Mood Boards Are Essential to Good Design—Here's How

Home52's design wiz, Nicole Crowder, takes us behind the scenes of her creative process.

February  9, 2022

Follow the Pattern is a brand new column from furniture maker and upholstery expert (and Home52's Resident Design Wiz) Nicole Crowder. Nicole is here to show us how to breathe new life into old furniture, reuse and repurpose materials, take chances with color and pattern—and develop a signature aesthetic. Today, she shares her best tips for sourcing the fabric of your dreams.

I believe that every creative decision starts with a vision. We envision everyday what our homes and apartments could look like: the color palette for our walls, the wood flooring or backsplash tiles that will adorn our rooms, and what beamed ceilings could do for our living rooms. Eventually, this imagination filters down to the palms of our hands and materializes as our physical spaces.

The one creative tool I can't do without is a mood board. Mood boards help me ground my dreams no matter how lofty they may seem. They are aspirational in the way that they invite fantasy—and I believe fantasy is necessary in making our creative dreams, and dream spaces, a reality.

Two years ago, I received the email of a lifetime: an invitation to design and produce a custom furniture collection for World Market. All my years of sketching and upholstering chairs and other furniture were crystallizing into this one big moment. But the process of getting from notebooks and moodboards to the furniture collection that is now out in the world took two years of dreaming, envisioning, revising, and revising some more.

So where does one begin?

I am a tactile person, so I love using notebooks, pens, and pencils; I reach for them often because, to me, it feels easier to translate a sketch to paper than a digital screen. As I drew my sketches for this collection, I thought about the shapes and frames. How do I want people to feel sitting in this furniture? Did I want it to be curvaceous and inviting or cozy and restful? Did I want it to be all wood? Did I want it to be large enough to fit into a house or small enough to fit into the average-size apartment? What I knew was that I wanted to create pieces that didn't exist in the world—and a mood board helped me gather my research.

Mood boards can be physical or digital, so it really depends on what you want to create. Construction paper or even blank paint canvases make wonderful surfaces. These surfaces are great for adhering or taping magazine clippings and tactile items like swatches, beads, or photographs that you have collected in preparation. I love going to stores like Michaels, Paper Source, or Patina and sourcing colorful paper that I can use as the backdrop. There’s something about adding texture, color, and pattern that makes me want to engage with the mood board more, and makes it feel like an extension of my personality.

Photo by Nicole Crowder

What to include

  • If your mood board is about a room or space that you want to create, try using the paint color or wallpaper you eventually want as the background for the board.
  • Fill in with natural elements like plants and flowers (paper or dried), rattan or wicker, or materials like wood samples that will give your board texture and life.
  • Add fabric swatches that are meaningful to you, from old quilts and clothing that you really love. I love including small cuttings from fabrics that I have gathered through the years to give me a sense of how I want something to feel.
  • Include photographs, Polaroids, and clippings from magazines and newspapers that invoke the kind of space you’re trying to create. I love hosting mood-board parties with friends and combining all of our magazines to cut from.
  • Include quotes or affirmations. You can also hand-write on your mood board to inject more of your personality into it.
  • If you’re making a digital fabric board, include the same elements—without the tactile objects of course. I like to use a combination of photos that I’ve collected online as well as upload photos that I’ve taken. You can always scan in objects that you can’t find online but have out in your everyday life that have significance.
  • You can also make color boards where you display all the colors that you are considering, so you can get a sense for whether or not everything works together.

Spotlight: Fabric

My favorite part of any design process is going through piles of fabric swatches while sprawled across the floor. My eye starts to draw connections between color and pattern and I start to narrow down my options. A great deal of my fabric sourcing happens online. My favorite way to compile fabrics is through Pinterest because their interface is designed to be a mood board. I like to start with a clean palette and a white background, so when I “pin” colorful fabrics it helps my eye compartmentalize and process details. World Market gave me the freedom to create as many boards filled with textures and patterns that I wanted to. Eventually, using those references, we designed custom prints that became the fabrics used in the collection).

Photo by Nicole Crowder
Photo by Nicole Crowder

From board to reality

In the spring of 2021 I flew to Oakland where all six samples of the furniture that we had designed were waiting for me. I spent hours draping fabric on the fronts and the backs of them, to see whether or not a particular pattern would translate into a design that was unique. At the forefront of my mind was a desire to make these pieces undeniably striking, to relay the sense of joy that I had felt in creating them. My mood board started to come to life, and I had that feeling that I was walking around in that fantastical dream.

Mood boards invite you to play without structure: They have no rules nor a single format. I like to create them solo, but sometimes in community with friends or like-minded dreamers—it’s whatever feels most organic to me and my process at the time. To me mood boards feel meditative, and help me organize or compartmentalize ideas—but they also help me challenge my imagination and patterns of creativity.

Do you use mood boards for your creative process—or perhaps just as inspiration? Tell us in the comments below.

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Nicole Crowder

Written by: Nicole Crowder

Nicole Crowder is a furniture designer and upholsterer creating custom one-of-a-kind pieces. She has a lover of mixing vibrant color and bold textile patterns. Nicole and her work have been featured in design publications, including Architectural Digest, Domino, Martha Stewart Living, and Better Home & Gardens.

1 Comment

Cosmic L. February 18, 2022
I can’t believe I have never thought to do a mood board when planning a redecorating project. I always think designers must have this superhuman ability to visualize spaces and see how things work together while I’m forever changing things because it’s not quite how I thought it would look. Such a simple solution yet one I completely overlooked.