MGA&D places great importance on the research phase of a project. Before putting pencil to paper we interview stakeholders, observe behaviors, ask questions. We collect and curate our research findings to pinpoint opportunities for innovation. My friend and colleague Vijay Chakravarthy talks at greater depth about our research process.
Our research journey is comprehensive. In addition to interviews, ergonomic studies, and market research, we conduct aesthetic research as well – objects, materials, textures, and images that capture the desired aesthetic, sensory and emotional experience of the future product. We collect and curate those items for our reference, and for conversations with our clients. The end result of our aesthetic research often takes the form of a mood board.
Mood boards with contrasting perspectives towards the same project. Showing a range of possible design directions often helps in conversations with clients to determine the most desirable traits.
At its core, a mood board is a curated collage of cultural symbols, developed to evoke an emotional response.
At its core, a mood board is a curated collage of cultural symbols, developed to evoke an emotional response – the kind of response we aim for the final object to elicit. Colors, patterns, objects and anything else which contains meaning can be used in a mood board.
Something as seemingly simple as a color can be “loaded” with cultural meaning. For instance, in Western cultures the color red usually signifies heat, danger, or tension. Light blue signifies friendliness, cleanliness, softness.
The meanings of objects and images arise naturally from our collective experience of the world, and they shift over time.
The connection between object and meaning is very “fuzzy” – there is no “dictionary” precisely defining objects and their associations. The meanings of objects and images arise naturally from our collective experience of the world, and they shift over time.
What does it mean? In American and European cultures the color red is often used as an alert indicator. Red can also denote love or passion. In India and other Eastern cultures the color red is celebratory, and often used in wedding ceremonies. Context denotes how and why we choose a particular cultural symbol for a mood board.
It is also important to keep in mind that cultural symbols are not universal; they are unique to their specific cultural context, which we need to be aware of when selecting symbols. For example, in the United States and Europe the color pink usually signifies femininity. In Japan however, pink is generally gender-neutral or even masculine, pertaining to Japanese warrior traditions. We take great care to understand the cultural context of every new project, and choose symbols appropriate for their time and cultural context.
Physical objects are likewise loaded with meaning. A milled aluminum fitting evokes precision and security; a hand-woven leather handle connotes craftsmanship and premium quality. These are abstract qualities which we can start to consider before we fully enter the design phase of a project.
MGA&D’s mood boards often reflect the multi-disciplinary approach the firm utilizes
Not all items on a mood board need to be purely abstract. A train car coupling mechanism, while it may not hold a lot of cultural meaning, may inspire us to adapt its mechanical principles to a different context. We may include leather goods on a board because leather is a suitable material for the project at hand. A good mood board draws from a wide range of disciplines – MGA&D’s mood boards often reflect the multi-disciplinary approach the firm utilizes and includes images of engineering, architecture, fashion, art, graphic design, film etc.
For example, a mood board for a watch might contain very few, if any, actual watches. Its function is not to say “we want our watch to look like this other one!” Instead, the mood board’s function is to serve as a jumping-off point for the creation of an original design; it is a way for our eager minds to start designing before the designing starts.
On the left, the first iteration of the mood board for walking sticks. In the middle, the final mood board developed through discussions with Kimberly Clark. On the right, the walking stick collection.
Our mood boards evolve as we work with our client to refine a desired direction. New images are added, less relevant ones are removed. The mood board then becomes a referential beacon for the project. At times when critical decisions need to be made, or when new team members join the project, we often refer to the design brief and mood boards to remind the team of the project’s overall direction. Coupled with a well-written design brief, a well-curated mood board gives the project “clarity of vision” throughout design development.
Finally, a mood board is a designed object in its own right. A wide collection of candidate images must be curated, juxtaposed and balanced to make a harmonious meta-image. Squeezing too many images onto one board may result in a busy, muddled composition that is difficult to read. Just like any piece of design, a mood board needs balance and hierarchy to communicate with the viewer.
Another mood board for a collection of ceiling fans. A sparse composition does as much to convey the mood as the images themselves.
The construction of a mood board is an essential research tool at the early stages of any design project, and remains a useful communication tool throughout design development. Just as a well-defined design brief outlines the general intent of a project, mood boards help to underline that intent and add an emotional layer to the design brief.