Mastering Visual Communication: Create Effective Style Boards

Struggling to convey your design ideas? Create effective style boards with our 3-step process. Discover tips for selecting keywords, organizing visuals, and using tools like Pinterest and Canva to communicate your vision clearly. Perfect for nonprofit branding and beyond.
Illustration of diverse people's hands working together to make a cohesive style board.

I’ve known for a long time that I’m a visual learner. 

Whether I’m doodling notes or presenting a new logo, it’s so much easier for me to share an idea visually than to write or talk it out.  Sometimes there just aren’t words to describe the type of style you’re looking for, and it’s easier to show it than to explain it.

One of the easiest ways to communicate visual ideas is to put together a style board. A style board is a series of pictures, colors, textures, and patterns that help translate key visual ideas into a cohesive aesthetic.

Style boards are popular with designers of all backgrounds (interior design, graphic design, event design, etc), and Pinterest has become the go-to research tool designed for finding and pinning images together in one place.

Style boards aren’t just for your visual design though. They can help communicate website functionality, event themes, or campaign ideas – and are far more effective for visual designers (like me!) who work best from an aesthetic example.

At the start of every branding project, we use style boards to make sure we’re on the same page with our clients. And you’ll have a huge advantage if you’ve already put together a style board together! I’m always surprised at how well this process brings together abstract ideas and helps us start on the right foot.

Follow my 3-step process to create a magical style board for your next project:

1. Start with descriptive keywords.

Highlight 5-10 keywords that reflect how you want donors to feel when they interact with your design, campaign, or event. These keywords set the direction for your visual style and will inform your image search. Here are some descriptors to help get you started:

  • Artistic
  • Balanced
  • Bold
  • Bright
  • Calm
  • Collaborative
  • Creative
  • Curious
  • Decisive
  • Driven
  • Earthy
  • Energetic
  • Forward-thinking
  • Friendly
  • Generous
  • Grounded
  • Inclusive
  • Innovative
  • Modern
  • Optimistic
  • Organized
  • Perceptive
  • Passionate
  • Practical
  • Quirky
  • Resourceful
  • Supportive
  • Sustainable
  • Uncompromising
  • Understated
  • Visionary
  • Warm
  • Youthful

2. Next, place keywords into a grid.

 Try your best to place one descriptive word into each of the grid squares. Below is an example style board template I created to get you started, but Canva also has loads of style board templates as well!
Style board for Nonprofits

3. Finally, we’ll fill in the blanks using a variety of images, including colors, fonts, icons, textures, patterns, illustration style, photography, or website examples to bring the ideas together. 

Use the keywords you wrote down in Step 1 to find images or you can start with Pinterest boards I’ve curated based on brand personalities.

Get really specific with your search by matching up keywords like this:

  • Pair each of the keywords you wrote down with an element of design, like website, photography, texture, etc.
  • Search for: [descriptor] + [box]
  • Example: “artistic color palette” “earthy icons” “modern fonts” or “warm photography”
If you’re searching on Pinterest, take advantage of similar posts they’ll recommend under each image you pin. If the image you’re imagining doesn’t exist, use AI like Canva or Dall-E to generate it!
It’s important to note that Pinterest images are owned by independent content creators and artists, so do not share your Pinterest board publicly without citing the original creators. However, Canva images are all royalty free so you can share those images publicly – just don’t rip off any illustrations or design styles outright.
Use your style board to communicate more clearly with your creative contractors or keep new design projects on track. Sharing a cohesive style board will keep the vision in front of the team and keep all of your vendors on the same page.
P.S. If you’re struggling to get a design idea out of your head, start with a style board! It’s a great way to explore images that help describe the style you’re looking for without leaving it open to interpretation. This is the exact process we use at the start of every branding project we work on at HeartSpark and it’s a great way to make sure our team understands what clients are looking for! If you need some help diving in, start with this free style board template I made for you in Canva.

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