This is the fifth of our summaries from the IATEFL MaWSIG Pre-Conference Event, which was held online on Friday, 18 June 2021. In his talk, Colin Morton looked at a key aspect of ELT publishing which is not often discussed: the role of mood boards in materials design. Thanks to Sandy Millin for providing the summary. 

What is a mood board?

Mood boards are designed to create the feel of a project before it exists. They are a collection of references, colour palettes and images that give an idea of the direction or feeling of the concept before starting work on the actual design. They can help spark ideas and think about how different ideas can tie together into a single concept. Colin suggests that anywhere between five and fifteen images can hit the sweet spot and make up an effective mood board. 

Designers might produce several mood boards to present to a publisher, to help them decide which way the project might go. For example, for a project on street food, the mood board could represent authentic, international concepts, or it could represent ideas connected to the hipster movement.

‘But I’m not a designer!’

Colin suggested that you don’t need to be a designer to use a mood board. Here’s a list of situations where you might want to build a mood board:

  • planning an event
  • planning a project
  • thinking about a blog post you’re writing
  • considering your personal branding and how you want to sell yourself
  • before you do a talk
  • exploring a character for a story you’re writing
  • exploring an idea for a book you’re writing

There are various tools that you can use. These include: 

Where to get inspiration

You can get inspiration for images for all kinds of places: 

If you think the image might eventually be published as part of the finished product, make sure you track and keep a record of the source and copyright.

Here are Colin’s top tips for mood-boarding: 

  • Set yourself a limit; this helps you to be more creative.
  • Cast your net wide; think about lots of different ideas to enrich materials.
  • Don’t fear the cliché; clichés can create a common visual language and make your concept more accessible.
  • It’s OK to get a little weird; if that has helped you get into the headspace you need to be in, it’s fine!
  • It doesn’t have to be just images; it can contain key words that you hadn’t thought of before, sounds, clips, etc. (if you’re working online).
  • Curate, curate, curate; it’s not just a bunch of images that you like, they have to fit together coherently and create a single concept.
  • Use your mood boards throughout a project – for inspiration at the start, but also as a reminder partway through of what you got excited about in the first place.
  • Keep them safe! You never know when you might want to use them again. Keep a record of the images you discarded and where you got them from.
  • Vary the sizes of the images; you can draw the viewer’s eye around the image and highlight what is more or less important.

Colin Morton is a freelance designer and illustrator from the north-west of England. Having earned his stripes in-house at OUP, he has since continued to work under the name of Morton Design on ELT projects, company branding, logo design, posters and illustration. He’s also a partner at Studio Spirit, working with his friend and fellow designer Stewart Grieve, tackling larger and more varied ELT projects.