Generating web design moodboards through collaboration

Paul Boag

Moodboards are an established tool in the web design process, but are often produced in isolation by the designer. Perhaps it is time we consider bringing other people into the process.

As web designers we like to think we have the monopoly on creativity and aesthetics. In fact, so strong is this opinion that we actively discourage other stakeholders from commenting on design. But is this assumption correct? Personally, I don’t think it is.

I believe anybody can be creative and have a good design idea. Admittedly a designer will have more good ideas in the area of aesthetics than anybody else, but that doesn’t mean others cannot occasionally be right.

How then can we involve stakeholders in the design process without it becoming design by committee?

I have already written about ways of including the client in wireframing, but I don’t think their involvement should stop there. We also sometimes produce moodboards with clients too.

The benefits of collaborative moodboarding

Collaborative moodboarding is a great exercise to run with groups of stakeholders. It provides five powerful benefits:

  • It is a great way of exploring the personality of an organisation in terms of tangible design elements, rather than purely descriptive words (although these are useful too).
  • It gives stakeholders a sense of ownership over the design so making them more likely to sign it off.
  • It shows stakeholders that you value their opinion and input.
  • It can be used to educate stakeholders about design principles relating to typography, imagery, colour and stylistic elements.
  • It can occasionally turn up approaches that you would never normally have considered.

How then do you run a collaborative mood boarding session?

How to run a collaborative moodboarding session

Collaborative moodboarding works best when you can break your stakeholders into multiple groups.

Each group will then create their own moodboard using an internet enabled laptop. They will use this laptop to research the elements that they wish to add to their moodboard. The elements they will be asked to look at include:

  • Typography
  • Imagery
  • Colours
  • Stylistic elements

Moodboards are normally assembled by asking the groups to drag and drop elements they like into keynote or powerpoint.

Instead of expecting groups to find their own material to include, it is a good idea to give them some source material to work from. Some sources we use are:

Each group will look through these sources and select elements they feel represent the organisation.

Adobe Kuler
Resources like Adobe Kuler give your stakeholders a starting point for their moodboards.

When the exercise is finished the groups come together to discuss the final results. This is a crucial step in the process as this is where the designer has the chance to educate the client about design best practice.

These boards then become a great starting point for the designer to create more refined moodboards and pattern libraries.

Although we have found this a massively successful approach, it is not without its potential issues. Being aware of these stumbling blocks ensures the success of the exercise.

Avoiding potential stumbling blocks

The first thing to watch out for is groups going off on strange tangents. Sometimes a group will misunderstand the exercise or have an unrealistic vision of the brand and so produce something that is more harmful than useful.

To avoid this problem we recommend setting some parameters for the exercise.

Before the moodboarding exercise we first discuss brand characteristics, such as whether the company is professional or casual, friendly or formal.

We then give each group a certain characteristic to moodboard around. For example, group one would produce a moodboard that focused on the friendly characteristics of the brand, while group two would focus on producing a more professional moodboard.

Producing themed moodboards not only reduces the likelihood of a group going off on a tangent, it also prevents another danger; that there is an expectation that these moodboards will become the basis for the final design.

It is important to make it clear that these moodboards are a starting point for discussion, not a template for the final design. The designer will still go away and produce the final moodboards. The moodboards being produced by the groups are simply a discussion around different brand values.

As a result it is important that there is more than one group and that multiple moodboards are produced. If only a single moodboard is produced it is much more likely this is seen as a definitive style that should be adopted for the final site.

A starting point, not a solution

This is the big difference between collaborative moodboarding and design by committee. The moodboards produced are not meant to define the final design. They are meant to act as a brief for the designer and help establish a general direction in terms of characteristics. The chances are the designer will not stick to the colour palettes, typography and imagery suggested in the group moodboards, but use these as inspiration for the direction he or she chooses to go.

That said, being able to refer back to the group moodboards when presenting the final design is a compelling tool in getting design sign off.

Most of all completing this exercise just might surprise you with some design approaches that you would never have considered. Perhaps your stakeholders will turn out to be more creative than you gave them credit for.

Moodboard image originally posted here.