Turning up the volume in design can sometimes create noise rather than beautiful music.

Move #9 in a series of “9 Best Moves” to achieve development goals and maximize fundraising success.

I love loud music and have been playing guitar and involved in bands most of my life. On one occasion, I was helping a well-known band with their sound system prior to a performance. I had played through this particular sound system in the past, but never heard it sound as amazing as it did that night. Ryan, the band’s sound guy, was obviously a real pro. I asked him how he was able to make it work so well. He explained that, in this particular venue, sound quality had everything to do with the competition between the volume of the musicians’ stage speakers (monitors) and that of the main theater speakers.


When band members have a difficult time hearing what they are playing, they typically ask the sound engineer to increase their personal volume. With each band member fighting for volume, the result is a very loud, unpleasing, ear-ringing stage sound that, in worst case scenarios, even requires the main house speakers to be turned down in order to compensate for the ear-bleeding volume.

Ryan’s solution was brilliantly simple. When the guitarist wanted to hear more of himself in his stage monitor, Ryan would ask, “What are you hearing too much of?” Ryan would then turn down the offending instruments to the point the musician was satisfied with what he was hearing. Applying this concept to all the band members’ mix would effectively lower the overall stage volume and give the main house speakers the freedom to do their job, providing the best sound and presentation to the audience.

Design for your audience.

When it comes to design for nonprofit organizations, be it a website, brochure, ad or (fill in the blank), we want our audience to cheer, sing along and ultimately shout, “Encore!” This happens when the emphasis is placed on the audience first and foremost. Even then, sometimes we designers are tempted to use stylistic tricks to add emphasis that unfortunately create visual noise.

Turn down the volume to help them “hear.”

One easy example — let’s say you’re using drop shadows behind text that is placed over an image. I see this happening all the time. Sometimes it works fine. But often the drop shadows impair communication, much in the same way stage volume compromises musicality in the theater. In a situation like this, rather than adding a drop shadow, a better approach would be to ask yourself, “What elements can I de-emphasize in order to make this text communicate better?” Perhaps removing elements or toning down a color from the photo would help. Ask yourself, “What can I get rid of to solve the problem?” rather than, “What can I add?”

So, the next time you hear the phrase “make it pop” in reference to design, go ahead and roll your eyes. Then consider the opportunity you have to simplify your design by de-emphasizing or turning the volume down on other elements that are vying for attention. Clear, simple, honest design is the key to effective communication.

Doing this will rock your audience and keep them coming back for more.

Read: Best Move #8: Weave a terrific tale.