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The importance of design research and moodboarding in storytelling

A moodboard presented to Eater for their Global 38 tentpole.
Brittany Holloway-Brown/Vox Media

For the Storytelling Studio, research is just as important as execution. We stress knowing why we make decisions before we even begin to think about how we’d execute them. Part of our ethos is getting to the heart of the story. Before starting design research, it’s important we have a solid idea of what the story is so we can capture the tone and subject matter and start to parse out what approach might work best.

Start building a visual direction

Moodboards are one way the Studio captures and distills research. The goal is to take all aspects of a story that we’ve discussed with reporters and start building a solid visual direction. This process allows us to see how other creators solve a problem or how they handle the same themes we’re thinking through.

We only have a finite amount of internal reference to pull from, and it’s important to look at different perspectives and reference those both in and outside our space. Research can come from anywhere. A fashion website might have a great example of how to merge video with still photography, or an email newsletter will use a great typeface that you’re not familiar with. Keep a running tally of things you like, either on your desktop in a folder, with everything probably sourced and labeled, or using a web service like Pinterest or Niice.

A screenshot of a Pinterest board

One moodboard for each direction

There are many ways to make a moodboard, either through online services, a Google Slides presentation, or a folder on your desktop. Regardless of format, the point is to compile all of your inspiration in one place so you can start to form a cohesive picture of what you are trying to build.

Make a moodboard for each design direction you think fits with the story. You should create at least 2, but you can always create more directions as long as they are focused. Colors, typography, photo treatments, and logos are all important at this stage. The tiniest design element can help to inform a story.

Ask for very targeted feedback

When sharing design research in the form of a moodboard, it’s important to guide the conversation by setting up expectations and asking targeted questions. Specific feedback at this stage is important. For example, “Does the typography have enough hierarchy?” or, “Do the colors feel like the right fit for the tone of the story?” are better questions than “What do you like?”. Make sure to explain that a moodboard is the summary of design research done thus far to help gauge tone, but is not meant to convey concrete assets.

A moodboard that was presented to Racked for their Wellness Oasis event.
Brittany Holloway-Brown

What’s after research?

Design research helps set the stage for the rest of the design process in a project. By undergoing and sharing research with your team, you are able to facilitate a shared understanding of the direction the story is going in. After everyone is on the same page, every person on the project can begin to contribute to the project, referencing the research as a baseline.