Setting the Mood with Inspiration Boards

Inspiration boards, otherwise known as mood boards or idea boards, are an important part of the research phase of almost every brand identity project we take on. When compiling an inspiration board, the goal is to collect and arrange bits of imagery and design that explore and illustrate a specific creative tone. Because they give visual form to adjectives like "warm," "engaging" or "modern,"  inspiration boards help us communicate our rough ideas quickly, before we've invested too much time into execution.  They keep us from discovering several weeks into design that our client's idea of "modern" might be a bit different than ours, and the early back-and-forth they facilitate helps establish a precedent of open communication and trust in the process.


I have always kept a library of inspirational design elements, which I keep roughly organized by style.  When I create an inspiration board for a client, I pull examples from this collection, and I also search for imagery specific to their industry or their tastes.  This might consist of words or phrases, color palettes, snippets of illustrations, magazine layouts, web navigation, patterns and textures, anything visual that shares the sensibilities I'm picturing for this brand.  I try to translate brand attributes like "simple," "elegant", and "sophisticated" into visual vocabulary— colors, font styles and shapes—while avoiding anything too specific. At this point, I don't want the client to use the boards to choose a typeface or an exact color palette, just an overall direction.

I usually like to review the boards with the client, and watch their reactions to the items I've chosen.  I want them to know that it's okay, even preferable, to dislike as much as they like about the boards.  This will help me avoid things that might rub them the wrong way as I get into actual design. The best inspiration boards save design time because they get the client excited about your emerging creative vision as it's forming and give them an opportunity to chime in before you've committed to specific elements, making them less likely to question or backpedal later. 

Some tips for creating and using inspiration boards in your next creative project:

  1. Keep it relevant: As you create the boards, make sure that all the elements you choose are potentially appropriate for your client and their audience. You don't want them falling in love with an element that doesn't jive with the fundamental values of their brand. It might help to identify emotions or words that the brand needs to convey, like "natural" or "lively" and make sure everything on the page, as well as the page as a whole, embodies that word. You want the overall tone of the page to be overt, even a bit over-the-top.
  2. Keep it varied:  Since you're never picking actual design elements when you create an inspiration board, you can combine elements that you might not be able to in real life.  You can use part of a poster design, a sliver of a website, a bit of a texture, a few swatches of color, a photo, a shred of a textile.  Since the board is an internal tool and isn't going to be published or sold, it's okay to include most anything you can find in a Google search or on a design blog. If an element has the right feel, include it even if you can't quite see how it would fit with or translate to the final execution of the brand.
  3. Keep it casual: Don't worry too much about the design of the board itself.  Fit your collection together quickly and intuitively, step back, squint, adjust, and be done.  Don't over-analyze or over-rationalize details. This is not about perfection—it's about the overall impression.  Think of your board as a very rough sketch or a collection of raw ingredients. 
  4. Ask for help:  Ask your clients what magazines, websites and colors resonate most with them.  Consider using these items as you create your boards.  If your clients are creative types, they may even be able to help you gather imagery, or sit down with you to sift through and organize it.
  5. Explain: For a lot of our clients, the inspiration board is a new concept. Make sure to explain that you're not showing them a buffet of elements from which they must analyze and choose specific pieces of their future brand.  Ask them how the boards make them feel.  You want their overall gut reaction. Keep the discussion general; speak in terms of color families and type styles, rather than a specific swatch or font.
  6. Listen: It's usually best to review the boards in person with your client so that you can see their gestures and facial expressions when they talk about a particular color combo or image.  Really listen as they talk about their preferences.  You have to be able to remember all this nodding, smiling, frowning and pointing later as you critique your own early design concepts.

Inspiration boards work well for us, but obviously there are many ways to engage clients in the creative process and communicate your early ideas.  What techniques do you all use to achieve these important goals?