During the initial stage of a design process, it is important to set a general tone in terms of aesthetic philosophy, colors, emotional values, technology, even target users and use.
As designers we usually think in visual terms, so having a collection (the “board”) of pictures really helps in quickly conveying information that would take quite long to explain in words.
The pictures do not need to be directly related to the subject of the project, on the opposite they should be portraying different things (hues, textures, different objects, graphic themes) which combined together should communicate a clear concept.
This is not only useful for pure inspiration and brain storming, but also for communicating within a team or to a client, and for having a non-blank canvas to refer to when running into the inevitable creative blocks.
Note: it is important to keep in mind that a mood/reference board is just a tool: we should avoid being “carried away”, try to limit the number of images to the minimum necessary, and organize the material without worrying too much of creating a pretty board. For this reason setting up a maximum time for researching and organizing the material could be a solution.
Another note: the same considerations and tools are also valid for creating reference boards, which are necessary when we need to refer to specific material during the design process.
Let’s have a look at the tools, and then list some possible sources for images.
Collecting and organizing the images
There are basically two ways of putting together an image board: online and offline.
Having an online mood board – like a simple Pinterest Board – is a great way for having your reference material always available, whether on a desktop machine or on the go. It also makes very easy to share the board with others and to add or remove items.
There are a couple of drawbacks: the image quality and resolution is usually limited, so the online boards could be not suitable for printing large posters; secondly, the board design and layout could be less flexible.
In these cases, we can consider to build our mood board offline.
The most simple way is to save the images inside a folder, create an empty image document using Photoshop or an alternative image editing application and then import all the files inside it.
In particular, with all the recent versions of Photoshop, when we drag an external image inside an existing document the picture is imported as a Smart Object, which allows us to resize, rotate and move the single images as layers without worrying of quality losses.
However, there are also some small applications that are designed specifically for creating and using mood boards or reference galleries.
Mood Board software
Developed by independent game developer Kruel Games, Kuadro is an image viewer that allows to open as many images at the same time, to lay them out in different ways having them floating above the active window. Layouts can also be saved for alter use.
Kuadro is free (but welcomes donations to support the projects) and available for Windows and Mac OSX.
Available for Windows, Mac or Linux, PureRef is a lightweight application conceived to helps artists and designers tool to organize and view their reference images.
It offers a flexible canvas with many features and shortcuts for maximum speed of use and customization.
It has a “name your price” policy, so if you find it useful you can support the development with a small fee.
For more information you can also check the review by Matt Kohr from CtrlPaint.
There are virtually countless applications that can be used to organize reference images – even a simple text editor can do it. However it is worth mentioning Evernote, which has many interesting syncing, sharing and tagging options that can facilitate the task.
Moodboard for iPad
Among the mobile apps, Moodboard allows to create and share mood boards by adding photos from the Library. It is available as a paid app ($9.99) and in a free “Lite” version.
The best sources for mood boards imagery
In particular Pinterest has a high level of quality and its images are not only tagged with many types of keywords – including materials and emotional qualities associated with each image – but most of the time are already organized in boards with specific themes.
This is a great feature that speeds up the construction of our own board by simply looking at others’ selections. On the other hand, the inherent risk is getting lost in this ocean of wonderful, polished imagery.
Beyond Google Images and Pinterest, there are other places where it is possible to find specific material.
Car Body Design (shameless plug) for instance has different gallery pages that can prove helpful: the Design Sketch Board has thousands of transportation design sketches, the Featured Design Sketches page is a smaller, high quality selection of works from young and established designers, and the Image Library includes several galleries on specific car design themes.
Visiting portfolio websites such as Behance and ArtStation allows to quickly check hundreds of different creative projects, which can help setting the atmosphere or find the right presentation technique or getting inspiration for the design language.
Another source of material is offered by the world of stock images and videos: here, like for Pinterest, it is possible to make search using generic, abstract terms and the results are usually quite relevant.
While the stock images are mostly not free, the basic, watermarked low resolution version can easily work for generating ideas – even if before using them on non-personal documents it is strongly advisable to check the usage license.
Speaking about photos, among all the websites presenting original photos it is worth mentioning Flickr (for the quantity) and 500px (for the quality). There are also websites that allow to search simultaneously from different sources – for example Foter or Every Stock Photo.
Lastly, for every specific subject there are image-intensive websites, but for the most part using Google or Pinterest should give plenty of interesting material.
How do you organize your reference material for each project? Do you use a different tool or system? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!
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