In the Studio: Mood Boards and Mind Mapping

Perhaps you have a creative idea for your next piece, or maybe you’re not sure what you want to do in your next body of work. In either case, what can you do to expand an initial form or generate new ideas? List making is a good starting place, but have you considered creating mood boards or mind maps for your ceramic work?

Moods boards are comprised of collected images and objects from outside sources, while mind mapping involves your own free flowing thinking connections. With that said, both methods could be applied and/or combined for some engaging new methods of generating inspiration.

I encourage you to give yourself a generative mindset when you start either one of these approaches. Let your ideas flow without judgment or evaluation—there’s plenty of time for that later. When you first start, collect it all and write it all down without pausing to edit or evaluate. After a period of time, let yourself switch to a critical mindset and start to parse your ideas. Maybe you’ll end up creating two mood boards from the initial one. On your mind map, maybe you’ll cross out some possibilities to narrow your focus. Keeping a generative mindset when exploring new ideas allows unexpected concepts and connections to emerge. Embrace them. Enjoy them.

Mood Boards (1, 2)

“I definitely have that on my mood board.” This soundbite is a nod to pop culture and an example of how much mood boards have become ubiquitous with collecting ideas and inspiration.

Mood boards are a collection of images, materials, and text that focus on a particular theme or concept. Sometimes they include the addition of textural objects adhered to a physical surface. Traditional mood boards were first created on foam-core board with cutout images and small objects glued onto the surface. Contemporary mood boards might still be physical objects, or they may be digital.

Mood boards are frequently used in the design industries: fashion, interior, graphic, advertising, etc. They are a way of presenting visual representations of concepts to clients. Trend boards are a specific example of mood boards. Trend boards identify a timely trend that we can expect to see in home decor or fashion. For example, here are some home-decor trends for 2021 (gleaned from web and social-media searches): Rustic Vogue, Granny Chic, and Natural Pigments/Dyes (think rust, beet juice, and terra cotta).

1 Terracotta Brass, an example of a mood board created with inspiration from the current terra-cotta design trend.

2 Black, White, and Lines, an example of a mood board inspired by objects from Rhonda Willers’ studio.

Personalize Your Own Mood Board

First, what could you focus on? Here are some ideas:

  • A favorite color or a color you don’t traditionally use
  • A word that inspires you
  • A current design trend
  • Specific subject matter: people, fashion, locales, flora and fauna, maps
  • Concepts: joy, friendship, partnerships, cooperation, community, climate, health, autobiography, homage

Once you’ve decided on a focus, start collecting and curating your board. Here are a few things to look for and gather—they can be physical objects or digital images:

  • Images, photographs, sketches
  • Words, quotes, bits of text
  • Color palettes; gather paint swatches or fired test tiles
  • Textures, fabrics
  • Bits of nature: leaves, stones, fronds

Inspiration Sources

Inspiration and materials for your mood board can come from a range of different media and places:

  • Your own surroundings: photograph, draw, or paint it and then add it to your mood board
  • Samples of colors or images you make using media you have access to: watercolors, colored pencils, technical pens, oil pastels
  • Magazines you subscribe to online or print copies you receive or pick up from the store
  • Images downloaded from different web searches
  • Font websites, try
  • Image-driven online platforms such as Pinterest, Instagram, or Tumblr

Tip: Remember, if you’re making mood boards to be shared online, check for copyrights and permissions for the images and fonts you would like to use. Some are free for any use, some have limitations, and some require payment. Whenever possible, credit the source of imagery that is not your own. Adding footnotes, captions, tags, or hashtags to credit sources goes a long way in terms of demonstrating professional courtesy and respect for others’ creative work.

Materials for Mood Boards

Start with foam-core board, cardboard, or cork board, then use glue, glue sticks, glue dots, tacks, double-sided tape, or washi tape to secure elements in place. Alternatively, build a board on Pinterest, which is essentially a digital mood-board builder. You can also download free mood-board templates to add your own information to or use digital software like Adobe Illustrator/Photoshop, or Procreate to create a digital mood board file. Add text notes to express connections or thematic ideas.

Mind Mapping (3)

Brain dump, spider diagram, and sun bursting are all ways of describing mind mapping. Mind mapping uses the concept of radiant thinking. The main concept or focus is placed in the center of the page or map and the subsequent ideas radiate out from there with offshoots connecting to and generating related ideas. Of course, you could implement this practice more divergently and flow the connecting points in any manner that inspires you.

The free-flowing visual representation can help you see and generate connections and categories as you work and develop ideas you may not have thought of otherwise. It can help you visually group your thinking rather than sifting through a large, linear, uncategorized list. Someone recently shared with me that they mind map their vacations! I think I’ll try that next.

Typically, mind maps are created with text, but you could just as easily create a pictorial mind map that generates new surface patterns for drinking vessels or collects research ideas for figurative forms. What might that look like?

3 Forms and vessels brainstorming using the mind-mapping technique with sketches.

Making Your Own Mind Map

Where to start and what to consider when mind mapping:

  • Text, imagery, or both
  • Place the main idea in the center
  • Branch out in several directions with multiple ideas that flow forward and backward

Ideas for what to use to make mind maps:

  • A page in your sketchbook
  • A large piece of paper on a wall or on a table
  • A whiteboard (be sure to photograph it before erasing)
  • Sticky notes that can be moved around and grouped: use different colors, sizes, and shapes to help organize ideas.
  • Google Jamboard: This is a digital whiteboard (often used with classroom Smartboards, but can be used without that technology). If you haven’t used this yet, give it a try. You can: place basic shapes, change colors, free draw to add lines connecting ideas or handwrite text using your finger or a stylus, use a type tool, import photos from the web, and one of my personal favorites—digital sticky notes that you can type on and move around the screen. The Jam, as it’s nicknamed, can have more than one page, you can even invite people to jam, or collaborate, with you.
  • Digital illustration apps for tablets and phones: For iOS and Android devices, you can use apps like Autodesk Sketchbook and Photoshop Sketch. For iOS only, there is a versatile program called Procreate. The full version is for iPads only. The makers of Procreate also created a Procreate Pocket for iPhone use. You can import photos, and using a stylus or your finger, you can draw just like you would in your sketchbook. You can make custom brushes as well as download custom brushes and fonts from graphics creators online. You can also easily re-size, and rearrange elements, which is perfect for mind mapping and mood boards!
  • Adobe Illustrator or Adobe Photoshop on laptops, desktops, and tablets: These programs can easily provide a digital platform for creating mind maps. You can then export them to share online, posting to your blog/website, or printing for your studio as inspiration.

From Mood Boards to Mind Mapping

The way you use these tools will depend on your individual creative practice. Maybe you start with creating a mood board and then you move into mind mapping using all of the ideas that inspired your mood board. Or vice versa: maybe you mind map first, then create a mood board based on the ideas that emerged in the radiating arms.

To provide a starting place and inspiration, I created several Pinterest boards about mood boards and mind mapping that you can reference. Have a look at them by following these direct links (, or by logging into Pinterest and searching for @r_willers, then scrolling to find my saved boards for “MOODBOARD/mood board” or “Mind Mapping.”

Remember to keep your mind in a generative place, letting those uninhibited ideas flow like a stream of consciousness, embrace the surprise ideas, and keep going.

Rhonda Willers is a studio artist living in Wisconsin. To learn more, visit and Instagram @r_willers. She is also the author of Terra Sigillata: Contemporary Techniques, published by The American Ceramic Society and available at


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