Mood Boards: Important Design Step or Time Waster?

Mood Boards/Style Tiles: Important Design Step or Time Waster?

I get a lot of inquiries from potential clients whose deadlines are crazy tight.

I hear terms like “ASAP”, “two weeks from today”, and “yesterday!” on a regular basis.  This rush always comes from external forces, like their website recently getting hacked, or they have an event coming up and as a result, unexpected design needs.

I. Totally. Get it. Life happens and it can be THE! WORST!

But just because there’s an immediate (or non-existent) deadline, that’s no reason to skip crucial design steps that will set you up for success from the start.

Today’s question:

“I recently got an offer to give an interview on a popular news outlet, which will bring a ton of website traffic.  I see that you’ve included Mood Boards as a part of your workflow and design process in your proposal, but because I need this right away, can we skip this step? I just need something quick, simple and pretty…”

My answer:

Here’s the thing: Mood boards are an essential part of the design process. They show elements like colors, fonts, types of images, illustrations and textures that work together to be used to inform the design of your materials. They establish a feeling and visual language you want your audience to receive, without defining the actual layout of the piece.

What the “f” does that mean, you ask? Let’s get specific:

Let’s pretend you’re an Interior Designer. A Mood Board would be like the paint chips, magazine clippings of furniture and fabric swatches you’d get approval on before designing a room in a home.
 Clearly, it would be a tremendous expense and waste of time for an Interior Designer to wallpaper walls and purchase furniture for a room in a Client’s home without getting approval on the design elements first.

The same goes for design. Designers don’t (or shouldn’t!) launch straight into webpage mockups without establishing some clear design direction first. After all, my definition of “quick, simple and pretty” is probably different from your definition of “quick, simple and pretty.”

Hey, you know what’s fun? Seeing examples!

Below is a project for my dear friends over at IGE Study Abroad. They run a… you guessed it… study abroad program to Vienna! After filling out my creative brief, I understood their messaging and visual aesthetic they wanted to capture: A specialized, small group, one-of-a-kind travel experience to Vienna where the kids are completely immersed in the culture and day-to-day life of the Viennese. That sounds pretty good right about now, no?

Given that, there’s two visual directions we could focus on:

  1. The history, art, cultural enlightenment, excitement and intrigue of travel, or
  2. The youthful aspect of the college experience itself of friendships formed, classes and education.

Mood Boards Presented:

Mood Board Designs

Home Page Design:

IGE Home page design

You see what happened there? Though both Mood Boards captured the essence of their program, ideals, and value proposition, and either option would have been a valid design direction to pursue, the client had a visual aesthetic in mind for their materials. In short, I could have wasted countless hours on the wrong design had I not gotten approval first.

In Conclusion:

Though Mood Boards might seem like an unnecessary step to a time-crunched client, they’re actually huge time savers in the long-run. It allows the Designer to quickly mock-up a few design directions based off the creative brief and aesthetic preferences of the client, and gets them in on the design process at an early stage before fixed, static layouts are defined. Basically, Mood Boards guarantee that the rest of the design process goes along smoothly, with minimal revisions.

Design is the “face” of your business and I believe that all my clients deserve a quality, thoughtful design that treats their project with the care, thorough understanding, consideration, and strategy it deserves, regardless of timeframe. Forging ahead and skipping steps like Mood Boards tends to create more problems down the road in terms of misaligned expectations and no real process for guaranteeing visual success.

Natalie McGuire

Hi, I'm Natalie McGuire!

I'm a website designer + digital strategist who believes in design with strategic ease. Meaning, gorgeous design is informed by customer insights that make your business a whole lot easier. If you want to stop losing customers by having "just another pretty website," work with me.

Stop losing customers by having
“just another pretty website.”

Natalie McGuire Designs: Design with strategic ease


Natalie McGuire Designs stands against inequality, injustice, hate, discrimination, and systemic racism, and is deeply committed to investing in diversity and inclusion, and standing up for what is just, inclusive, loving & equitable.