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Lauren Sanders

Coaching in-house teams

Our creative process: why mood boards work

February 29, 2016   //   Lauren Sanders

We’ve all been there: The creative presentation that went all wrong. It used to happen to us at the first comp stage of a lead publication or in the design presentation of a major website project. The client would start questioning the tiniest details, the creatives would start getting too defensive and the lead strategist would look like a deer caught in the headlights.

The verdict? “We’d like you to start over.”

If you’ve spent hours and hours developing pages of copy and perfecting minute details of your precious comps or screen designs only to have your client rip them to shreds, mood boards could be your salvation.

Or if you’re a client who has sat in a painful creative presentation and wished you’d had the chance to provide feedback earlier in the process, mood boards could be the missing ingredient.

Mood boards involve all of the project stakeholders — clients, creative and strategists — during the early stages of the creative process in a low-investment, highly exploratory discussion. Mood boards help surface stylistic preferences, creative hang-ups and strategic direction shifts early, and they allow the creative team to let go of the defensiveness and open their heads (and maybe even their hearts) to hearing client feedback.

How do mood boards fit with the overall process?

For Zehno, we use mood boards as part of brand creative development, marketing communications campaign development and magazine redesigns. Mood boards are always based on an approved brand or communications strategy established in an earlier phase of the work.

Our preference is to always do mood board workshops in person, and to never send mood boards in advance of the workshop. There’s something intangible and incredibly productive about in-person collaboration at this critical phase. And while mood boards shouldn’t have to be overly explained, allowing the client group to absorb them with fresh eyes and without the opportunity for political sidebars pre-meeting is invaluable.

We start by reviewing the messaging platform and strategy. Then we recap where we are in the overall creative process and what’s yet to come. We typically present  two options or directions. I’ve observed that the client team usually knows right away which direction feels more like the institution’s culture — the highest praise any mood board can receive. In a free-wheeling give and take, we discuss what’s most effective and what could work better, and we note any pieces of feedback that need to be incorporated into the next phase of the work.

Elements of a mood board

When developing mood boards, the creative team at Zehno attempts to demonstrate the feeling, tone and direction of a proposed creative identity or campaign. The mood board makes clear what our creative vision and references are — classic vs. modern, deco vs. glam, outrageous vs. sedate, etc.

As such, we look to incorporate samples of

  • typography
  • imagery
  • headlines/tone words
  • color palette
  • other creative devices and effects such as textures, layering and calls to action

While mood boards aren’t layouts, some thought is given to the organization of elements. The most real estate focuses key theme messages, with smaller supporting images or details added to enhance the mood. Together the elements should tell a story about the brand or communications campaign.

Why we love mood boards

The biggest and best reason to love mood boards is their unfinished nature. Mood boards allow us to show — not just tell — clients our creative vision. Mood boards let the creative team start with broad ideas and get feedback before too much time and budget are wasted going in the wrong direction. No one gets too attached to a specific layout or execution. And the focus remains on the “big idea” as opposed to the nitty-gritty details of individual tools.

The old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” applies, and the visual nature of a mood board helps clients see what perhaps they couldn’t easily hear or read.

Resources: Mood board tools

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Learn how Zehno can bring more brainpower to your team.


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