Speaking volumes: Using design to convey your message

Sean Kirkpatrick

The ultimate purpose of design is to communicate ideas visually to an audience. Sure, you can slap down some pre-written text then add a nice graphic and call it a day, but when you really want your message to hit home it’s important to make sure the volume of your message is set at the right level for whom it’s being communicated.

speaking volumes

The term ‘volume’ may seem a little abstract, but when you think of it in a literal sense, say TV commercials, you may begin to see how it can also be applied to design. Closing down sale at a carpet warehouse? Shout at your audience! Get them all riled up and psyched for the crazy discounts that must end this weekend! A new brand of rash-prevention cream for newborns? Speak soft, be calm, caring and understanding of the delicate love for your audience’s child.

These methods are just as important in a visual design medium, and here are just a few tools you can use to ensure your message is being communicated at the right level:

1 Contrast

Contrast refers to the comparison of opposites. Black is the contrast to white, hard is the contrast to soft. The level of contrast in a design is relative to how successful the design will be at leaping off the page. Note the following examples:

Contrast1

The image on the left has a low contrast value, consisting of two shades of grey that are fairly similar to one another. It is soft and unobtrusive. While It may not catch your eye as much as the other image, if your message is something that requires an understated tone such as a wedding invitation or an album design for an acoustic folk duo, you could be bang on the money by using soft contrast.

The image on right has a high contrast value, consisting of black and white; as far away from each other as you can get on the colour spectrum. It is loud, bold and draws our attention right away. High contrast is useful when your message needs to be delivered as fast as possible, or to catch the eye of a passer-by. This is evident in New York’s famous Times Square, which is filled with loud billboards using bright lights to contrast against the dark night sky, all competing for your attention.

2 Color

Look no further than the 1980s to find the perfect example of loud colours.

Color

While it may seem a tad cheesy now, there is no doubt that the bright fluro of this era really grabs your attention. High saturation and complimentary colours are perfect for loudly projecting your message. Beware of being too loud, however, as too many bright saturated colours can sometimes cause eye-strain for the viewer.

Colour2

Alternatively, low saturation pastel colours and tones (light and dark shades of a single colour) are useful in creating a soft calming mood. This is why light blues and pale pinks are used in a lot of baby products, while sports supplements and supplies will often employ saturated, loud colours to create a sense of energy and excitement.

3 Scale

Large content = Loud message. Small content = Soft message.

Scale3

This may seem like an obvious one, but all too often scale is needlessly abused just to fit more design onto a page. Don’t let your ego get carried away with you. Sometimes blank space can be your friend, especially if you already have your audience’s attention — a page in a magazine for example — and want to pull them in closer for a softer, more intimate delivering of your message.

You wouldn’t want big bold letters shouting at you about the intricate process of what your coffee beans went through before they ended up in your cup when you’re just trying to relax, just as you wouldn’t want tiny lowercase letters on a music festival poster making it a less exciting affair that your favourite band is coming to town; or worse, not realising that they’re on the bill!

Acknowledging these three principles when creating your designs can help give your message the justice it deserves. Remember that you don’t always need to shout to deliver an idea effectively, but that speaking too softly in the wrong context can cause your message to go unheard. Respect your target audience and consider what volume would most cause them to pay attention.