What is a moodboard & how to create a moodboard

May 12, 2023

"Your design is very good, but I don't feel right. You make another draft and I will continue to feel it." "I have no feeling for your design, and you haven't found the feeling I said." How about it, design Teachers, are these two sentences from the client familiar?

I love mood boards. They are probably my favorite part of the ideation process when it comes to visual design. Putting one together reminds me of being 19 years old in my dorm room spending literal hours on Pinterest curating boards centered around a certain aesthetic. It is just pure fun to me to capture a feeling with imagery, text, items, art, and more. (Note: mood boards can be both physical and digital — I will focus on digital.)

But when I started my design education and mood boards were a part of the curriculum, I honestly viewed them as a little amateurish. I thought they were cute and fun but I wasn’t totally sold on their necessity during the design process. Especially when we had style tiles, which were in my eyes a more fleshed-out version of mood boards. It felt repetitive to do both, and I wasn’t really sure how much my design could benefit from taking the time to also do mood boards.

Luckily, I came to find out how wrong I was to be cynical of their utility. I noticed my own tendency to skip past the early stages of ideation if I thought that we could move on to something more “productive”. But while gathering images to capture a specific mood, I started to understand why and how the mood boards were helping me, and what I needed to be doing or collecting in them to make them effective.

Image of a mood board with a mix of color palettes, imagery, items, and textures.

The “why?”

I have historically liked to rush through the parts of a process that I don’t see the immediate value in. If something seems like it will take more time and effort than it’s worth, why invest any time or effort in it?

This was a major piece of flawed thinking on my part that I think was lodged in place throughout high school and college. Like many of my peers growing up, I remember being busy about 18 hours a day and thinking that anything that seemed fun, interesting, and creative must not be all that helpful for me to advance in life (big yikes and yes I’ve been to therapy about this).

Mood boards, as I saw them, were frivolous and fun. Which meant I felt they were a waste of time at first. And I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Taking the time to put together a mood board for a digital product allows you to take the time to understand how the branding, app’s purpose, and vision play together visually in a way that makes sense and is appealing.

Image of a pinterest search for images with a “zen aesthetic”

For me, it is easy to get one idea in my head and become attached to it to the point where other ideas just don’t feel “right”, especially when it comes to visual design. One of the best ways I’ve found to combat this tendency is through the use of these mood boards. They take brainstorming to the next level of detail, allowing you to clarify your ideas and get a broad range of “looks and feels” that might work for your product.

The “what?”

As a student, I was a little confused by the lack of rigidity or rules with what to put in a mood board. Everything that I learned in my formal education came with a brief or a set of requirements — I always knew exactly what to include, how many of them to include, how to include them, etc. Uncertainty about what was expected didn’t really exist.

Mood boards are not exactly a free-for-all, but they definitely allow for more artistic freedom than I was previously used to. While I am a believer in the idea that constraints spur creativity, mood boards were a time to rid myself of those restrictions and find a wide variety of visual themes that could fit the needs and vision of the product.

But I still felt like I worked better with a set of requirements. Here is what I told myself to try to include with each digital mood board to make sure I had a comprehensive view of the aesthetic:

  1. Imagery, photography, or illustration. Find pictures or drawings that capture the overall look and feel that you want to express in your design.
  2. Typography. Include a quote or something to demonstrate how the typography can contribute to your aesthetic.
  3. Color palettes or swatches. I don’t think you need to be explicit about the hex code or the exact set of colors, but make sure you somehow highlight or are clear about what kinds of colors you’ll implement throughout your design.
  4. Patterns or textures. Originally, this felt to me like something that would only be used in a physical mood board, but including some images of just patterns or textures like velvet or silk can add some depth to a mood board that may only contain regular photos.
  5. Similar inspiring designs. Check out dribbble.com, Pinterest, Invision, and Instagram. Search for your favorite designers or just browse around. If any wireframes or designs stick out to you, add them in to give a basic idea of how your aesthetic will translate to digital (don’t get too detailed here — your style tile is meant for more detail about the digital elements).

Mood boards are your opportunity to play around with the different looks and feels that a product can have. It is easy to slip into space where you focus on the actual digital product. By spending a little extra time allowing yourself to play more in the space of color, imagery, patterns, etc., you’ll become more familiar with the product you are trying to build, what it is trying to be, and how the visual design can get it there.