Cloud Four Blog

Technical notes, War stories and anecdotes

Mood Boards (Neither Bored Nor Moody)

Our team had a set of defining characteristics and was almost ready to start redesigning cloudfour.com. But before we dived into element collages (more on that in a future post), we wanted to draw from a shared well of design inspiration. So we decided to make a mood board.

A mood board is a collage of reference imagery from the outside world with some relevance to the project in question. It can include examples of typography, colors, illustrations, photography or other stylistic elements. Traditionally, you’d assemble one from magazine clippings or whatever else you didn’t mind cutting up and gluing to foam core.

Photo of traditional mood board exercise in progress circa 2009

We decided against the cut-and-paste method for a couple of reasons:

  • Most of the team’s favorite sources of inspiration are easier to assemble digitally than in physical form. One could argue that the value of a mood board exercise is in exploring sources outside one’s typical frame of reference, but for this project it felt like a poor fit.
  • By this point, our team was engaged in parallel projects that made scheduling a day-long, in-person exercise difficult to coordinate.

Digital mood boards are nothing new, and there are plenty of tools to choose from (InVision’s being particularly impressive). We decided to use Pinterest, simply because most of our team was already using it.

Over the next few days, we assembled 79 pins into the cloudfour.com mood board:

Screenshot of our Pinterest mood board

Although our team members contributed independently, the overall tone of the board is fairly cohesive (possibly owing to our earlier characteristics exercise). This gave us the inspirational mind-meld we needed for the next design phase.

Shared Visions and Sticky Notes

When we started redesigning cloudfour.com, I knew I wanted the entire team to feel a sense of ownership in the end result. To establish an inclusive design direction without designing a camel, we had to distill the collective input of every team member into one guiding vision… a singular “us.”

Fortunately for us, few problems in the universe cannot be solved by getting in a room and writing things on sticky notes.

After broadly discussing our hopes and dreams for the redesign, we jotted down words on stickies that described how we wanted Cloud Four to feel.

Each of us presented and clustered these notes on the whiteboard, grouping those that seemed thematically related.

Collage of sticky note exercise photos

Then, we agreed on informal titles for each cluster. These became (in no particular order):

  • Leadership
  • Academic
  • Open
  • Ahead
  • Craft
  • Integrity
  • Cheerful
  • Web ❤
  • Responsive
  • You
  • Boutique
  • Portland

We managed to swiftly condense 93 sticky notes from nine team members into twelve tidy descriptors. I call that a successful exercise!

These directly informed our mood boards… but that’s a story for another post!

Redesigning Cloud Four in the Open

We finally have the time to give our perpetual back-burner project the attention it deserves. And we decided we wanted to try something different this time.

We’re going to redesign Cloudfour.com in the open!

We’ve never done something like this before. Consider it a grand experiment.

We started the design a while ago before client needs overwhelmed us. We created mood boards and element collages. We even started a pattern library and plan on open sourcing the tool we’re using to build it.

Sample element collage from our redesign

Over the coming days, we’ll share with you what we’re working on and our thinking behind it.

In the meantime, if you want to follow along, you can join our public redesign Slack channel, read archives of that same Slack channel, and check out our in-progress pattern library.

We’re looking forward to sharing our progress with you and getting your feedback along the way.

Jeb Bush’s Responsive Images Problem

It’s political season here in the United States, and it is great to see politicians taking technology issues seriously.

Take Jeb Bush for example. His campaign has gone out of its way to highlight the importance of planning the focal point of your responsive images carefully.

On small screens, the web page carefully positions the campaign logo right in the middle of the candidate’s face. This makes sense as there are two Bushes in the photograph so the logo helps us identify which Bush is running this time.

Screenshot of Jeb Bush web page on iPhone 4s where the logo is on top of Jeb's face

Careful planning ensures that there aren’t any embarrassing crops of the Bush brother we’re focusing on.

Jeb Bush split in half by a crop

At wider screens, the campaign crops out one Bush brother so we can focus in on the signup form. The last thing the campaign wants is for Jeb’s brother to overshadow him.

Wider screen that only shows George Bush

Animated gif showing unintentional cropping of Jeb Bush

You can see the full cropping in action at the Jeb Bush SC Signup Page or in the video below:

Alright, I’ve had enough fun at poor Jeb’s expense. This could easily happen to any web site owner.

Jeb Bush’s signup page demonstrates the needs for organizations to coordinate on how photographs will be created and utilized within responsive designs—particularly in cases where cropping will occur in the browser.

And it illustrates why Simon Bächler has started the Universal Images Working Group—a W3C Community Group—to work on embedding art direction rules inside meta data on the image files themselves.

The meta data would contain information on what can be cropped from an image and where the safety area—the area that should never be cropped—is located:

Photo of Monks containing crop marks and safety areas

The above image is from the Universal Images Demo page.

This idea is similar to what film and TV have been doing for years to ensure their work is cropped in an acceptable fashion. I’m already seeing organizations adopting this technique for responsive images.

Kevin Mack and Tim Vonderloh presented how they used what they called Asset Template Guides (video, slides) on a client project.

Netflix provides photographers with a prototype of the page in addition to guidelines and a template. “The photographer had the tool to be able to drop the images in as he was shooting them and we could see them in a prototype and see how they would look across screen sizes,” Anna Blaylock explained in an interview.

If you’re interested in working on this problem, the Universal Images Community Group could certainly use your help.

The big lesson here is that if cropping is part of your responsive images strategy, you need to plan ahead to avoid accidentally cropping the most important parts of a photograph.

Jeb and George chest bump

Thanks to Aileen for pointing out the Jeb Bush sign up page.

Looking for our next project

We have a couple of projects wrapping up soon and for the first time in two years, we’ve got openings for new clients. So if you’ve ever wanted to work with us, now is the time!

In case you’re not familiar with what we specialize in, we’re typically hired by web teams to help with complex responsive projects. The team wants it done right the first time because of the timeline or because of the high stakes involved.

Our clients often want to learn how to do this work so that their web teams can take on these projects in the future. Our projects are usually a mixture of doing and teaching.

We’ve also built quite a few Javascript applications and are enthusiastic about progressive web apps these days. Lyza wrote one of the best intros to Service Workers—a key part of progressive web apps—for Smashing Magazine.

So if you’re looking for help or if you know someone you think we might be a good fit for, we’d love to hear from you!