When you embark on any journey, it is a good idea to use a map to help you start off in the right direction.
Product and brand designers apply this same idea when we begin developing a visual identity or minimal viable product. We research, sketch and we mood board.
Basically we get initial concepts out of our heads and onto screens or paper.
Mood boards are popular tools in the product design community. They are used in developing what is often referred to as a look and feel of a product or brand. But what does look and feel really mean, and what real purpose does it ultimately serve in helping you build your brand?
In the earliest stages of creating something new, clients and marketing teams often ponder most over what their design should look like, how it should make people feel and where it can ultimately take the audience.
British designer Michael Johnson of johnson banks who has created for and advised brands like, Virgin Atlantic, The British Science Museum and The Guggenheim Foundation in New York, mistrusts the phrase look and feel:
“Apart from sounding vaguely pornographic, I think when you succumb to ‘look and feel’ you’re only a hop and a skip away from mood boards, and that really is the end of design as we know it. It’s the kind of phrase that researchers love to throw around in focus groups, a process almost always destined to remove the last hints of creativity from a project.”
[source: design observer]
Using look and feel as a way to define your design process is like describing a premium cut of meat prepared by a red seal chef; in the same way you would as, lets say, a steak you grabbed from the grocery store and popped on the bbq. Words fail to capture the level of training and precision that goes into delivering a premium product. But ego and/or inexperience aside, the point is, sometimes visual references help us where words let us down.
No matter what you call it – mood board, collage, style tiles – the act of assembling and then communicating your research and creative references is essential to selling your process of brand and product design.
But here’s what I want to impart most: a stunning mood board does not always translate into a successful brand or product.
Why? The reason is quite simple.
Just because something looks good, doesn’t mean its going to work.
“How often we see design that has no meaning: stripes and swash of color splashed across pages for no reason whatsoever. Well, they are either meaningless or incredibly vulgar or criminal when done on purpose.” ~Massimo Vignelli
Italian designer Massimo Vignelli designed some of the worlds most recognizable brands and iconic graphics, including the corporate identity of American Airlines and the iconic signage and map for the 1970-80s New York Subway System. His book, The Vignelli Cannon is an excellent resource and I’m applying some of its’ design principles to mood board creation here.
Vignelli believed that a designers’ first objective with any new project was to look at semantics. If the designer takes the time to understand the nature of the relationship between client and their audience, what they are creating will not only make more sense to both sender and receiver, but that the designer will also be able to relate the two in a more meaningful way. This is how we can also determine the best syntax of design elements to use in building a brand. For instance,perfecting the overall structure of the product and the consistency of brand elements like grids, typefaces, copy, illustrations, photography, etc.
If you are using mood boards as an exclusive means to create the central foundation of your brand or product, you will undoubtedly run into trouble. Design is a science as much as it is an art. It is based on both tangible and intangible concepts. Aside from having an eye for what looks good, every detail needs to be researched, reasoned and tested.
To haphazardly curate ideas of what you like based purely on trend or personal taste, ultimately leads to costly problems, specifically in audience retention and product re-design. For example if you are invited to a vegetarian potluck and in preparation you grab whatever meat is the most popular at the butcher shop and prepare it the way you perceive to be the best, your dish will not win anyone over aside from maybe yourself for having leftovers on hand for lunch the next day.
Don’t gamble with the receivers’ perception of good taste, instead cater to it carefully.
It’s for this reason that design, at its core, has to be pragmatic. For creativity to perform at its best, it needs to be supported by knowledge. What is the point of the product if no one understands the meaning of the effort? Vignelli explains that “any artifact should stand by itself in all its clarity. Otherwise, something really important has been missed.” It is this attention to detail that takes discipline. Strong design has no room for error or laziness.
A mood board will not deliver brand precision to you, so do not rely on it this way.
Instead, use a mood board as one of many product development tools. When used as a means, not as an end, they can prove to be quiet effective in defining appropriate solutions to your brand and product.
Through a process of addition and subtraction, mood boards help prevent us from taking wrong directions, or alternative routes that either lead to dead ends or wrong solutions. In our own practice at Merian Media, we use them as an means of exploration in round table discussions. Depending on (a) the type of project and (b) the people involved, we often find that a mood board can be most helpful in the early stages of discoveries by lending just the right amount of constraint that everyone needs to narrow the focus of their overall vision. Mood boards help bring everyone onto the same page creating no surprises around the creative process.
By sharing visual inspiration we become more aware of how other team members perceive the project. By starting with a broad range of evocative imagery or ideas curated around motifs of colour, typography and style, you can start to pin point the exact tone, experience and meaning your want to achieve with your brand or product. But with all good mood boards, you need to keep them current. Overtime they will change and grow with your project. Keeping an up-to-date mood board will serve you well as a roadmap for seeing how far your vision has come and whether or not you need to refocus if your direction is getting a little off track.
Real life examples
One really good example of using mood boards to collaborate and inform the design process comes from the design team at Breather. They recently created an on boarding package for new employees and used a mood board in multiple occasions in their process to deliver what looks like proved to be a stellar final product.
Invision is a great application for product design. They offer users free mood boarding tools and their blog is packed with useful articles about how to use it. Check out how Creativedash uses mood boards on Invision to learn more about one company’s specific process of using the software to improve their collective design process.