Don’t Call It a ‘Mood Board’ — It’s a ‘World’
At the beginning of her design career, when Robyn Kanner was working at an advertising agency, she wasn’t a fan of making so-called mood boards — a.k.a. pin-boards of images that marketers and designers use when conceiving of a new campaign.
Ms. Kanner, 35, a creative director who has done design work for President Biden, the Democratic National Committee and Gov. Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania, recalled how engaging in the process of swiping existing imagery didn’t really help her create ideas. So when she rose through the ranks, she decided to try a different approach.
In fact, Ms. Kanner has forsaken the term “mood board” altogether. Instead, she makes “worlds.” And she’s pretty happy with the results. “A mood board is an idea. A world is a place that triggers all my senses,” she said. “How does a place smell? What sounds do I hear? What does it feel like when I touch it? A world is alive, versus a mood board, which is something that lives on a corkscrew board.”
Now, whenever Ms. Kanner takes on a new client, she first looks for a shared language. “On Josh Shapiro’s campaign, it was sports,” she said. “The governor really understood sports, and it was really authentic to his core. I grew up watching basketball, so I knew how to talk about basketball with him. We made a basketball jersey for his campaign and built a basketball court for his inaugural ball.”
Mood boards have been a common brainstorming tool in fashion and advertising since at least the 1980s.In a 1985 Chicago Tribune article, the interior designer Raymond Waites explained his creative process: “I work in my head, then do thumbnail sketches that not another human being in the world can decipher. Then I do a ‘mood board.’ I’ll use fabric swatches, pull pictures of a chair out of publications, pictures out of people’s homes.”
In recent decades, making mood boards or “vision boards” has also become popular among young women, who cut and paste rousing images of the lives they want out of magazines and other sources. “I use Pinterest for my mood boards,” said Yun Gao, a 21-year-old Cooper Union student. “I go on the platform all the time to look at visual inspiration.”
Among professionals, however, mood boards have become passé, a relic of a previous era where branding was defined much more narrowly. “Twenty years ago, a brand was really just an icon and colors,” said Borzou Azabdaftari, 43, the founder and chief executive of NickelBronx, a digital agency that focuses on branding. “As the word ‘brand’ has evolved to include everything from the tone of your content to the kind of music you play at your store or restaurant to the kind of art you have up, creating a more comprehensive brand world has become much more important. They become living, breathing documents that can change and evolve.”
Aaron Rasmussen, 39, a founder of MasterClass, did away with mood boards and transitioned to worlds in 2010, while marketing a beverage called Blood Energy Potion. The world he created for the protein-infused drink, which is bright red and sold in packaging that resembles IV bags, involved vampires, a fictional evil corporation and a website called Living With Bloodlust.
“The methodology informed the terminology,” Mr. Rasmussen said. He didn’t make a conscious switch from “mood board” to “world”; he just outgrew the term.
Mood boards are “carcasses,” said Brian Collins, the chief creative officer of Collins, a branding strategy company. “I have used ‘world-building’ since the start of my career,” he said. “I was introduced to the idea by Marty Sklar, who led Walt Disney Imagineering for years. He walked me through Disney World when I was 23, beautifully explaining how their stories were brought to life through architecture, design, sound, music and even scents.”
While designers have strong feelings about the terminology, explaining “worlds” to clients is a different story. “I try to lean clients into ‘world’ versus ‘mood board,’” Ms. Kanner said. “Clients don’t have the language. They’re looking to me to decide, so if I say ‘world,’ it’s a world.”
“World” appears to be the most popular replacement for “mood board,” though some in the branding industry are partial to “brandscapes” and “territories.” In Mr. Rasmussen’s latest venture, Outlier, an online educational platform where students take for-credit college courses at inexpensive prices, he refers to the brand guidelines as the Outlier Cinematic Universe. “It has a very specific look to it. It’s ‘Blade Runner’ meets Hogwarts,” he said.
Tessa Mu, 33, a founder and the chief executive of WithPlot, a collaboration platform for marketers, used mood boards frequently when she worked at Marc Jacobs. The designers there “would pin up old photographs, tear-outs from magazines, pieces of fabric and trinkets for inspiration,” she said. “With the rise of Pinterest at the time, mood boards were a natural way to present your ideas and thoughts.”
Ms. Mu began hearing the term “world” about six years ago, when she was the marketing vice president of a probiotics company called Seed Health. “You don’t feel crazy bringing an idea to the table because you’re building a world, not a mood board,” she said. “It makes the work more complex.”
Because the branding for Seed Health was inspired by Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, Ms. Mu said, she and her colleagues even preferred the word “universe,” because “the terminology shift awakened a lot more possibilities.”
The only thing left now? The multiverse.
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