Kill the Mood.

Why the pernicious “mood board” is holding your design back.

Remember that scene in Forrest Gump where Forrest is running with those horrible metal leg braces, and suddenly they break free and he can run at his full, beautiful, graceful gait? You’re Forrest Gump. Running is a metaphor for Design. And those leg braces? They’re mood boards.

Let me explain.

Look, I get it. As a designer, it’s exceedingly difficult to condense your vision for a new design into a clear and compelling language, and it’s doubly difficult to communicate said vision to a client who doesn’t speak design. Mood boards rose from the depths to try to meet this need, but not only are they ill-suited to the task, they actually limit you as a designer and set you up to fail.

Granted, there are cases when mood boards are useful to designers: Interior designers and others who are working with a single client on a personal project need to make sure they’re vision and inspiration align well with that client’s particular style and taste. But as product designers, we’re almost never designing to an individual’s style; we are designing for what’s best for the user and the business. (If you are a designer reading this who happens to be making a one-off product for or something, mood board away).

Moreover, when you create a mood board using inspiration from designs that have come before you, you’re essentially painting yourself into a recursive creativity loop that runs the risk of becoming homage (or worse). Yes, we all think Massimo Vignelli’s subway maps and Herb Lubalin’s posters are the ne plus ultra of design dopeness. But when you use them as reference material for a “well-ordered but stylish interface with bold type and muted tertiary colors”, you’re putting yourself in a box. A circular box. Don’t put yourself in the circlebox.

Not only that, but you’re building yourself a trap with your clients. By preciously curating these gardens of beautiful designs for inspiration, you’re letting your client build an expectation that you will likely fail to meet. Because they’re seeing this collage of style and color and imagery, they themselves are building up a vision, and seeing yours will likely cause some uncomfortable dissonance. This will lead to things being said like “I’ll know it when I see it”.

Ever hear that? Yeah.

Even worse is applying this methodology to multiple moodboards over multiple directions (I’ll get into why presenting more than one direction is a terrible betrayal of your craft in a future post). This only compounds the client-designer dissonance so they end up liking bits from one direction and color from another and you’re left to try to make some cogent composition out of three different orchestras. Stop doing this to yourself and to your work.

“By preciously curating these gardens of beautiful designs for inspiration, you’re letting your client build an expectation that you will likely fail to meet.”

The thing that mood boards did for you was to:

A) allow you to meditate on/make clear your thinking on a solution to your design and

B) quickly communicate and facilitate buy-in from your client.

There is another way!

Let me suggest a different approach that will solve both of those needs in a way that is more holistic to the process and useful to the client (and hopefully more humane to you, poor designer). Ready?

1. Turn your inspiration within, and let it out.

To meet the first function of the (now totally dead, right?) moodboard, you need to be inspired. Design solutions come from a lot of places, including other designers and designs. But if your inspiration exercises revolve around trolling Tumblr and Pinterest for badass movie posters to add to your collage, you’re limiting yourself. By all means, keep a collection of design you find interesting/inspiring/exceedingly well executed, but stop trying to solve through swatches.

Instead look outside your craft to other mediums. Certainly other design practices (architecture is a constant one for me) but also other culturally creative pursuits. Watch a movie. Buy an Oblique Strategies deck. Get outside (seriously). This sounds trite but the best ideas I’ve ever had have come from not thinking about my design problem. Gather these thoughts and images however you’d like (I find writing to be a useful organizing exercise) but keep them to yourself or your team. These are not for the client. Only the solution is for the client, and how you arrived at it. Which brings us to…

2. Tell a design story.

A design story (also sometimes referred to as a design journey) is a sort of narrative of your process: These are the broad steps that we took to arrive at the design we’re showing you today. A design story should not only back up the thinking that went into your final design, but also attempt to head off any individual doubts on the client side by presenting an airtight case. Remember, good design is defended design. The fewer plot holes in your design story, the less likely you are to meet pushback.

The best way to do this is to write it down. How are you going to explain this in your pitch? How did you arrive here? Then, once you have a skeletal outline, flesh it out in a deck. Add images only when you need something to speak to. Use animation and transformation to add impact (I, for one, am addicted to Keynote’s Magic Move as a tool to show progressive style changes in a design story). Then tell the story again over the deck.

Believe it.

3. Use metaphors, not images.

Sure, you might have found the perfect Swiss typography poster from the 60’s on Designspiration that sums up what you’re trying to achieve with your new design. But you’d be better off explaining how you arrived at your solution by thinking about rivets on polished aluminum or intricate parquet flooring. I once referenced airport lounges as metaphor for a travel site that was both highly functional but also invited extended visits. Another project demanded an in-depth conversation about fashion advertising in the 1980s.

The more metaphorical your source material, the more open the client’s mind will be to your solution. Remember: the danger here lies in preconception. Head it off by keeping the recipe for your design high-level.

4. Delve into the details.

To anchor all of this theory, you’ll need some brass tacks. Focus some part of your story on what critical, technical, essential function or feature you had to get right. Not long ago I started a presentation about a wholly new product by saying “we, of course, started with a button”. This worked because, well, it’s not obvious to start with a button, why would you? But to show that the critical element of the interface to get right was the chat button set all other elements into a pattern that was crystalline in its order (and therefore well-insulated against critique).

A well-crafted design story needs to hold both the highly conceptual and the exceedingly practical in concert. It needs to express the core of the concept so that when the first screen is shown, the underlying thinking is both clearly apparent and also wholly invisible.

5. Prepare for all possible outcomes.

This de-preconception approach to is not without pitfalls, the greatest of which is the Singular Client Ego. Usually a design story, properly told and presented to a group, is difficult to shoot down; obviously a lot of thinking went into the final form by highly-trained individuals. But sometimes you come across a Singular Client Ego that cannot be swayed. They might have an aversion to purple stemming from some childhood trauma with Barney, or they might hate a typeface for no other reason than it reminds them of something they can’t quite remember. When this happens, do not panic. Let them speak their piece. Usually they end their diatribe by saying something like “but if the rest of the team is OK with it, I guess I can live with it”.

If not, you can always fall back on your design story, pointing out that the color purple was chosen for its ability to draw the eye without causing alarm. Keep it tactical.

And, look, if all else fails, you change the thing. But in all projects we’ve presented using this approach at Hard Candy Shell, we’ve yet to receive significant pushback. Clients love the work because it is well reasoned, well presented, and reflects research-based conclusions (you are basing all of this on real user research, right? Right?)

So, go! You’re free! The mood board is officially dead.

Save Pinterest for your wedding.