The mood board is a reflective and analytical tool that helps students situate their research and/or projects, but it is also a novel research method introduced at this year's Design Campus Summer School 2022 at the Kunstgewerbemusem - Staatlichen Kunstsammlungen Dresden by researcher and design educator Floriane Missilin. In this interview we discussed the mood boards' potential to "scramble temporality" in the way it mobilises references from the past to imagine a forthcoming project, both at an individual and collective level. In specific, they clarified how mood boards foster critical thinking and challenge academic conventions while concentrating on embodied experience and creativity.
KOOZ What prompted your interest and research focus on mood boards and their generative potential?
FM It started off with my PhD research in visual sociology at Goldsmiths (London), for which I study the production of fashion photography and, more precisely, the production of fashion images that challenges heteronormative representations of gender and sexuality.
I started doing a review of the academic literature discussing mood boards because I was interested in exploring the mood board as a research method in sociology. For instance, making mood boards with participants while interviewing them about their practice of fashion photography.
I became interested in how the mood boards are a central tool for different stakeholders to negotiate and develop creative ideas. The mood board is something that is collaborative per se.
Reading these texts I became interested in how the mood boards are a central tool for different stakeholders to negotiate and develop creative ideas. The mood board is something that is collaborative per se.
But somehow in design education we tend to overlook the importance of the mood board in our decision making. The mood board is often at the centre of accusations of cultural appropriation and established brands or designers copying smaller designers. To me, that is partly because we do not bring enough attention to the practice of the mood board and what it means to bring together a collection of images and materials for inspiration and situating our projects. Each element brought into the mood board comes with its history. Mood board making therefore might be about exploring what it can mean for them to enter in conversation? More than an inspirational tool, the mood board is a stage of research in a design project that offers the possibility to reflect on what past projects we build on in order to further define our orientation towards the future.
KOOZ Throughout the workshop at the School of the Untold you explored the mood board “as a research practice” reworking the use of these as a collaborative research method. How was this methodology and tool deployed to “creatively engage with the collection”? What were the biggest surprises and discoveries encountered when undertaking the research?
FM We started with the initial common research question "How are bodies present and represented in the museum's collection?" This question helped us notice bodies' presence as well as absence within the display of the collection. Whether that is representation as image or figures, we also considered the body of the user. For instance, Fenja, one of the participants, looked at how objects related to health suggest a body's presence.
Our investigation started with everyone visiting the museum and coming back with images and notes of what caught their attention. Once this first data was collected on the mood board each of us formulated a new, personal research question that was more specific to our own interests in relation to the body in the collection. For our second visit of the collection we each responded to these personal questions, then focused on various topics such as gender and sexuality, health, emotions, imprints, or architecture.
The workshop focused on the body not only as a "subject" of study but also acknowledged the very subjectivity of our bodies as we conducted research. Our exploration of the collection was influenced by some of the daily activities we would do together. We started every day with some movement exercises to raise our attention to our embodied experiences. Afterwards we read out loud, together, the introduction to John Law's book After Methods: Mess in Social Science Research (2004) and selected chapters of Are We Human? Notes on an Archaeology of Design (2016). In sections of this book Beatrice Colomina and Mark Wigley addressed how the body of the user has been understood in design and architecture. The notes from our readings were then also added to the mood board. The mood board became this frame where we collected and organised our inquiries.
The workshop focused on the body not only as a "subject" of study but also acknowledged the very subjectivity of our bodies as we conducted research.
Importantly, a mood board does not come with much explanation. It stays provisional and ambiguous. Throughout the week we have introduced keywords to the mood board to reorganise the materials, which slowly revealed what might be potential answers to our common research question. We have purposefully left the mood board at a stage that does not offer clear answers but rather sensory responses to the research question.
I have been surprised by the diversity of outcomes we have come to produce through the process. Our responses to the question have exceeded the frame of the mood board. We made an audio of our voices reading our personal research questions in each of our native languages. We made a zine registering everyone's contribution to the mood board and the key notes of our readings. We also printed small images documenting our bodies at work throughout the week and pasted them across the design campus.
In January 2023 I am facilitating a similar workshop at Fashion Space Gallery in London employing the mood board as collective research method, participants explored how they related to the notion of "queer moods" and "queer feelings" based on archival images of fashion and dress.
KOOZ In contrast with speculative design, the workshop sought to question the present. How can the mood board as a research method support designers to engage with successes and failures of the past when developing a project?
FM This question was central to the workshop. It is through such participatory workshops that we can expand and further define the practice of the mood board. I understand the mood board as a similar practice of the one of referencing when we write an essay. The mood board can help us situate our project within already existing projects and argue how our project is informed by histories and current debates. It is thus important to consider precision when sourcing our references. We must take care of acknowledging what is it that we bring into our mood boards? Ensure we know the name of who made the images or objects we are collecting, but also take the time to research in which context they were produced. Is this object linked to a colonial past? Does it reinforce a sexist stereotype? How do I engage with the community producing the crafts that I refer to on my mood board?
Another practice that we could further consider is noticing what is not on our mood boards. Diversify our sources to challenge canons and patriarchal Euro-centred gaze. Are your references only from white male modernist designers? What if you look into how women, gender nonconforming, non-white designers have worked on similar projects? Such practices emphasise how the mood board is a potential tool supporting designers to reflect on their positionality through a visual research method.
The mood board can help us situate our project within already existing projects and argue how our project is informed by histories and current debates. It is thus important to consider precision when sourcing our references.
This reminds of feminist work around citation, notably discussed by feminist writer and scholar Sara Ahmed. We could also think of how such referencing practice challenges academic conventions that consider a text only if it is published in an academic journal. Again, Sara Ahmed in Living a Feminist Life (2017) but also bell hooks in her Teaching to Transgress (1994) both challenge the assumption that theory is only coming from academia. They argue that theory comes very much from the body. It is our lived experiences that orient us towards asking certain questions. Could we include citations of personal experiences, experiences of our relatives? Interviews with users rather than "experts"? I want to explore how such feminist citation can be exercised within the practice of the mood board. For instance, by considering working on mood boards more collaboratively, whether that is with team members or potential users.
Are your references only from white male modernist designers? What if you look into how women, gender nonconforming, non-white designers have worked on similar projects?
KOOZ How and to what extent do you see our practice as designers (whether within the fashion, design or architecture industry) as one which is engaged in a continuous continuum of references?
FM It is important we question notions of authorship in design. Sacha Costanza-Chock offers inspiring guidelines in the book Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need (2020). Design must be based on existing knowledge of what already works within communities, what has already been tried and failed. The mood board can be a crucial stage at the start of projects to reflect on successes and failures of the past. Working collaboratively can help diversifying the perspectives and voices that engage with the references that are present on the mood board. It is a means to recognise who inspires us and take the time to acknowledge how these references are coming together to inform a new, future product.
Floriane Misslin (they/them) is a researcher and design educator whose practice focuses on developing participatory and visual research methods. Floriane is a lecturer at London College of Communication (UK), tutor at Design Academy Eindhoven (NL), and PhD candidate in Visual Sociology at Goldsmiths University of London (UK). For their doctoral research, Floriane studies the production of fashion photography that challenge gender, sexuality, and the distinction between womenswear and menswear. The practice-based research explores the negotiations of creative ideas between various stakeholders in the industry, with a focus on the use of mood boards.