Moodboard Theory

While the term refers to the literal boards stuck with inspirations, in the post-physical era the moodboard has become not only a tool but a way of being.

Key Takeaways

  1. A moodboard is meant to convey, well, a mood, but it often exceeds this role.
  2. Traditionally a moodboard for a fashion line might have some clothing references and textile swatches, but more so other media: advertisements for computers or cigarettes, lighting design, stones, or plants, architectural details, abstract art, and so on.
  3. The proliferation of moodboard culture has much to do with the proliferation of images—as both sources, and as a primary mode of communication.

A friend once harassed me with a .zip file of concepts for a new direction for my style and public presentation; occasionally he is paid to do this. Another showed me his PDF plan for his novel—all photos or film stills, many atmospheric, nonspecific. I have friends who have conspiratorially revealed anonymous Instagrams where they collate images of outfits they like, bodies they want to have, furniture references—a more structured, grid-bound update maybe for those of us who came of age with early Tumblr. I remember in 2006 or 7 making endless bookmark folders of clothes I definitely couldn’t afford that conveyed how I wanted to look (which, as a tween, seemed to equal “who I wanted to be”), and you can watch movies from pre-web days of girls on bedroom floors glue-sticking much the same. Call it moodboarding. While the term refers to the literal boards stuck with inspiration used in creative studios and in magazine offices, in the post-physical era of endless images, the moodboard has become not only a tool but a way of being.

Case-in-point: the brands generate their cultural caché now from moodboards as much as material goods, it superficially seems. “When did curation start to rival creation?” The dek of an Esquire article from 2020 provokes. Speaking to the journalist, Emily Oberg of Sporty & Rich notes she started her Instagram page before anything else. “You can create a brand out of thin air,” she remarks. “People know Sporty & Rich first for the moodboard, and now for the clothes.” More cynically, art director Freddy Taylor tells Esquire that “Public moodboards allow brands to associate themselves with any imagery, without having to pay for it.” The article also cites designers like Simon Porte Jacquemus, who as much as for his clothes, is perhaps as well known for his personal Instagram of lifestyle photos, natural scenery, still lives, plus his own products. “I’m a blogger, I have no shame to say that,” Esquire reports Porte Jacquemus as saying. (On a trip where we had no cell service or wifi a couple of years ago, a friend, who works in art direction and production, would occasionally point to arrangements of driftwood and net on limestone, or a sweater cast over a rail, and say breathily, in affected Provençal accent, “Jacquemus,” and giggle—so ridiculous, so true.) “Is a moodboard curated, or appropriated?” the Esquire article asks.

image courtesy of Are.na

A moodboard is meant to convey, well, a mood, but it often exceeds this role. Traditionally a moodboard for a fashion line might have some clothing references—whether from past in-house or competitor’s collections, cinema, or pop culture—and textile swatches, but more so other media: advertisements for computers or cigarettes, lighting design, stones, or plants, architectural details, abstract art, automobiles, jewels, food, and so on. Like a perfume commercial does for a smell, the device is meant to convey a sensibility more than an explicit design direction—or so the myth goes.

Rapid turnarounds and fast fashion and big brand knockoffery alike have often led to the moodboard being blamed, with social media posts suggesting that smaller creators were clearly collaged into plans for clothes or campaigns—so why weren’t they just hired? As assistant professor of fashion at Parsons Fiona Dieffenbacher told me, “the main culprit” that turns an inspiration into a copy is the moodboard. “The moodboard is a useful tool if references remain as such, but for students who are still developing a design language of their own, images of work by other designers often migrate beyond this purpose, and become subconsciously embedded in their minds. ‘Versions’ later show up in their sketchbooks and become quickly adopted as their own ideas.” Her students, Dieffenbacher says, “are encouraged to develop their own ideas based on deep and varied primary and material research methodologies that inform their design prototyping via an iterative process, adjacent to image-gathering.” Those first images are meant “merely…as an initial entry point into research.” And even when the references aren’t so literal, there can be a sense as collections make their way down the runway and video content spreads on IG, that some images are on everyone’s moodboard, to say nothing of the high-speed trickle-down effect this seeming ubiquity in turn has across the cultural landscape. 

The proliferation of moodboard culture has much to do with the proliferation of images—as both sources, and as a primary mode of communication. Whereas in the ‘90s moodboarding required collecting magazines, visiting libraries and museums, taking photos out in the world, today moodboarding is near-instantaneous. We do it all the time. Tools like Are.na might be more targeted towards “creatives,” but whether we’re content consumers or creators—are they not more or less one and the same?—we probably moodboard nonstop on platforms like Instagram or Pinterest. (An aspect exploited also as people moodboard themselves, and brands in term sell them those moodboard items, as I recently covered for this publication.) n the era of big tech image management, public moodboards from big brands, and self-mythologization through reblogging and compulsive posting, “inspiration” has become an end in itself. Once hidden behind the scenes, the moodboard has become a stake to a kind of identity beyond what any object can offer. Since attention is the product, the approximation or image of would-be reality can be as—or more—readily sold than anything that might be produced from it. What is sold, then, are empty concepts, false mirrors of aspirational selves. Everything is content. Content is recycled as creation and curation both become equally meaningless. Has reality become just a mood?