So you’ve created a knockout design—now it’s time to present it to your client. This is where mockups come in handy. A mockup is a full rendering of your design on one or more of the client’s products like labels, business cards, stationery and signage. A more complex mockup might show the client’s book on a bookshelf or in a reader’s hands, showing the world the product will inhabit.
All in all, it’s a first look at how the design will work for the client and their customers, and a realization of your brand vision.
Making an accurate mockup is important because it shows the client exactly what they can expect from the final product—provided the mockup’s done well. When a designer showcases an overly stylized mockup, the client gets a design deliverable that’s wildly different from what they expected. And if your mockup doesn’t accurately communicate the brand, it’s not planned out well enough.
All of this is why we’ve created this guide to help you understand the concept, technicalities and pitfalls associated with designing mockups.
Start your mockup early on in the design process
You should start designing your mockup the moment you start working on your design. By thinking about your design as an actual product in the real world through each draft, you save yourself the work of having to translate it to a functional product later.
If you’re designing a t-shirt, sketch it out on a human figure so you can see how your design will cling and stretch and drape on an actual human body. Now go a step further—what else are they wearing? Where are they wearing it? Why are they wearing it—is it part of a work uniform or is it something its wearer might dress up a bit for a night out?
The same principle applies for something like packaging: think about the materials that will be used in the packaging and how it will actually be structured. Who’s buying the product? Why did they choose it over a competitor’s product? What’s their lifestyle like, what do they care about, why are they loyal to this brand?
Not only will these questions help you make an effective design, they will give you a head start on envisioning your design in a real world context—important when it comes to curating images to use for the mockup later. Getting to know a product’s consumer demographic will answer most of your questions for you. After all, a brand that uses hemp packaging and natural dyes caters to a much different demographic than one that uses bright-colored plastic packaging. Get yourself into the consumer’s head. Your client is already in their consumer’s head, so meet them there with your mockup.
Choose the best tools to make your mockup
From a software perspective, there are several ways to make mockups. The most common is to make them from scratch using Photoshop, where you can manipulate images you own to show how your design will look on certain objects.
To get started, a rough overlay, using the Skew option (Edit > Transform > Skew) to fit the design over a 3D object, can be useful for a first pass at making sure the design works, that the text is readable and the image isn’t distorted by the product’s shape. With the basics out of the way, you can move on to more complex tools to build out a convincing mockup.
The techniques for creating mockup templates vary depending on the type of object (whether it is a flat surface, curved, wrinkled, etc), but for the most part, they all come to down to transform tools, blend modes and smart objects.
- Make your design a smart object first (Layer > Smart Objects > Convert to Smart Object). This will preserve your original image’s source content, allowing you to easily substitute one design for another and reuse your mockup template for future projects. Learn more about Smart Objects here.
- Use transform tools to rotate, skew and position your design correctly over the desired image.
- Select a blend mode from the upper left dropdown menu in the Layers Panel to mimic lighting and texture (which one you select will depend on the image in your particular document—Multiply and Overlay are generally good bets).
- Additional techniques such as painting, adjustment filters, and Photoshop effects like Liquify will make your mockup more convincing depending on the type of mockup you are designing. Check out this video for an in-depth tutorial for some of the extra tools available!
You can also use Photoshop Actions to speed up your workflow. With Photoshop Actions, you can record yourself creating the mockup step by step. After saving the steps into an action, you can apply them to new images over and over again to make new mockups at the click of a button. If you want to learn more about working with Photoshop Actions, check out this tutorial.
The simplest way to create a mockup is to use a mockup generator website. With these generators, you just load up your design and drag and drop it onto the object you want to mockup. As you probably expected, you have a lot fewer options when you make a mockup this way and your mockups are gonna look pretty generic. But that is a solution if you are looking for something extra quick.
Always make sure the photograph or Photoshop action you use is licensed for commercial projects. Otherwise, you’re committing copyright infringement. Learn more about how to use stock photography here.
Make presentation the focus of your mockup
Don’t mockup to mislead
It’s important to show a design in a variety of ways, but start with a flat image of the design so that the client knows what the actual design file will look like. Once you’ve nailed that, feel free to move on to a 3D rendering of a final product bearing the design.
You’re making the mockup to demonstrate exactly where your design fits into the client’s brand. Or if your mockup is their brand identity, how they’ll look in it. With that said, the underlying purposing of the mockup is to create an impression on the viewer, to showcase your full vision to the client without their having to take your word for it. Ultimately, you’re selling a design. But you’re not selling it directly; you’re showing the client what their future could be if they buy the design.
Make the mockup specific
It’s so important that you customize your mockup to the client as much as possible. Generic mockups look, well, generic:
These mockups are serving the purpose of making the designs look 3D, but they aren’t communicating much else to their prospective clients, besides a lack of brand thinking. It’s very easy to trade out one design for another, one company for another. There’s no depth here, only designs slapped onto walls that could be in any building, anywhere. Every company has a rich, unique culture, and an effective mockup extends that culture’s reach by showing where a new design fits into it. When your client looks at your mockup, they should say, “That’s us. That’s who we are. That’s what we need.”
Compare these with the design for Lalu Academia Des Artes on the right, and notice how much more effectively a customized mockup communicates what a design will look like on the client’s wall.
Although it’s another wall design mockup, it goes beyond generic mockups by placing the design into a specific and realistic environment. It shows students like the ones who attend the school and puts them in real-life scenes that play out everyday on campus: chatting in the hallway while others work in labs and leaning against the building’s exterior, watching the cars go by.
The ingredients of a great mockup presentation
An effective mockup doesn’t just make a design three dimensional—it brings a design to life. When you’re working on a mockup, keep the following tips in mind:
- Show the product in action. Think of it as a diorama featuring the product in its natural habitat.
- Keep the mockup focused. If you’re showing a building interior with your design on banners and signage, don’t distract the viewer with lots of clashing elements. Yes, your mockup can be populated with consumers, but they shouldn’t detract from the design you’re showcasing.
- Stay away from stock photos. They are not customized to your client and as a result rarely communicate designs effectively.
- Consider how the design might adapt to different settings throughout the brand design. Can you make a pattern out of it? Can the colors change?
- Showcase multiple, well thought-out mockup “scenes” featuring the design. This will flesh out your vision for the client.
A mockup can make a boring design look more interesting than it actually is. When you’re reviewing a mockup, make sure you look carefully at the flat design first to see if it really meets your expectations. This way, the actual design is anchored in your mind instead of the mockup, which can keep you from mentally excusing away poor design choices and elements that aren’t on brand because you’re excited about the mockup.
Mockup design is the start of a conversation, not the end
Hopefully by now you’ve upped your mockup game, but that doesn’t mean your work is done. No matter how great your mockup is, at the end of the day it is mainly a presentation tool. Your client might continue to have revision requests for the design itself or for how it looks in the renderings. This is why you share a file with the flat design along with your mockups.
A mockup is a way for everybody involved in a project to see where it’s headed and redirect it if necessary. The goal isn’t necessarily to deliver something the client will enthusiastically approve with no changes (though it’s nice when this happens!) but to get a conversation started that’ll lead you to a version of the design that fits what they’re looking for. Strong mockups make productive conversation possible.