If you’re interested in design, chances are you’re always looking for inspiration.

You notice well designed food packaging while wandering grocery store aisles. You try to identify the fonts used on advertisements or store signs. You’re tempted to buy greeting cards just because they have a really great design or illustration.

If you’re like me, maybe you’re constantly bookmarking designs you find online or you compile boards of inspiring work on Pinterest.

Pinterest/AG

Pinterest/AG

That tendency to collect can actually serve you well in your design workflow. How? Through creating mood boards. A mood board (or inspiration board) is a physical or digital collage of ideas that’s commonly used in fields like interior design, fashion, and graphic design. It can include just about anything — photography, designs or illustrations, color palettes, textures, descriptive words — anything that helps you define the direction of your project.

Starting the design process with a mood board is a good idea for two reasons:

1) It helps you. Gathering some ideas and inspiration before you actually start designing can streamline the design process and cut down the time you spend staring at a blank screen. It can also potentially save you from a lot of wasted time and effort by getting client approval on a concept ahead of time — no one likes to pour their heart into a project only to have it rejected by a client.

2) It helps clients. Creating a mood board to present to clients gives them an idea of what the finished product will look like and allows everyone involved to agree on a direction before too much work is done. It also helps avoid any misunderstandings that may result from trying to describe a design concept verbally. Two people may say the same thing, but mean something completely different, so a visual representation can help everyone get on the same page.

Now that you’ve got a good grasp of how inspiration boards can be a beneficial, let’s take a look at some tips on how get get the most out of the moodboarding process:

01. Do it yourself.

Mood boards don’t have make use of outside inspiration. If you’re doing some branding, maybe for a company or website, you can create a mood board of different design elements you have created that you’re considering using in the final design and present it for approval. That way, you don’t have to go to all the work of pulling together the final product, but your client still gets to see the overall style, plus specifics like possible textures, illustrations, font choices, and color palettes, like Kyle Taylor has included here.

02. Match brand qualities to content.

On the other hand, mood boards may include things that never actually show up in the project, but have been chosen because they represent the qualities of a brand or just illustrate a certain feeling or aesthetic. Here, Vivek Venkatraman’s mood board pinpoints some qualities that the brand identifies with — such as warm, summer, and outdoors — and finds imagery that matches up: children playing in the spray of a fire hydrant on a hot day, sunglasses on a picnic table, cans of cold beer. Rather than including possible design elements like in the previous design, this board features images that are more thematic; they say something about the company (its style, its audience), which provides a jumping-off point for the actual design work.

03. Do more than one.

It’s common for designers to come up with two or three different concepts (or “comps” — short for “comprehensive layout,” a mock-up of a proposed design) for one project. Mood boards are a great way to present a design proposal. Below, you’ll see how Jared Erickson created three distinct brand concepts and a mood board for each.

The first one has a clean, vintage-modern look with a warm color palette:

The second one has a more retro feel with curved shapes, a muted color scheme, and distressed textures:

The third has a definite urban, architectural influence, with geometric shapes, straight lines, and sharp edges:

04. Go to the source.

There may be times when you’re inspired by the design aesthetic of a certain era — Victorian, mid-century modern, etc. When William Yarbrough started a personal branding project, he wanted to replicate the style of “the golden age of air travel” — the 1950s and 60s. So he found original materials from the era like postcards and luggage tags, which offer great ideas for typography and color pairings.

05. Don’t limit yourself.

The things you include on your mood board don’t necessarily have to relate directly to your project. For instance, this mood board from Carolyn Farino is for a user interface project, but — working off of what she describes as a “fresh, light, airy visual direction” — it draws from a wide variety of sources for inspiration, from food packaging to fine art. Just because something is from a different genre than your project doesn’t mean you can’t use it to help establish the direction of your design. Nothing is off limits.

06. Get organized.

Mood boards can be whatever you need them to be — from a wild brainstorming collage to an orderly project outline. But one approach is using your board to organize different pieces of your project and try out a potential style. For this web design mood board, Matt Cole includes typical style choices like fonts and a color palette, but also mocks up designs for actual site elements like buttons, icons, headings, and featured content.

07. Cover all your bases.

If you do opt for the organized approach, a big part of that (especially if you’ll be presenting the mood board to a boss or client) will involve making sure you have a well-thought-out plan that hits all the required points. Sarah Albinda covers all the must-haves for her user interface project: fonts and typography, menus, icons, colors, and even adjectives that describe the style. When it comes time to sit down and start designing, having a visual plan like this will give you a ready-made roadmap for your design, speeding up your workflow.

08. Apply your ideas.

There’s no better way to show off your design ideas than displaying them in action. This is particularly effective for branding work. Here, Ashley Jankowski displays her logo work and other brand elements on business cards and paired with photography to give her clients idea of what it might look like in real-life applications.

09. Experiment.

Mood boards can come in handy not only for inspiration, but also for fine-tuning a particular design idea, as Adrian Cantelmi has done below. He experiments with different colors and contexts for both the full logo and an abbreviated monogram version.

10. Add some explanations.

A picture can paint a thousand words, as the saying goes, but words themselves are also powerful tools. Use them to explain and/or enhance the visual nature of your mood board. Short descriptions, like those on Ashley Bennett’s mood board, can help clarify any important information or fill in something that the images don’t communicate or that you don’t have room to show.

11. Mix and match.

It can be helpful to combine your own design contributions — like the logos, icons, and font choices at the top center of this web design mood board from Zenman — with inspiration you find elsewhere. That way, you can easily pair the look of the design elements you’ve already committed to with the overall style you hope to achieve.

12. Pick a style.

Choosing one unifying style for your design can give you a visual theme to work from and make your concept look more pulled together. Lisa Rickman opted for the “flat” design style and a limited color scheme for a clean look.

13. Coordinate and conquer.

Have two related projects that need a consistent look? Creating a mood board for each, like Tricia LoPiccolo has done below, will ensure that you stay on brand for both. But this technique also enables you to make slight tweaks and easily determine if the changes still work with the overall appearance, especially if you’re working on them at the same time, side by side.

14. Focus on one thing.

If doing a mood board for the project as a whole is too overwhelming, try focusing on one element at a time. Here, Nikki Clark nails down the color scheme for her project. She picks colors that evoke items that tie in with the character of her beachy brand — sun, surf, coral reef. This is a smart move because the color palette works on viewers subconsciously to establish what the brand is all about.

Here are some of those colors in action, along with her font choices. Start with a single design element, add more one at a time, and before you know it, you’ll have a complete mood board and be well on your way to a fully developed design plan.

15. Consider context.

This mood board for a magazine layout from Zehno includes design elements that are specific to a magazine’s style and/or that are conventionally found in similar publications — for instance, the drop cap (the giant Q) to start a block of text, or the large quotation marks to set off a quote. Paying attention to the context of a design and trying to anticipate any requirements that may go along with that will help your mood board get a good reception.

16. Refine and re-submit.

When working with a client, moodboarding may be a multi-step process. Here, graphic designer Breanna Rose explains how she created an initial mood board, but after a few minor tweaks requested by her client, ended up with a board that had a completely different aesthetic that was much more to the client’s liking.

You’ll notice that the first concept is light, bright, and slightly nautical:

The second concept, while it shares some of the same images, is darker with a more sophisticated, retro look:

17. Work off of a theme.

Another possible approach when working with a client is to create one or more mood boards based on themes or qualities that the person or company has said they would like to communicate.

To help her client define their organization’s visual style, Samantha Zucker and the Reboot Design Team created three different visual directions, each with its own theme. For each of the three directions, Samantha went one step further and compiled two extra boards (in addition to the first inspiration board) — one with specific graphic elements that match the theme (patterns, color schemes, fonts, etc.) and the other featuring publications that have used a similar style.

Theme: Trustworthy & Modern. Description from Samantha: “For this direction, we are pulling from a tradition of corporate design that emphasizes cool tones and clean lines to convey a strong and modern aesthetic. The fonts are simple and slender type treatments, complemented by a serif body font to reinforce the emphasis on credibility/trustworthiness.”

Design elements for Trustworthy & Modern theme:

Real-life applications of Trustworthy & Modern theme:

Theme: Beautiful & Professional. Description from Samantha: “This option combines a warm set of tones and traditional type treatments with use of texture to suggest a professional aesthetic that remains informed by the human hand. We would use classic serif typefaces with highlights of human-feeling type to offer a light edge. The color palette grounds this traditional design in an accessible and inviting visual language.”

Design elements for Beautiful & Professional theme:

Real-life applications of Beautiful & Professional theme:

Theme: Extension of existing brand (energetic, colorful, simple, and people-focused). Description from Samantha: “This concept introduces a visual style that leans heavily on the house brand. While informed by the hues and feel of the brand, this aesthetic at once creates a unique aesthetic, applying brand colors into a ‘human’ direction, softening and introducing more natural tones. The graphic treatments pull from a clean and bright Swiss style of solid color and rigid grids.”

Design elements for theme:

Real-life applications of theme:

Mood boards are useful, versatile tools. If you have never tried creating one as part of your design process, give it a go for your next project, then come back and let us know how it went!

Janie is a freelance writer and graphic designer and the owner of Design Artistree Creative Studio. After college, she built on her background in art to explore design…and loved it. Now, she enjoys finding ways to combine the craftsmanship of traditional fine arts with the digital possibilities of graphic design.