Inspiration, Pro Tips

Setting the Mood: How to Create Great Mood Boards for Your Project


Creating mood boards can be an essential component of any creative process. Whether you’re working on a video project, a TV show, a feature film, a website redesign, or a brand refresh, it’s a means of compiling a visual map that offers directions for the creative road ahead. You want those directions to be good, so here are some crucial tips to help you create dynamic, inspiring, and helpful mood boards.


Create Based on Feeling, Not Just Aesthetic

Mood boards may understandably be visually driven — they are meant to inspire the aesthetic of whatever you’re working on, after all. However, they’re called “mood” boards for a reason. Your boards should capture something of the feeling you want your project to have, not just a look.

During the idea gathering stage, when you’re grabbing inspiration, it’s important to operate on emotional instinct. Assess materials for what feels right and produces a, “Yes! This is perfect for my project” reaction. (This, by the way, is also a good way to filter down all the material you’ve collected at the end of the search period).

Be sure to consider the feelings of an eventual audience, too. Artist Inga Brege, who helped create the mood boards that served as lookbooks for Netflix’s Russian Doll, explains, “A big part of developing an effective aesthetic is recognizing that the audience won’t be someone you know.” Brege’s background in psychology is especially useful, as she notes the value of understanding how the human eye responds to particular colors, angles, and motifs.

Color mood board created for Russian Doll. Credits: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, CIBY Pictures, 1992; In the Mood for Love, USA Films, 2000; We Need to Talk About Kevin, BBC Films, 2011

Remember the Purpose of a Mood Board

Creating a mood board is, in part, an act of instinct and creativity. But remember that mood boards often serve a practical purpose as well. They can be an important pre-production tool to drive the entire look of your project. Because of that, your boards should have a degree of finality, so they can become not just a guide, but also an unchanging reference during production.

Another practical purpose is that mood boards are often used to help secure funding for projects during pre-production. By giving them a degree of locked-in vision, potential investors know precisely what your intention is, and won’t be surprised (or upset) by a result that wasn’t clearly outlined. “At the end of the day, these are a tool for communicating creative ideas,” Brege says. “Sometimes it’s just a lot easier and more effective to have a collection of images embodying an idea than it is to try and describe that idea in words.”

Mood Board created by Inga Brege
Mood board created by Inga Brege for Russian Doll. Credits: “43 Bohemian-Chic Interiors to Rock Your Senses”, One Kindesign, 12 July 2013; “Boho,” Tumblr, Non Conspiracy Orchestra, 27 December 2013

Break Your Project Down into Multiple Boards

Large productions often dedicate several mood boards to different project elements, such as theme, set design, costumes, lighting, and cinematography. It’s a model worth following for any project. For example, if you’re working on a logo design, you can create separate mood boards focused on color, style, and typeface. There’s an organizational benefit to this approach, too. As you collect inspiration, the materials you find can become overwhelming, and you’ll likely have to figure out how to break everything down anyway. If you create categories in advance, you can file imagery neatly as you move along. Plus, the more comprehensive you are, the more fully realized your project is likely to be.

Asking pointed questions in advance will help with this process. When Brege works with clients to create the boards for her lookbooks, she wants to know exactly what they should include. She lists a string of questions, as examples: “Will there be copy? Is this visuals only? How long should it be? What sections need to be covered? Tone? Color palette? Specific characters? Character transformations? And, finally, I ask for specifics regarding the audience and how the lookbook will be presented. Will it be presented in print or digitally? Will it be given to the intended audience (e.g. studio executives or department heads) so they can review and consult at their leisure?” Answering those questions will help influence how many, and what type of mood boards, you put together.

Don Draper home mood board from the Museum of the Moving Image
Mood board for Don Draper’s residence from the 2015 Museum of the Moving Image exhibit Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men

Venture Beyond the Internet

With the easy access the internet provides to an endless number of images, it can feel like there’s little need to search beyond your browser for mood board material. You’ll find millions of video and still options on Pond5 alone. But be sure to search offline, as well. Watch lots of movies and TV shows. Take pictures of anything you stumble upon that proves useful — be it a store sign, graffiti in an alley, or a floral arrangement in a display window. If you want to find more visuals like the ones you discovered, you can even use tools like Pond5’s Visual Search technology on photos or videos you captured to find similar ones in the Pond5 collection.

Consider going analog, too. Travel to your local library and browse old magazines or big coffee table books. Consider not just seeking out images, but researching the origins of your project. “I like to understand in a more academic way the influences, ideas, and motifs that inform the idea I’m helping put to the page,” Brege says. She’ll go so far as consult textbooks, ancient manuscripts, and museums to do so. “It helps guide me in ultimately collecting the images I want to use, whether from Pinterest boards or photo albums or, honestly, anywhere else images are found.”

Don Draper Mood Board from Museum of the Moving Image
Mood board for the Don Draper character, from the 2015 Museum of the Moving Image exhibit Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men

Choose Your Mood Board Medium

Corkboards and scrapbooks once ruled the mood-board world, but the digital era has provided many more options. There are platforms like Pinterest, and programs like Canva, StudioBinder, and others specifically designed to facilitate mood boarding. If you’re using Pond5, collections are an easy and intuitive way to assemble video and image material for a mood board. All you have to do is search using keywords that speak to your ambitions and vision, then start gathering them together by clicking the “Add to Collection” button on the search results.

There are a lot of options in terms of mediums, and no wrong or right answer. It’s all about preference. But give it some thought (or trial runs) early on, because you don’t want to go down one avenue, find you don’t like it, and have to adapt to another.

Mood board from 'Russian Doll'
Mood board created by Inga Brege for Russian Doll. Credits: Teller, Juergen, “Amber Valletta photographed by Juergen Teller,” i-D Magazine, Dec. 1996; Haser, Alma, “Image from Twins Project,” Alma Haser; “French Girls Wear Vans,” Messy Nessy Chic, Vanessa Grall, 25 July 2011

Not all your inspiration should go solely onto your mood boards, either. It can be useful to have a notebook or notes app on hand to quickly and briefly jot down whatever inspiration strikes you and flesh it out further in words. If you can’t do it in the moment (hey, life is busy), try to do it when you sit down with your gathered materials. Be specific in your notes if you can, because when working with others specificity is important. “If an aspect of a project needs to be ‘light,’ it’s important to know what we’re talking about,” says Brege. “Pastel? Comedic? Sunny? Insubstantial?” As with most things, the more you know, the better off you’ll be.

Top image: Mood board from the 2015 Museum of the Moving Image exhibit Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men