Mood boards: design-speak that clients can understand

Posted by on Sep 18, 2015 in Brand identity | No Comments

When you think about hiring a designer, you’d probably expect them to deliver a new “look”—a visual representation of your personality that expresses your unique vision. You’re most likely also thinking “this effort has to make me some money.”

As a designer, it’s my job to weave together the subjective (encapsulating the taste and perspective of the client) and the objective (appealing to and engaging with their target audience). This unique challenge comes as no surprise to experienced designers (and remains a strong reason for hiring senior-level folks)—but because we have heard it before doesn’t make it any easier to navigate.

There is a distinct language gap that exists within all avenues of design: architecture, industrial design, as well as my own realm—communication design. Any design service that seeks to find a solution to a client’s problem and creates something tangible is prone to having these frustrating conversations: “When I see X it really reads Y to me, but maybe what we really need is Z.” Things can unravel quickly if common language can’t be found. (see a related post on What is actionable feedback?)

It’s a language issue

Paula Scher, a New York designer and partner at Pentagram, sought to ameliorate the problem of words by creating her own client-designer language. She writes about that process in the AIGA Journal of Graphic Design in 1987, “The Right Face” (communication is timeless), saying “After 7 years of trial and error, I have deciphered a style code.” Her personal design lexicon consisted of 14 language descriptors that could be easily understood by her clients and non-designers. Classic, Funky, Understated, Los Angeles, and New York were some descriptive terms she came up with. She also had a list of common complaints with corresponding actions to take, for example “Too Funky: make everything smaller” or “Too L.A.: remove turquoise.” She managed to inject her sense of humor into the system as well, creating space for a far more enjoyable conversation about the subjective than she had experienced using no system at all.

Subjective terms, in combination, can reduce subjectivity

When I guide my clients through my Brand Identity service, I first help them establish the top three values that make up the DNA of their company. We then layer on some visual descriptors to create what I call the Brand Personality Compass. The words evoke attitudes and emotions which I can then use to interpret image selection, and those are the images that we use to enhance the textual story we are sharing.

When I developed my own code of terms, I thought it should feel like studying an actor’s role. Keeping “in character” is essential, so as I work with clients on their projects, it is imperative to periodically screen my choices through the lens of the definition we’ve developed. To visually express the Brand Personality Compass, we create a Mood Board, a tool that is both beautiful and useful.

The Mood Board: a real life example

Caroline Totah—Organizer Coach, a fantastic client of mine from San Francisco, came to me prepared with a six-page brand overview, which I was able to distill, clarify and enhance as I plugged in my code.

In our quest for her most aligned brand identity definition, we jumped off here:

  • Sage-Mentor: the search and discovery of truth
  • Helper: develop people and nurture the process
  • Down-to-earth: realistic and uncomplicated
  • Bright: sunny and positive
  • Inviting: welcoming and gentle with wide appeal

Here’s how the mood board progressed from left to right. We focused a lot on clarification and came up with a few really useful discussion points: Of the clients she serves, what context are they in? What might trigger certain emotions? What textures or images could be used for supporting messages? Can we identify positive examples as well as negative pain points? What elements are given and what needs to be created?

Caroline Totah Mood Boards

We later adapted our mood board to Caroline’s WordPress website and print collateral. She has changed her website since we launched it, and continues to experiment on her own and collaborates as her business evolves. If you’re in the S.F. area (or ready for phone coaching anywhere) and struggle with organization, she’s around to put you on the right track.

Caroline Totah 2013 website

See how a mood board works?

Mood boards are oh-so-meaningful collages of color, imagery and words. My mood boards are strategic with the end-use in mind. Each one conveys an attitude and an emotion. Mood boards help clients stay consistent and strong in their messaging—and they help me as a designer slip into their role with ease and comfort. They should be revisited often to provide inspiration, to remind us where we started, and to show us where we intend to go.

If you’re struggling to find a visual and verbal voice that seems right and true, and a designer who understands—call 206-941-0840 or email.

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