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The Neuroscience of Mood Boards

What do web designers, architects, advertising agencies, fashion designers and movie set designers have in common? They all use mood boards to develop their initial design and share ideas with team members and clients. In this post we’ll talk about how you can use a mood board to save time on your next instructional design project.

A Mood Board Saves Time

The primary benefit of constructing a mood board is saving time. Yes — adding this step to your process actually does save time — because it helps you avoid rework later on. Every instructional designer can recall at least once project that looked simple at the start and crept into a massive, tangled mess by the time it was finished. Scope creep can occur for a variety of reasons; one of the most common is that the client changes his or her mind by the time you get to the development phase. The closer you are to the final deliverable, the harder it is to make changes and the more expensive and time-consuming those changes become. In software development this phenomenon is called the Cost of Change Curve. On the mood board, you can develop the look and feel as an iterative process, changing it as you experiment with new ideas and interact with your client, hopefully gaining design clarity and agreement long before you sit down to create the final product. Here are a few things you should consider adding to your mood board:

  • Theme colors
  • Images, charts and graphs
  • Narration voice descriptions
  • Navigation interface mock-ups, such as buttons, roll-overs and text captions
  • Font colors and sizes
  • Summaries and examples of possible learning activities
  • Open questions you need to solve together

A Mood Board is a Place to Experiment

Because you can add and remove components so easily, a mood board is a great way to experiment with design elements while investing very little time. If you don’t like the results, it’s easy to start again or go off in a new direction. In fact, some designers like to keep several mood boards for the same project, until one collection or some combination emerges as the winning design.

A Mood Board Gives Your Brain a Target

Once you’ve started your mood board, you are giving your brain a visual target. I experienced this process myself when I was learning how to use Adobe Captivate to build elearning courses. Suddenly I was analyzing TV commercials to see how I could recreate their visual effects.

Once you start your mood board, you’ll find inspiration from the world around you, without having to consciously seek it out. That’s the power of giving your brain a problem to solve and getting out of the way. You might even find inspiration in your dreams.

A Mood Board is an Example of Working Out Loud

In her new book, Show Your Work, Dr. Jane Bozarth urges learning professionals to share their work in unfinished form, so that you can get feedback before investing too much time in producing a “finished” work. Another term for showing your work is “working out loud,” which has become a popular way to enhance creativity and build strong communities of practice. There’s even a dedicated week to celebrate working out loud as well as numerous blogs, books and online communities dedicated to the subject. For those who are a little shy about sharing their work with strangers, a mood board might be a great entry into this growing best practice.

Getting Started

A mood board can be built out of just about anything and can be any size or shape; what you put on it is completely up to you. It can be digital or built from “real-world” materials or a combination of both. You can start anywhere with any idea that pops into your mind. If you’re short on time (and who isn’t?) you might want to tap into some of these digital resources to jump-start your board.

Pinterest – Try building your board right in this social media site. You can pull from millions of graphics to build your concept.

Behance – Repurpose this online portfolio site to build an online mood board instead.

Gomood board – This free site lets you start with a template or a blank page and share your board with others.

Microsoft PowerPoint – You probably already own this software. Just start dropping design elements on a slide and see where you end up. There are a number of free templates to get you started.


Take a tip from the many professionals who are using mood boards in their work. Feel like sharing? Write us and we’ll share your examples here.

Margie Meacham

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