Mad as hell about moodboards

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We recently discussed a project with a marketing consultancy where the terms of the deal were that we would take their brand ‘˜positioning’ and turn it into a viable corporate identity for a major UK charity. Nothing at all odd about that, we collaborate in that way all the time.

But certain aspects of the conversation worried me. For starters they used the expression ‘˜brand essence’, a phrase I’ve always found more akin to perfume counters or those drops of vanilla you carefully ration out when icing cup-cakes, but I put that one down to semantics.

In terms of the ‘˜brand essence’ itself, they unveiled what struck me as a fairly normal ‘˜I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more’ approach (what I’ve started to call the Network positioning, as in Faye Dunaway, Peter Finch, four Oscars and suchlike). Obviously it’s not that much of a surprise for a charity to be worked up about something, but fair enough to reflect that in their vanilla drops, as it were.

What started to trouble me was their insistence that our first task, as collaborators, would be to ‘˜explore’ this ‘˜essence’ with ‘˜visual stimulus’ for research. It was then that it dawned on me – they wanted some moodboards. Oh no.

Perhaps it’s because I once spent a couple of years at a consultancy better known for their packaging than anything else where several of the designers seemed to spend vast proportions of their days attacking Tony Stone catalogues with scissors. But now, for various, rather irrational reasons, I’ve developed an almost pathological dislike for them.

In case you’re reading this and wondering what I’m blathering on about, a ‘˜mood’ board is meant to ‘˜capture’ a word or an idea in a series of pictures which are then arranged in a semi-artistic way onto a big piece of board. Classic mood board words are ‘˜transparency’ and ‘˜trust’ in the corporate arena and ‘˜luxury’ or ‘˜elegance’ in packaging. For some designers, they still fall back on a trusty pile of magazines and those obligatory scissors, but with the advent of Google images, on-line stock and (‘˜how fantastic!’) websites like ‘˜moodboard‘ (true) your ‘˜polyboard can just spring into life’™.

(Ok, I made the line up, but it didn’t seem that unlikely, did it?)

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I’m sure that some people must find them useful. For certain non-visual types of client, it’s probably reassuring to be shown a series of boards, asked to pick a handful that ‘˜feel’ right (or even wield the scissors themselves) and leave the meeting feeling that everything’s ‘˜really on track’.

And maybe they were useful, once – we developed a set of visual prompt cards once for a client about a decade ago that contained suites of colours and quotes to help their internal teams think about their design briefs and they seemed, for a brief amount of time, to be vaguely useful.

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Trouble was, I only really found one of the cards of any use, this great quote by AA Milne, spoken by that great brand strategist, Pooh Bear.

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A decade later, some companies seem to have built their entire businesses around workshopping this kind of stuff to death with their clients (and of course charging them accordingly). One London company has even decided to give it a special name (Visual Planning ™). A few polite enquiries reveal the mood board is alive and well all across London, and probably the world too – I’m willing to bet that many companies around town have their 20 most common brand values laid out as boards on a shelf somewhere that they can just wheel out as and when called for.

So if they’re so popular, what’s the problem?

Well firstly, clients tend to think that the moodboard IS the design. Apparently (so my sources tell me) a major London museum is about to reveal a new logo based almost entirely on a clipped image on a moodboard. You hear stories of moodboards created from images taken from flickr and FFFFound and just know that whole creative departments have been tasked with ‘˜emulating’ the feel of a particular visual style, whether it be Michael C Place, or Alex Trochut, or whoever is top of the on-line hit-parade.

Moodboards for me act in precisely the reverse way that they are meant to, becoming visual straightjackets, not launch pads. I can see why Account Directors would love the idea that their designers are neatly hemmed into a visual corner before the design proper even starts (‘˜mmm, structure for the creative process, I like that’), but the idea of a few pictures from Getty supplying the entire visual inspiration for a project makes me almost queasy. It’s formidably difficult to take six A2 boards of ‘˜stimulus’ and distil that down into a logo – I challenge any creative to do genuinely challenging work with all that tat propped up in front of them.

I still (perhaps naively) believe that projects should wallow around in some sort of picture and alphabet soup for a while before finalising on a visual approach (ie ideas first, style second). I still think that designers should be tasked with finding or creating that approach, not a bunch of on-line picture editors.

Also (and this is going to annoy some people, so apologies in advance) there seems to be an almost inverse relationship between the companies who swear by mood boards and the quality of their design work – the boards might be helping someone, and might help in research, but it isn’t helping with the final product.

But, apart from that, I think they’re a great idea. Just don’t ask us to do any for a project. Please.

By Michael Johnson