The start of a business or a new creative project is a magical time fraught with possibility.
A blank page – or screen – has infinite potential.
But that infinite potential can make starting a new project feel intimidating and overwhelming, especially if you’re not creative.
Are you the founder of a brand-new startup or small business? Or maybe you’re a freelance consultant getting ready to tackle a new website for your personal brand. How do you begin?
There’s a helpful tool that you can use to unlock your mental paralysis and tap into your inspiration. And it’s not just for designers and artists.
It’s called a ‘mood board”.
A mood board is a collage with images expressing a central theme. Photographs, magazine clippings, textures, works of art, color palettes, words, illustrations – any visual medium communicating your concept or “mood” is fair game.
Let’s look at ways to use a mood board when designing a new logo for your business or refreshing an existing brand identity.
A mood board can be your best branding tool
Mood boards are commonly used by graphic designers, interior designers, and theatrical (scenic, lighting, and costume) designers. But, they’re also an excellent way to explore and define your business’s brand identity and visual assets. Once complete, it becomes a tool for communicating what you need with logo or web designers, marketers, and investors.
As we wrote previously in 20 Statistics About Branding Every Entrepreneur and Marketers Should Know:
Branding is the way that we communicate with consumers, differentiate from our competitors, and create a name for ourselves in a world full of startups and great ideas. A brand is much more than the company’s logo or the product or service being offered. A brand is your company in the present, future, and perceptions of the public. Essentially, branding is about communication.
Startups and small businesses communicate through their names, logos, and messaging. It’s becoming increasingly important to have a strong brand (for example, there are over 30 million small businesses on Facebook alone), a recognizable name, and a logo that rises above the rest. This is one reason why so many companies regularly rebrand their businesses.
You may be thinking, “But, I’m not creative!”
You don’t have to be creative to build a mood board. All you need is a little introspection, some elbow grease, and a willingness to trust in your gut.
We won't ask for secrets or specifics.
Why mood boards work: the science
A growing body of research shows that intuition is a powerful decision-making resource.
…mind-gut connection is not just metaphorical. Our brain and gut are connected by an extensive network of neurons and a highway of chemicals and hormones that constantly provide feedback…
This extensive network, the enteric nervous system, is being heralded by some as our “second brain.” It communicates with the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, which work together to control our heart rate, digestion, and breathing. All of these are impacted every time our body reacts to our emotional state.
In other words, our gut can read and react to our emotions. This is why you may feel sick to your stomach when something bad happens.
Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California, confirmed this when his study revealed that the body is able to read situations faster than our conscious mind can articulate what is happening.
This is, in a nutshell, our intuition.
The process of creating a mood board taps into your intuition, allowing you to bypass the overly analytical thinking that often trips us up.
Our gut makes decisions quickly and perceptively. So, as you set out to create your very own branding mood board, you can take some pressure off and rely on your intuition to guide you.
So, let’s not waste another minute agonizing over how to begin. Let’s start exploring and communicating your brand with your very own branding mood board!
Step one: pick your medium
The first step to creating a mood board is to pick the medium you should use. And I don’t mean oil paints or watercolors.
Don’t worry; we’re not getting quite that artsy.
Instead, ask yourself if you plan to present your mood board digitally or in person. This will determine whether you should create a digital mood board or a physical one.
If you’re sharing your mood board in person, I strongly recommend a physical one. Physical mood boards have all of the visual strengths of a digital one, with the added benefit of the tactile element.
The ability to feel textures, see them, or move pieces around on the board as your discussion develops can’t be overstated.
If you’re making a digital presentation, a digital mood board is the way to go. They can be shared easily online with several viewers to facilitate conversations and planning sessions.
Once you decide whether a digital or physical mood board will best serve your needs, you’re ready to move to the fun stuff.
Step 2: research
To build a mood board, you have to have stuff representing your brand and visual identity to put on the board.
Research provides us with that stuff. And this is where your gut and intuition can really start to guide you.
Gather as many inspirational images as you can find. Decide what items and images to collect based on what feels right.
Remember, you’re creating a mood board for your brand. So, choose images that conjure the appropriate mood. Let your intuition lead the way.
It would be best if you also catered your research style to your medium. Here are some guidelines for each:
You’ll need digital research for a digital mood board. So, feel free to start with Google Images, but don’t stop there. Dig a little deeper for inspiration with some of these awesome online resources:
- Check out online digital archives of images and historical documents, like the New York Public Library Digital Collection or the Library of Congress Online Print and Photograph Catalog. In fact, the Open Education Database has compiled a list of more than 250 digital libraries and archives.
- Many art museums have digitized much of their collections, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC or the Art Institute of Chicago.
- Use online color palette generators like Coolors.co to find colors that support your mood.
- Search relevant keywords on Pinterest
- Peruse font websites like 1001freefonts.com
Of course, you can use all of these digital resources to research for your physical mood board, too. You have to print them out.
Physical mood boards offer more room to play with textures and tactile objects than digital ones. So, take advantage!
Collect photographs (and take some of your own), cut clippings from magazines, cut fabric swatches, and compile paint chips. Dried flowers or chips of wood bark, yarn or thread, wrapping paper, print copies of works of art, old sewing patterns, newspaper or advertisements…
Be adventurous with textures, and don’t limit yourself- the only wrong choices are the ones that don’t support the mood you’re trying to communicate.
Parting words about research
During your research phase, try not to edit too much. This is meant to be the phase of creation where you gather and explore brand ideas – not cut… and definitely not analyze. Remember, you want to rely on intuition. That’s what keeps this process quick and painless.
You aim to gather more images than you’ll need for the finished board. You’re not done until you’ve found visuals that embody all the important aspects of your brand.
So trust your gut. Grab the visual (and tactile elements as appropriate) that speak to you most, and then move on to the next.
Step three: curate your mood board
This is the mood board process step when your analytical brain can have a little more sway.
But not too much!
By this time, you should have a wide collection of inspirational research you can pull from. So, now it’s time to start editing.
You can take a few different approaches to this process:
- Elimination: Trim the images that don’t convey your concept or brand strongly enough or don’t fit with the rest.
- Inclusion: Focus on finding the images that speak to you most strongly and best fit the mood.
- You can also do a little of both.
However you approach it, the goal is to narrow down the items you will eventually attach to your board. And what criteria should you use to decide which items make the cut?
Only include the items that most strongly communicate your brand or project.
As you’re narrowing in on your final selections, ask yourself why you have chosen every item. You should be able to explain why you included each visual on the board. Your designers will want to know.
What is it about that texture that speaks to you? Is it the warmth of the lighting or the intense color of this painting that best communicates your brand? Why did you choose this word? And why that font? There should be nothing arbitrary.
The most important job of a logo is to help customers and customer prospects identify your company. That’s why the best logos are simple and memorable. Just think about how many logos you are able to recognize in your everyday life! Those logos serve as a reminder that Nike was the brand that made your shoes, or that Apple is the reason why you’re reading this on a Macbook.
Rely on your gut to make the final calls. Your intuition may understand something your conscious mind doesn’t. To make it onto your board, it’s gotta feel right.
Step four: visually organize your thoughts
There’s a bit of an art to communicating visually. But don’t panic. I’m going to guide you through.
Start by asking some big-picture questions:
- Is my brand organic and natural or technological and modern?
- Is my project concept chaotic or orderly?
- Does my business have a playful or serious brand?
The answers to these questions will tell you your board’s overall tone and organizational structure. Natural/organic brands may want a more free-form visual approach that embraces curves, while a modern technology brand will benefit from straight lines, geometric shapes, and structure.
Are you aiming for a chaotic feel? Consider overlapping your images, using multiple shapes, and playing with various angles. If you want to communicate order, orient your images the same way, size them similarly, and maintain consistent image shapes.
If your brand is playful, you can play with the size, shape, and layering of images, whereas a serious brand will want to aim for a more orderly layout. But both will benefit from leaving more visual white space.
Once you’ve decided on the board’s overall structure using the guidelines above, you’re ready to start thinking about where specific images should go and how they should interact.
Build your visual ideas:
Organize your images into similar visual concepts before attaching them to your board. And bear in mind that relative size visually communicates importance. So, the largest images on your mood board will appear to be the most important ones.
Consistent branding offers many benefits to your business. The most immediately obvious benefit is that it provides easy recognition of your service or product among consumers.
An easily recognized brand benefits from mere exposure. The more customers are exposed to something – a product, a service, or your brand – the more inclined they are to like it. You can learn more about this phenomenon (and how you can use it to your advantage) in 7 Marketing Psychology Tips to Improve Your Business Marketing.
When building your visual ideas, choose the strongest image from each idea group and enlarge it if possible. Consider using a copy machine to blow up these “anchor” images or enlarge them before printing. Then position these images in prominent places on your board.
The human eye tends to track in an F-shaped pattern that favors the left side. This makes the real estate on the top left side of your board particularly valuable. The very center of your board is another position of visual power. Keep this in mind when placing your most important elements.
Next, cluster your supporting images around the larger anchor images you’ve already positioned. This will create visual groupings that represent detailed visual ideas. You’ll want to explore many of these visual ideas on your board until you have a fully fleshed-out brand.
And don’t be afraid to place some carefully chosen words in specific fonts on your board to help elaborate on your ideas.
Don’t get too precious
Remembering that a mood board isn’t a pristine work of art but a working document. The mood board’s primary function is as a communication and exploration tool. So, don’t aim for perfection. Plan to change and rearrange things as your process and conversation evolve.
If you’re creating a physical mood board, use non-permanent, double-sided, or blue painter’s tape as you’re laying things out to reposition elements until they seem right easily. This will also allow you the flexibility to rearrange things during a design meeting.
Share your business vision with the world
You may not be a designer, but you do know your business vision better than anyone else. And a mood board can be a fantastic way to get those ideas out of your head and in a form that can be shared with the world.
Your mood board will be a gift that keeps on giving as it travels with you, from investor pitches to design consultations and marketing meetings.
So get started developing and communicating the unique brand identity that’s been percolating inside your brain for so long.
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