How moodboards can save time, money and your sanity!

Mood boards are a traditional design tool. However, few web designers use them. This post looks at how they can transform your process, increase profitability and reduce the stress associated with design sign off.

Headscape has been using mood boards as part of our design methodology for some time. We believe they are an invaluable tool that helps both the client and the designer.

However, before you can understand the benefits of mood boards, it is important to acknowledge where the traditional design process falls down.

Where the traditional web design process fails

Obviously everybody approaches the design process slightly differently so it is unfair to refer to a traditional approach. However it would appear that many agencies and freelancers follow roughly this process:

  • Ask the client a bit about what they want from the design
  • Ask the client to identify some websites they like.
  • Produce 3 design comps in Fireworks or Photoshop.
  • Ask the client to choose a design from the comps presented.
  • Iterate until the client is happy.

This was certainly the approach we used until we realised it was not working.

We identified the following problems:

  • When asked what they wanted from their design, most clients focused on personal preference rather than business or user needs.
  • Clients often referred to sites that were either inappropriate for their audience or were selected based on content rather than design.
  • Producing multiple design concepts was time consuming for the designer and expensive for the client.
  • Multiple concepts led to frankenstein design, where the client would try to combine the ‘best bits’ from each comp.
  • The designs went through a lot of iterations because the designer did not have a full understanding of the clients requirements.

We utilised several approaches to overcome these problems. However, the most successful component was mood boards.

What is a mood board?

A mood board is basically a collection of graphical elements that set the tone for your design. Typically these include examples of:

  • Typography
  • Imagery
  • Colour
  • Layout
  • Style

Often these elements are lifted from other sites or even from sources such as magazines.

An example mood board

They are not meant to represent the final design, but rather provide an indication of how the site may feel.

When you first start producing mood boards it is difficult. You may have a strong sense of how the site should look, and so it can be hard producing alternative approaches.

Increasingly we produce four mood boards:

  • One that is our initial gut reaction.
  • One that is a more conservative version of the initial board.
  • One that is more extreme.
  • One completely ‘out there’ approach that is probably inappropriate.

Admittedly you could get away with the first three, but the fourth enables the designer to be more creative and potentially discover a completely different approach.

How mood boards can help

The reason mood boards made such a difference to our process was three fold:

  • They put us in control – Previously it was the client who was making design suggestions and selecting inspirational sites. By using mood boards we were the ones setting the tone and suggesting the direction. After all that is what the client is paying us for!
  • They are quick and easy to create – Developing design comps is time consuming and expensive, especially for something that may ultimately be discarded. Mood boards can be produced relatively easily, which means they are viewed as disposable. As a result the designer is not overly committed to a particular path and the client can see multiple revisions.
  • The client focuses on design, not content – We found that when clients looked at a design comp they were more concerned with the content than the design. Because mood boards do not contain real content, this problem is avoided and the client can focus on typography, imagery and colour.

The introduction of mood boards made an enormous difference to the running of our design projects. However, over time we have made some mistakes that have reduced the effectiveness of mood boards.

Mistakes when designing with mood boards

If used correctly mood boards are an extremely powerful tool. However, it is also easy to fallback into old habits. If you are going to use mood boards, be careful to avoid the following mistakes:

Designing a website and not a mood board

One problem we encountered was that we were so conditioned to build websites that it was hard not to. Every time we produced a mood board it ended up looking like an actual site.

A mood board that looks like a final site

The solution

The way we are resolving this issue is by changing the format. Instead of designing on a 1024 by 768 canvas, we have switched to creating A4 mood boards. In fact we also try to minimise web elements such as navigation or search boxes.

Making them too finished

An associated problem was that clients were getting confused. The mood boards were looking so polished that they were no longer sure what they were looking at. Was this a mood board or a design comp? What were they supposed to be providing feedback on?

The solution

We are still battling this problem. However, one approach I have adopted is setting constraints on the designer. Typically this involves limiting what Photoshop tools they can use.

When all the designer can do is copy and paste elements they have found elsewhere, the mood boards cannot become overly designed. The emphasis shifts from designing detail to looking for inspiration and setting the mood.

Spending too long on a mood board

Of course, the final problem relating to overworked mood boards is time. As our mood boards started to become more and more like design comps, they took longer to produce.

This had two consequences. Firstly it cut into our profit margins. Secondly, the designer became increasingly attached to the mood boards and find it hard when the client don’t like them.

The solution

The solution to this one is simple. We are beginning to set time limits on mood board production. We are now asking designers to spend no more than one hour on a single mood board. Most of that time is spent sourcing elements rather than doing design work.

By taking this approach we can afford to produce multiple iterations of mood boards and experiment with many different directions.


I am aware that we are in a minority by using mood boards. However, I would suggest that every designer should consider them as a tool.

If you design multiple comps then this could be a real cost saver.

If you pursue a single approach, this will enable you to explore other avenues with minimal effort.

So, what do you think? Do you use mood boards already, or do you think it is an outdated tool that has no place on the web? Whatever your thoughts I would love to hear them in the comments below.

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