Art Direction: Mood Boards, Design Packets and Callout Sheets
By Neil Blevins
Created On: Apr 26th 2021

The process of gathering reference is one of the most important things you can do when making art. But now that you have all that reference, what should you do with it, and how do you use it to communicate your intentions to a team of people? That's where Reference Boards, Design Packets and Callout Sheets come into play.

You have two choices with this lesson, watch me discuss the issue in the video below, or read the full text.

Boards, Packets and Callout Sheets come in a lot of different flavors, depending on what's on them and who you're trying to communicate with. Here's a few examples...

But regardless of the name, the core idea is the same, to communicate ideas using pre-existing photos or stills from games or movies.

The term reference or mood board came from back when you took actual photographs or collages of magazine clippings, sometimes even physical objects such as swatches of material, and attached them to foam boards that you would put up on a wall in meetings. Nowadays, these are almost always digital, but the name has stuck.

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In this lesson, I'll be talking about these different types of reference tools, and some tips to make yours better.

Reference Board

The first type is called a Reference Board, Mood Board or Inspiration Board. These tend to be the earliest in production on either a project, or on a sub piece of a project, and are primarily reference images since the concept phase hasn't happened yet. Like below is some of a reference board for a Dyson Sphere project, which includes reference from a tv show, game, another artist and a random piece of imagery from the internet...

As a more detailed example, say I am working on a film, and my boss says he wants me to design a chair for our fictional scifi world. He may even give me a good concept brief that already has some images in there (check out my other lesson Writing A Concept Brief for more information on this topic). But the next thing I do is make a personal Reference Board. This will be a collection of reference images from my own library, and from the internet, images that relate to the job I need to do. Many of the images might be different styles of chairs. Some may have nothing to do with chairs, but have detail that I'd like to include in my chair design. Then I will show this board to my boss to make sure we're on the same page. And of course use the reference for the next part of my job, which is designing the chair.

And reference boards of course don't have to be specific to concept design. A Director Of Photography (DP) may have a mood board to show the types of lighting from other films that they want to use as reference for the lighting in the film they're about to do, and wants to show it to the director to see what they think. Like a mood board of Film Noir and harsh lighting...

When designing a character, it's quite common to have a mood board of famous faces, elements of which you want to include in a character you'll be designing at a later time.

The mood board could be just color schemes, you're trying to decide the colors for a set, and are exploring different combinations of color.

And of course, a mood board can be all of the above on the same board.

I worked on a film once where there was an anti-mood board, which was a board of reference from other movies that this particular film DIDN'T want to emulate. Funnily enough, that board included a film I had previously worked on, which I told the director, but promised I'd stay away from that style for this film :)

Design Packets

The second type is called a Reference / Design / Modeling or Shading Packet. These tend to be done after the concept phase has happened, and usually include a concept drawing / painting and some reference material.

So the first question is who is the intended audience for your packet? Since you're later in production, whereas the mood board could have many different sorts of people looking at them, these are a little more focused, and are usually meant for a specific audience.

For example, the model packet is made specifically for a team of 3d modelers who will be taking a concept artist's design and making a 3d model. In this sort of design or modeling packet, you will likely include the final painted concept (or a detailed drawing), maybe a few orthogonal views of the design, and maybe some small sketches showing a few details.

But you can also include pre-existing imagery, for example, photos of similar type of machinery from the real world, for the 3d modeler to take inspiration from. Or you could even do only a very rough sketch, then include a lot of reference, if you want the modeler to bring more of their own experience to the table.

You can do the same sort of packet from shader artists (people texturing the models), layout or set dressing (placing objects in a scene), or an overall design packet that contains all of these together.

Callout Sheet

A callout sheet is very similar to a packet, except the reference tends to be on the same page as the design, and there are arrows, for you to "call out" all the little details.

Let's take the example of a layout or set dressing callout sheet. Say you've painted a concept for a room which has hundreds of objects in it. Like a kid's bedroom. Your callout sheet would be a combination of your final concept design, and then images of all the major objects in the room. So for our kids room, you could have a drawing of the room, and then arrows with photographs of real items, like a bed, a chair, a globe, posters on the walls, shoes in the closet. If you've separately designed all the objects in the room, you could replace some or all of the reference photographs with the concepts you made, in which case the callout sheet becomes more of a placement sheet, showing the layout artist where different objects should go in the room.

Here's a materials callout sheet for a giant robot.

We have a piece of concept art, in this case, a photobashed / painted set of materials on a rough 3d model. Then callouts showing real world examples of all the different parts of the robot, so the shading / texture artist will know the sorts of materials they should be making, and how dirty or clean the different parts of the robot should be.

Making Better Boards

Are you making this for yourself or the team? If yourself, this can be very loose. But if you're making it for a team of people, I highly recommend a few tips.

1) Add commentary: Don't just use images, but also add little captions that explain the images. For example, if I'm going to be making a big robot, and I include an image of a bulldozer, but no further explanation, then the person who sees the reference may be asking "Should I notice the size of the vehicle? The weathering on the vehicle? the way the paint on the vehicle looks?" And maybe your original desire was for them to notice a really cool vent on the side of the vehicle, but since you didn't specify that, they got the wrong idea.
2) Include URLs: if using reference from other films, games or from the internet, include the names of the films or URLs so that the artist can use that was a spring board to find more reference
3) High Res Originals: As well as including the final mood board, include all of the original reference images that you used to make the mood board, since they may be higher resolution than the images included in the board.


No matter what you call them or their exact format, using reference to communicate to yourself or a team of people is an invaluable tool in the commercial artists repertoire. So the next time you work on these sorts of projects, try making a Reference Board, Design Packet or Callout Sheet. Or if you're presented with one, now you'll know what they are and how they can be best used.

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