Behind every great design, there’s a great designer - and a mood board that ignited the spark. A mood board is a collection of visuals that serve in defining and communicating the designer's vision of a project. Whether it is a graphic, fashion or website design project, a mood board serves as an early step in the process, prior to any of the actual design work, and is meant to set the tone and direction for the entirety of the project.
Mood boards are most commonly shared with clients in an early presentation or as part of a pitch. They are also used within design teams, so that all team members are aligned on the same visual language, or for personal research and inspiration. Whether you're working on your own project or are part of a team, here's a full guide on how to make a mood board that will truly elevate your project:
Why mood boards matter
The main advantages of kicking off your project with a mood board are:
Inspiration: Inspiration can be elusive and fleeting, but mood boards have a way of channeling the muses upon request. The beautiful imagery you’ll collect can fuel you with creativity and drift you towards all the right feelings.
Research: Knowledge is power, and mood boards are a great way of exploring what’s been done before you, what some of the biggest trends in your field are, and even what the maestros created way back when.
Communication: Describing design in words is hard - and describing a project that doesn’t even exist yet is even harder. Mood boards can help in conveying your vision of the project to your client, team or boss, aligning everyone involved on a shared understanding of the project early on.
01. Decide on a format
The first step in creating a mood board is deciding on its format. Take into account your intent: Is the mood board meant to be impressive, nailing a very important pitch to a client, or is it more of an exercise to flex your creative muscles? Pick the format that best suits your needs.
Physical mood boards: Paper displays may feel slightly old-fashioned, but when done well, real-life mood boards are highly effective in conveying a message. Use their tactility in your favor to create an immersive and memorable experience for your viewers.
Presentation here is key: You can glue visuals to a foam board, tape an array of images up on the wall (using washi tape, paper clips, etc.), or even spread out objects on a table for people to walk around and get close to.
Try to include more than just cut out or printed images in your physical mood board. Add show-stopping objects that you can pick up and touch, as well as some of the materials you envision for your project, or Pantone swatches of the colors that you have in mind.
Digital mood boards: There are many ways to go about making a digital mood board. You can create one from scratch using programs such as Adobe Photoshop or InDesign, or you could use online tools to make the process easier. Some of our favorites include Milatone and Adobe Spark.
When picking which tool is right for your digital mood board, decide whether you want your mood board to be a presentation with multiple slides or a single page file, and whether you want to share the final results with others.
02. Research and collect
Now is the time to roll up your sleeves and get right to it. Think of the feelings and mood that you want your project to convey. What faraway places do you want your audience to be reminded of? What associations and notions would you like to evoke?
Gather as many images around these topics as you can. Think of this as a visual brainstorming session, so grab anything that catches your eye without second guessing your choices (just yet). Inspiration can be found almost everywhere: be it illustrations, graphic design books, graphic design magazines, cinematography, historical references, a look at another design portfolio, graphic design movies or packaging design, so open your mind and eyes to the endless possibilities.
For the mood board of a sushi restaurant, for example, it would make perfect sense to include photos of delicious-looking sushi rolls. But ideas that are less directly-related, such as woodblock prints of cherry blossom, the intricate patterns of Japanese porcelain or photographs of terraced rice fields can enhance your mood board and paint a richer picture.
To increase your chances of coming across diverse results, look into many different sources of imagery. Online, we recommend browsing websites such as Pinterest, Dribbble, Behance and Designspiration. However, don’t limit your research to the digital realm only - anything from leafing through graphic design magazines to snapping photos of beautiful color palettes on your daily commute can enhance the final result.
03. Curate your imagery
Once you have enough images, take the time to look through them. See what comes up - can you spot any repeating themes or visual directions? Is there a dominant color scheme that stands out? Play around by grouping together a few of the emerging directions, and see what works best together.
Looking through your images, you might even find that the same project can be interpreted in a few different aesthetic directions or themes. If more than one option piques your interest, you can create multiple mood boards in parallel to explore several looks for your project. This way, you can express, say, a green and natural feel for your product, while also presenting its urban, edgy alternative.
Now, compile a collection of visuals that are cohesive and look like they belong together. While all of the images in a single mood board should be unified in telling the same story, make sure that each of them sheds a slightly different light on the topic. Pick visuals that highlight diversified subject matters, such as color, texture, typography, photography, and illustration or art, in order to truly encapsulate your vision of the project.
Narrow your collection down to an amount that’s communicative without being overwhelming. Six to twelve items is usually just right.
04. Add textual descriptions
While mood boards are, in essence, a means of visual communication, adding textual notes can ensure that you clearly get your point across. Pick a few strategic places to provide short textual descriptions, explaining the reasoning behind the images, highlighting important details, and tying your idea back to the project.
Look for descriptive adjectives that explain why the image fits in with the tone and style you have in mind for the project. For example, a photo of a folded fabric sheet with a cotton stem placed on top, can be accompanied by something along the lines of: “Textiles such as cotton and linen are soft, natural, and sustainable, keeping in line with the brand’s ecological vision and lifestyle.”
05. Arrange your composition
With your mood board’s content ready and finalized, it’s time to put everything together and arrange it into a single layout. There are many methods for laying out your mood boards. Here are two of our favorites:
Grid layout: One option for your composition is to give each image the same amount of real estate using a symmetrical grid.
Hierarchical layout: You can also use the sizes of the different images to hint at their importance. This is done by making one or two centerpiece images larger than the rest, and arranging the rest around those key ones.
The composition of your mood board needs to make all of your different pictures come together in telling one coherent story. Think of a flower arrangement that evokes feelings not because of a single bud or branch, but thanks to the masterful juxtaposition of the different elements put together. Similarly, a good mood board should bring about an idea that’s bigger than any of its individual components - that being, of course, the idea of your upcoming creative project.
06. Ask for feedback
Your mood board is now complete - which means it’s time to test it out and see how clear and communicative it really is. Show your mood board to a few trusted friends, and ask them to explain the general vibe and mood in their own words. Does each of the images make sense to them? Does anything feel out of place?
Remember to truly listen to the comments you’re given, and embrace constructive feedback as a means of improving your work. Then, make revisions and implement the comments you received.
07. Deliver the result to your client
You can now share your mood board with your client or team. Remember that the mood board is not your final piece, but rather a means to an end. The end result being, of course, the actual project you’re about to embark on. When presenting your mood board to your client or team (either in person or digitally), be sure to communicate this message and explain how the visuals they see on the mood board might come to life in your work as their freelance graphic designer.
Mood boards can also be shared in your graphic design portfolio, and if you're exploring how to make that leap to becoming a freelance graphic designer, showcasing mock mood boards on your portfolio is a good place to start.
Above all, use the mood board as a jumping point to open a conversation with your client or team, discussing the look and feel of the upcoming project and even getting into its nitty gritty. After all, that’s what mood boards are really all about.