They've been called many things: inspiration boards, look & feel trajectories, lookbooks, moodboards. There are platforms dedicated to them (Pinterest) and a million different tools and techniques to create them. Regardless, their purpose is irreplaceable in the world of design.

When starting a design project, we sometimes have brand guidelines (or a Style Guide) already in place that a designer can use to help her establish a visual direction. With brand guidelines, the designer can build on already-established colors, fonts, and photography.

But certain design projects—like creating a logo or branding for a new product—obviously don't have brand guidelines in place. Everything is baked from scratch.

So how do we determine where to start? Hey, you guessed it! This is where a moodboard comes in handy. Bet you didn't see that one coming.

The Basics

A moodboard is a loose arrangement of visual elements used to convey a very broad idea. They are not overly polished or finalized, and there is no exact template to execute upon. Their purpose is to provide elements—like color palettes, fonts, photography—that communicate the essence of what the design could be but never exactly what the design will look like. It’s a fantastic tool to suss out top-level likes and dislikes with regards to visual direction.

As a designer, I like to provide 2-3 distinctly different moodboards to help me understand what direction to go. In my opinion, providing only one never yields enough feedback to assume a visual direction. More often than not, there are elements from each that my clients like—the font from one, the palette from another—which I will then use to create a final visual direction.

How to use them

Say you’ve hired a designer to create a logo for you, and they have come back with 2 moodboards for your review.

They may at first look very abstract to you.

There may be crops of photography and type that seems collaged, there may be blocks of color, and there may even be samples of other logos. You might wonder how these elements even relate to the final design but do your best to assess them from a low fidelity, instinctual point of view.

A well-executed moodboard will certainly convey a mood, so if you feel an immediate aversion to something—call it out. Perhaps you don’t like green. Maybe the typography in one part of the moodboard is too heavy. Don’t be afraid if you don’t know "designese." Just speak in terms that make sense to you. As a designer it’s most helpful to hear your natural thoughts that I can then filter into a design direction that's suitable for you.

Make One Yourself

I’ve found it to be incredibly useful when a client makes their own moodboard. If you’ve got an idea around the type of visuals you had in mind, don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty!

Some clients have provided a Pinterest board or a Powerpoint, while others have even just provided a folder full of images with a Dropbox link. The execution is not important, and it doesn’t have to be polished. The real value comes in knowing what you like and dislike, then visually communicating that as best you can.

Try using moodboards in your next project, or even for your own personal projects. They’re a fantastic way to visualize any goal—large or small, tangible or intangible.

And after all, visualization is the key to success.