April 27, 2023
4 min read

As an art director, I keep an eye on work being made by my peers. I’m always excited to see a good rebrand, or a fun new campaign. But lately, using the word “new” to describe the work out there feels…wrong. Because it doesn’t feel new. In fact, it all kind of feels the same. Obviously, there’s going to be trends and trend cycles. The early 2000s had 3D effects and shadow accents on their logos, and the 2010s was overrun with brands taking those logos and flattening them into simple, sans serif wordmarks.

But trends shouldn’t leave me wondering exactly which food product the disembodied hands on a colorful background surrounded by scattered ephemera are advertising.

Clockwise, from top left: product photography for Minna Sparkling Tea, Swoon, Magic Spoon, Poppi, Silk Almond Milk, Jiant Hard Kombucha, Halo Top, Hillshire Farms, Better Booch Kombucha, Seedible, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Futuro Burger.

Many point fingers at the moodboard, the classic tool in every creatives's repertoire to collect inspiration and explain a brand identity before ever designing anything. AIGA blames them for all advertising looking the same, and the New York Times proclaims they’re dead in the wake of a much more encompassing brand “world.”

But what about moodboards makes them so controversial? Isn’t it a good thing to have a solid visual direction to refer to?

Sure, but not if that’s all you have. 

While moodboards are perfectly fine to amass images that look nice, that’s all they do: collect pictures. And brands are much more than the aesthetics that they use. Sites like Pinterest, which allow users to categorize visually similar images, don’t take into consideration the specific situation of that image. For example, you could build an entire board around the punk aesthetic, with cutout letters and hand-drawn elements, without ever having to consider why these posters and zines looked the way they do. This could inspire a whole brand using a punk aesthetic because it looks edgy, and you want your brand to also look edgy. But it will feel hollow if the mission of the brand doesn’t align. Punk aesthetics came from the scrappy nature of the subculture: the ethos of do-it-yourself, of anticapitalism, of using materials you have to make something, whether that’s cutting up a magazine to distribute your own zine or using safety pins to keep a jacket from falling apart. With the reason for this aesthetic being a rejection of capitalism, would it make sense to use it for a brand? Moodboards often strip the ability to make this judgment by taking these images and presenting them only as images, not as decisions.

Left: Ripped and Torn, Vol. 16 (Glasgow, 1979) Right: Revel Stoke Whiskey Branding (Cue Inc., Minneapolis, 2021)

Some of this out-of-context usage is almost like memes – referencing other tropes and designs in a way that’s smart to fellow creatives. But to consumers, who might not get that clever reference, it all looks the same. Take the example from the AIGA article. The “shelfie,” an array of beauty products photographed inside a medicine cabinet, was first created in 1982 in an ad for Clinique. While those up on their advertising history might recognize it as an homage, to customers it’s just the same ad.

Left: Original “Shelfie” Ad for Clinique (Irving Penn, 1982) Right: Recent photography for Selfridges (2021)

Jesse Reed, co-founder of design firm Order, says the result of moodboards is “visual derivatives.” Which is exactly the problem: moodboards result in design that only refers back to other design. 

What makes good art direction is not just solid visuals. It’s a solid strategy. It’s understanding exactly what your client’s problem is, and finding the precise solution that solves it. Yes, they may need a logo or ad campaign, but that logo or campaign needs to do more than be pretty. When art directors dive right into moodboarding before figuring out the purpose the logo, or ad, or brand identity, needs to serve, it only creates what Reed calls “self-fulfilling aesthetics.” Work that is created for the sake of looking good, but it does nothing more. And since it does nothing more, it’s not as effective. 

So is this the end of moodboards? 

Maybe not, but perhaps it should be the end of how we use them. 

It’s not bad to pull inspiration, or to collect images you like the look of. In fact, it’s important to be aware of what your peers are up to. Moodboards can also be helpful to visually convey complex art direction. But we should be using moodboards as just that: help. Once a solution has been figured out and researched, a moddboard can be used as visual support. A moodboard should not be the first step of the creative process, it should be one of the last. 

© 2024 Soubriet Byrne & Associates, Inc.