Mood Boards Can Help Unlock Creativity—Here’s How to Make Your Own

Michelle Santiago Cortés
Feb 21, 2019 9:08PM

When mood boards reached peak popularity in the early 2000s, they were branded as a lifestyle tool for everyone from college-bound teens planning out their dorm rooms to foodies and mommy bloggers. Pinterest’s 2010 arrival made mood-boarding as easy as clicking on any image or inspirational nugget of the internet to “pin it” onto a virtual “board.”

And while they might not have called them “mood boards,” artists and other creatives have been using this method for decades—collaging together pictures, small objects, and ephemera to convey or capture a “mood,” idea, or theme. Post-war fashion and graphic designers used mood boards as a way to relay their ideas to large creative teams.

Brooklyn-based artist Stephanie Echeveste teaches mood board and vision board workshops through her company, Distill Creative. Given the ubiquity of mood and vision boards, the two terms are often used interchangeably, Echeveste explained, but they’re actually quite different. In practice, a mood board is meant to help brainstorm and plan creative projects, while vision boards are aspirational tools used to plot out personal or professional goals.

Echeveste explained that making an effective mood board can also be helpful for artists going through a creative rut. Her own weaving practice emerged from making a mood board during one such experience. “I was looking to focus the next art project,” she explained, and thought: “I’ll just make a mood board for the type of work I want to do.”

You can think of a mood board as a low-stakes creative project, requiring little time and few supplies, through which you can think through and focus your ideas before you execute them. Here, we share some insights from Echeveste on how to get started on your own mood board.

Step 1: Pick an idea

Image by Foam, via Flickr.


The road from inspiration to completed work is often long and arduous. Mood-boarding for an art project can help you externalize your thought process. You can begin by going through any ideas you may have floating around. Echeveste starts by sifting through her sketchbooks and the notes app on her phone.

“I like to brainstorm, write out things, and then I do research where I’ll check a bunch of books out from the library or do a lot of Google searching to find images, artists, techniques that I’m interested in,” she said.

Step 2: Research and go down rabbit holes

Whether she’s making a physical mood board or a digital one (with InDesign), Echeveste does her research online or at a local library, to cull together as much inspiring material as possible. This balancing act of thinking big and narrowing it down helps her find her true focus.

“Doing a mood board and being really specific about your references is helpful,” she said. But don’t be afraid to indulge in this stage of the process and spend time seeking out images and source material. Echeveste often looks for references she’s seen before, maybe only in passing, but that are stuck in her mind. “Dig deep for that film that you saw, or dig deeper for an artist that you really like,” she advised.

If you’re dealing with paper sources, Echeveste advises keeping (or in the case of a library book, photocopying) the whole page instead of just a single element while researching—you don’t know at this stage what exactly you’ll need, and there’s no need to make that decision right away. If you’re going to libraries and bookstores, don’t be afraid of checking out or buying more books and sources than you think you need. While researching online, let your instincts guide you. “It leads me down rabbit holes that I otherwise wouldn’t necessarily go down,” Echeveste noted. This stage is a chance to get out of your head and let inspiration guide you.

Echeveste also goes through the materials she already has, including the photos on her phone, which become a part of her mood boards often. The research process, she explained, can help you regularly review “the things that you keep in your brain or record…because otherwise, they’re just in this abyss.”

Step 3: Narrowing it all down

Image by Tijs B, via Flickr.

Photo by Stjernqvist, via Flickr.

Once you’ve gathered your source material, it’s time for a round of editing. Spread out all your sources (or line up all the tabs in your web browser), and with your idea clearly in mind, start narrowing it down, keeping only the things that intuitively speak to you. The point of a mood board is that it gives you a limited space, forcing you to narrow in on a specific idea.

If you’re working with paper, resist the urge to paste things down as you go. Now that you have your elements, play around with how they interact with one another. When Echeveste is planning a future project with a mood board, she likes to work in her weaving practice and play around with colors at this point of the process, to help her choose which yarn to buy. By looking at how the textures interact on her board, she can consider her work both aesthetically and conceptually.

Mood-boarding is a way of getting to know your brain as it creates without the pressure of having to produce. “If you’re really overwhelmed,” Echeveste suggested, “maybe you need to spend more time thinking of what you actually want to do.” Or, if you’re really struggling, she added, it might be worth putting that idea on the backburner.

Ultimately, beware of turning your mood board into yet another artwork. “Like anything in the process of artmaking, you cannot judge yourself,” Echeveste offered. “You just have to let it go.”

Michelle Santiago Cortés