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Is digital mood boarding startup SampleBoard a threat to Photoshop?

Outside the world of design, the concept of “mood boarding” isn’t well known, and yet, it’s easy to acknowledge as something of value. Last year, a Google startup incubator awarded SampleBoard US$50 000 in seed funding and the tool is already a favourite among designers.

So, what is a mood board? Before beginning work on a design, a designer uses different mediums — text, pictures, and other objects — to create a physical or digital collage that represents the direction of style being pursued for a commissioned product. This type of collage is called a mood board, and SampleBoard, allows designers to create digital versions of them. Mood boards help clients visualise the designer’s ideas and ensures everyone is on the same page before product development starts. Based on the mood board, elements such as layout, fabrics and colour schemes for the product can be finalised.

If the design of Apple’s first Mac was being conducted by committee — yes, that’s the sound of Jobs stirring in his grave — designers would have done well to include pictures of beige coloured Braun products and Bauhaus architecture on their mood boards.

With her local and international experience as an interior designer, Cape Townian, Rosslyn Tebbutt, found “huge inefficiencies” in the way samples were sourced, collated and demonstrated when presenting to clients. “In a nutshell, the ‘traditional method’ of sample board sharing and collaboration is broken,” says Tebbutt. “The product sample management which includes the sourcing and storing of samples is outdated and inefficient as suppliers and brands have to provide physical samples which in turn the designers have to file in a physical library after a client presentation,” she continues.

Tebbutt points to location and travel arrangements designers and clients face to collaborate. This inefficiency makes the design process time-consuming and expensive. Design students also face challenges. “There are hundreds of online design institutions that require students to submit digital sample boards as part of their assignments. This requires the students to scan in samples and images to create a digital format,” she says.

Tebbutt noticed a growing number of online sample boards created on programs ill-equipped for the task such as Microsoft PowerPoint and Word. She describes her own initial workflow: “I scanned in fabric swatches, paint palettes, tiles and carpet swatches instead of using the traditional board and tape method, and started rendering and presenting my AutoCAD drawings electronically using Photoshop and PowerPoint.”

“I realised there was a gap in the market for web-based software that would amalgamate all the programs and methods I used, to make designing and creating sample boards faster, more effective and more professional looking, from anywhere in the world,” says Tebbutt

That’s how SampleBoard, an eco-friendly sample and mood board generator was born in 2010. SampleBoard helps you combine product images, fabric swatches, textures, colors, palettes and patterns to convey your design concept in the early stages of a creative project. With SampleBoard, Tebbutt aimed to lift the overall standard of design presentations, and promote interaction through collaboration functionality for design teams and social media. “Sample boards were being created in isolation. And as designers work on their own it allows limited inspiration and interaction with other designers,” says Tebbutt.

SampleBoard’s social aspect is intriguing. With its mood board tool at the center, SampleBoard’s social networking features enable designers to feed off each others ideas. Tebbutt thinks SampleBoard can be used to predict design trends and fashions.

SampleBoard’s Flash-based mood board editor has an inventory of about 30 000 product and industry specific images, and plugs into ColourLovers for colours, patterns or palettes. It also allows you to save images from the web, import images from Flickr, Picasa and Pinterest or upload your own. Through project and library folders SampleBoard serves as a type of organised online repository for your samples.

Designs can be exported to a computer, inserted into SlideShare.net, or shared via Email, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Flickr and Picasa. If marked as public, designs can be showcased to the community. We counted 133 public mood boards on SampleBoard at the time of this write-up. Fortunately privacy settings allow designs to remain private for those that value their intellectual property, privacy and client confidentiality.

As a Flash-based solution however, SampleBoard will work on a limited set of mobile devices. There are also bandwidth issues to consider if high-resolution images are a requirement, but considering SampleBoard’s user-base, upstream speeds are probably less of a concern. “Currently 99% our paying users are from the US, UK and Australia and the majority of our user base are located in the US and Australia,” says Tebbutt.

The SampleBoard team consists of Tebbutt and co-founder Paul Jooste, also an interior designer specialising in sales and marketing within the design manufacturing industry. Prior to starting SampleBoard, Tebbutt worked as an interior designer at Louis Karol Architects, one of the largest multi-disciplinary firms in South Africa and before that at Area Sq, one of the UK’s leading commercial interior design and fit-out specialists. She holds a national diploma in Interior Design from the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Cape Town.

Tebbutt sees herself as a “designer-founder” who guides the product and organisation through the full stack which includes user research, interaction design, information architecture, all the way to the interface, and everything in between.

SampleBoard’s revenue is subscription based. It offers a 14 day free trial with 3 plans available: US$5 Basic, $16 Premium and US$24 Pro. Apart from the seed round, SampleBoard has four other unnamed angel investors who are also shareholders together with Tebbutt, Jooste, Rosena MacFadzean and Andrea Bohmert.

While there are those that would argue that the tactile feel of samples remain important and that existing solutions for digital conversion and presentation — scanners, cameras and Photoshop for example — are adequate, the space is alive with competitors. Canadian Oilioboard competes directly with SampleBoard, while Polyvore, Pinterest, mydeco share some of SampleBoard’s features.

What about the future? Tebbutt and Jooste plan to capitalise on a data set that comes with having users in a niche industry and to become a legitimate competitor to image editing packages likes Adobe Photoshop, especially in larger organisations where the per user license model hurts the wallet.

There are also plans to form partnerships with online design institutions that would have their student base use SampleBoard as part of their curriculum.

Author Bio

Martin Carstens: Senior reporter
Martin is obsessed with technology and the future. His work life includes positions at UK based Hotcourses.com, Discovery Invest and currently, Memeburn. More

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