Mood board: the designer's paid break

When I was interviewed by Imaginary Cloud for a Digital Product Designer job opening, I was asked: hard work or inspiration? I lingered a bit and answered: inspiration. I got the job.

Inspiration is the process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially something creative. It's not an antonym of "hard work", but more of its previous state.

In our work context, the time for inspiration is called the mood board.

What is a mood board?

Creating a mood board is defining the look and feel of a product before jumping to the design tools and designing all the final interface screens. Personally, I find it to be the most interesting step of the design process.

In practice, it's a board composed by individual images, gifs or even video and other elements (if they add value to what you want to communicate) collected and curated from a previous, wider, research.

This research can be done through online galleries and archives, but if you have the time, try to go offline and visit museums, libraries, municipal archives. Alternatively, you can just go outside and get inspired, as Gaudi did before building the Sagrada Familia.

 Nature as source of inspiration (sagradafamilia.org/geometria)

The visual references on the board have to share something in common and fit a certain style, tone, voice and feelings. Usually, existing art and design works are used for the mood board, but you can also make use of original pieces. It's up to you what to explore in each case.

The most common graphic elements in mood boards for digital products are colors, fonts, typefaces, photography, illustration, geometric forms, layouts & grids, presented on surfaces like UI screens, packages, flyers, posters and newspapers.

But you can go out of the box.

For instance, check the coolest mood board presented below from the designer Tobias Van Schneider for a handmade shoe!

 Mood board for custom Airmax 1, Tobias Van Schneider

If you present visual elements outside of your industry it's easier to drive the conversation to the look & feel of the product and not to specific details concerning UI screens.

At a high level, a mood board is basically a map or a relational system, which is a very useful creative exercise to communicate a message.

Relational systems

Each mood board has to expose relations of complementarity between different objects in order to build a solid idea or concept.

"By bringing together completely different plans, they can regain a meaning that they did not have alone. Ultimately, the plan means nothing in itself, since the meaning will only stabilize in the relation / association with other images. The film does not reproduce a reality, it creates its reality."
Lev Kuleshov (about the Kuleshov Effect).

There are different models of representation, such as atlas, diagrams, visual maps, storyboards, etc. Also, it can be based on different values of comparison, complementarity, opposition/collision, drift and in essayistic, fictional, documentary and historical principles.

In the field of visual arts, the Atlas Mnemosyne, made by Aby Warburg between 1924 and 1929, is an incredible reference of what a relational system can be. He changed the way we understand images, art and, in particular, the unconscious memory.

View of the exhibition "Aby Warburg. Mnemosyne Bilderatlas", ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, 2016 © ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, Photo: Tobias Wootton

Mnemosyne Atlas board example

"When we arrange different images or different objects — playing cards, for example — on a table, we are free to modify constantly their configuration. We can make piles or constellations. We can discover new analogies, new trajectories of thought. By modifying the order, we can arrange things so that images take positions. A table is not made for definitively classifying, for exhaustively making an inventory, or for cataloguing once and for all – as in a dictionary, an archive or an encyclopedia – but instead for gathering segments, or parceling out the world, while respecting its multiplicity and its heterogeneity — and for giving a legibility to the underlying relations."

Georges Didi-Huberman (2011), “Atlas – How to carry the world on One's back”

André Malraux in the process of selecting images for the book Le musée imaginaire de la sculpture mondiale

Relational systems are also a common practice in the field of Investigation and Espionage. The industry of Movies and TV Shows have been showing it to us so well, as the examples below turn evident, just to mention a few:

Everything is Illuminated (2005)

True Detective (2014)

It's not just that, the time dedicated to the mood board helps you to be a better designer and to have a more balanced work life.

In agencies or studios, where people work in different projects at the same time and with constant deadlines, you can easily become anxious or bored. Especially if you get stuck looking at a blank screen.

The mood board is the paid break that we all need.

It gives you time to clear off your mind, slow the frenetic rhythm down, get updated and enjoy the journey of discovering new art and design works.
Otherwise, you would only be reproducing frameworks and recycling the same stylistic approaches from project to project, since it's faster, cheaper and safer.

But not everything is a bed of roses. Sometimes, when the mood board appeals to a more abstract interpretation, it's tricky for some clients to talk about and recognize usefulness in it. They don't understand why they are seeing a Michelangelo sculpture when you are talking about digital products. And that is fair, as no one will make the same interpretation of that image.

As designers, it's our role to present the deliverable in a way that the client can understand. Make them comment the mood board and catch their reactions to have insights and feedback about the look&feel of the product they pretend.

Share your visual references, your culture, your stories, but also be open to learn and listen. At the end of the day, it's that sharing experience that really matters.

Once the mood board gets approved, you already have a creative roadmap to help you make better design decisions in the GUI (Graphic User Interface) phase.

Don't work hard, but smart.

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