bounce abstract design ideas off of a client and get their input, especially when they’re not good at articulating what they want.”

What is a Mood Board?


Also called vision boards or inspiration boards, mood boards are tools for communicating a vision, feeling, theme, persona or mood for a design or a style in a way that can be quickly absorbed and understood by those viewing them. Mood boards can be used to confirm that all stakeholders are on the same page or get feedback if not.

Elements of a typical mood board include some or all of the following:

  • Images: Photos, Sketches, Illustrations, Artwork, Graphs
  • Colors
  • Patterns, Textures, Shapes
  • Typography
  • Keywords or Snippets of Text

The use of mood boards fits well with our human tendency to see patterns and notice deviations from them as we strive to make sense of all the information around us. According to the Gestalt Principles formulated by German psychologists in the early 20th century, we naturally see order amid disorder because we are wired to perceive based on key principles including proximity, similarity, continuation, closure and connectedness. Our minds tend to fill in any missing pieces of information to construct a whole that is larger than its parts. Likewise, our minds tend to detect when something doesn’t fit in with a pattern or grouping. Mood boards make it easier for us to do exactly this kind of noticing.

Historically, mood boards were done on physical boards made of foam core, paper or wood, but today most boards are developed and shared digitally, especially when working with remote clients and colleagues.

Mood boards are an extremely effective communication tool when used at the right time in the right situations.

Inspiration and Idea Generation


At the beginning of a project, you can look at other people’s mood boards for inspiration and/or create several of your own as you develop and refine your thinking. Think of mood boards as a safe place to experiment with visual concepts and focus your efforts. They are not intended to show a final design or provide a definitive answer.

Instead, mood boards serve as a creativity or brainstorming booster. As you develop any given mood board, you’re organizing and focusing your thinking via images and visual elements. A mood board is like a visual compass that defines a design direction into which you will go deeper. You may or may not ultimately share your mood boards with others.

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Getting Client Buy-In


If you decide to share, you can use mood boards to communicate initial explorations and gather important client feedback that will define or even refine the creative direction for the rest of the project. Our best designs often come out of a collaborative process; mood boards are just another way to facilitate that collaboration.

Because mood boards are good at conveying abstract design ideas, which can be difficult to put into words, they let you have a kind of conversation with clients that you might not otherwise have and collect qualitative feedback. Many people struggle to communicate proactively about feelings and even when they can put words around our feelings, those words can mean different things to different people. So when you present a mood board, astutely watch your client’s reaction. Notice when they react — both verbally or nonverbally — with delight and approval and interest and when they don’t.

Taking the time to get this input early in a project helps you determine client preferences and guides your design efforts so that you are more likely to create something that will ultimately be well received by your client, thus saving you hours of potential redesign. You want to find out, for example, that your client hates red long before you’ve based an entire identity on that particular color.

Who Uses Mood Boards


Whether you’re working with a client or brand generally or on a client’s specific design project, mood boards often come in handy.

“Mood boards are great when trying to pick a tone or persona for a client’s company, especially for a new brand. I use them a lot whether I’m simply revising a brand identity or coming up with a brand’s whole new look,” said Miller. “I also use them in the process of figuring out new website designs; they help with ‘skinning,’ the often iterative process that determines a site’s final look and feel.”

But designers aren’t the only creatives who can derive benefit from mood boards. Writers can use them to establish tone and define the parameters of a world they’re creating. And event planners can use them to clarify the experience they’re trying to achieve.

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How Do You Create a Mood Board?


There is no “right” or “wrong” way to create a mood board. The actual format or layout of a mood board is far less important than the content and thought process that goes into it. Every mood board will look different, depending on what your project is and how you want to organize it.

Think of a mood board like stream of consciousness writing. You will move through creating one relatively quickly, then move on. Remember, it’s not a final design.

Tip 1: Know your audience.

Your design is ultimately for your client, and the mood board is a way to confirm or learn about client preferences. Put some thought into what colors, typography or even keywords that you think will align with the client’s strategic vision, and intentionally select images, fonts and colors that are relevant and appropriate. Don’t make it so abstract that the client won’t get it. With some consideration, you won’t waste time creating mood boards that are way off target, making each one that you do create a more effective tool for honing design direction.

Tip 2: Pick your format and style.

Decide if your mood board will be physical or digital, formal or casual. Then pick a style and commit to it. Some example approaches include edgy, contemporary, black and white, historical and modern. In fact, most mood boards of all types end up having a grid-like feel, but the reality is that the layout is far less important than how you organize and group elements.

Tip 3: Focus on a single idea.

Limit yourself to one primary idea or theme per mood board, and organize it in a way that makes sense. If you have more than one compelling initial design idea, create multiple mood boards to showcase each individually. If you try to mesh multiple approaches into one mood board, it’ll be too difficult to gauge the client’s reaction when you review it together.

Tip 4: Be intentional, not random.

While mood boards are a form of creative brainstorming, they are not random. Yes, start with everything that comes to mind for each idea or theme, but then selectively pair those down so that each mood board has a coherent, unique feel.

Tip 5: Don’t spend too much time.

Perhaps the biggest mistake designers make with mood boards is putting too much time into them. Remember, they are just one step in the visual communications process and are not the final design.

Mood Board Examples


Example #1 — Different presentations: These two Evergreen boards feature very similar content, but rely on different fonts, colors and photo subject matter to create different feels.

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Example #2 — Different Typography and Logos: These mood boards explore two vastly different solutions for an organization’s identity. By using similar layouts, the boards make it easy to have an apples-to-apples comparison of the two design approaches.

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Example #3 — Different Colors, Fonts and Graphics

The fundamental identity of Simplica remains the same for both boards and maintains an overall tech-savvy feel, but the colors, fonts and graphics treatment represent the company differently.

Simplica1

Simplica2

Go Ahead, Give It a Try


Now that we’ve told you all about mood boards, what they are and how to use them, it’s your turn. With a little practice, you’ll learn to create mood boards quickly and use them effectively with your clients. You’ll find them to be an effective tool in your creative problem-solving process.

Software Tools for Creating Mood Boards


  • Adobe Creative Cloud - Tap into Adobe’s expertise by using their proven image and design and manipulation software tools like Photoshop, Illustrator or Spark.
  • Canva - Design just about anything with this free yet very capable popular browser-based tool.
  • Milanote - Visually organize your ideas and projects with this easy-to-use, browser-based tool.
  • Pinterest - Leverage social media to inspire your own moodboards, or maybe you can even save yourself a bunch of time and simply point to a relevant example that someone else has already created.
  • Powerpoint - Keep it simple and use a visual tool tool that you may have on your computer and already know how to use for creating and sharing information of all types.

Further Reading


Essential Guide to Mood Boards
How to Use Mood Boards as Visual Communication Tools
Mood Boards: Why and How To Create Them
How to Create an Online Mood Board for Your Next Project
Mood Boards: Before, During, and After the Design Process
The Neuroscience of Mood Boards
How to Create a Mood Board: 5 Tools for Visualizing Your Ideas in 2018
The Ultimate Moodboard Maker
How and When to Design a Mood Board