By Oleg Mokhov
Need some fresh inspiration? Listening to well-produced music can improve your design. Sometimes the best inspiration is found in something completely unrelated to what you’re doing. If yet another design book or article — or studying your favorite designs — isn’t helping much, listening to well-produced music can give you fresh, much-needed insight and greatly improve your design.
(Image by Joel Bedford)
Just like how performance garment manufacturers look to nature for ideas, or shoe makers study how animals run, so too can you take away lessons from how well-produced music is made and why it sounds the way it does.
Here are 5 ways listening to well-produced music can improve your design:
1. Don’t Overload With Too Many Elements
In music, there’s limited space. A 20Hz-20kHz frequency range, a stereo spectrum, and volume that can’t go too loud lest unpleasant-sounding distortion happens.
Each element of the tune takes up space in all 3 categories. By itself, a guitar or synth sounds clear has maximum impact – it’s the only sound playing, after all. But once you add some drums, then these two instruments share space in those 3 categories. Some of the impact of the guitar or synth was taken away by the drums. Throw in a bass, some harmonies, vocals or other lead hooks, and effects, and now all these parts are fighting for space – and each addition lessens the impact of all the existing sounds even more.
If you have too many sounds, you diminish the tune and make it messy.
A well-produced tune will not have any more instruments than needed to maximize the intended emotional, energetic, and musical impact. And it will have them all spaced out so no frequency, stereo, or volume range is overloaded with instruments.
Just like a tune overloaded with too many instruments becomes a mess and loses impact, so does a design with too many elements.
Having too many elements is a bad thing. Only include enough elements to make the desired impact – not a single element more.
(Image by Julian Kleyn)
As the overused yet true saying goes, too much of a good thing is bad. And, as another overused yet true saying goes, less is more. Don’t overload your design with too many elements and details. Have only the amount of elements needed to maximize your intended impact – not a single element or detail more. Remember: there’s limited space, and every new element takes away from existing ones.
The less elements you have, the more impact each one has.
- Keep It Simple, Stupid: Showcase of Simple and Clean Designs
- White Space and Simplicity: An Overview
2. Put the Focus On the Main Element
People are finicky creatures with short attention spans. Something has to really stand out and hook them in order for them to pay attention.
A well-produced tune takes into account that people’s ears can only focus on one thing. So it puts the focus on the riff, the vocals, the bass line – whatever the hook and main element is. The rest of the elements — the drums, harmonics, harmonies, effects, melodic flourishes — are mixed into the background, rightfully delegated to supporting role. It’s done so by lowering the volume of them in the mix, panning far left or right, or muting the brightness of the sound with an equalizer.
A well-produced tune knows that not elements can be equal. The focus is put on the main element of the tune, and the rest of the elements support and flourish it. Otherwise, the details distract from the main hook and diminish the impact of the music: the vocals, the riff, the melody, or the bass line.
And just how people’s ears can only focus on one thing, so do their eyes. To have maximum impact and catch people’s attention, you have to put the focus on the main element.
(Image by Julian Kleyn)
Not all of your design elements can be equal. If a design is a bunch of evenly-balanced elements with nothing standing out, then people’s attention is as good as lost. Put the focus on the main element, and have all the other elements and details support it by pushing them into the background. Any distractions from the main element will diminish the impact.
Otherwise, if the details distract from the main element, your design loses impact and people’s attention is lost.
3. Be Thematically Consistent
A well-produced tune achieves a certain balance, vibe, and direction with the sound: dark, roomy, airy, suspenseful, energetic, summery, oceanic, futuristic, chill.
All the elements — the tones, textures, notes played, effects used, lyrics — are thematically consistent with the intended sound.
You wouldn’t hear a bouncy banjo in a darker, moodier tune for example, unless it was delicately treated or ironically used to be consistent with the vibe (sort of how circus music can be creepy when certain notes are used – often heard in a horror or nightmare soundtrack). Do the same with your design: be thematically consistent.
(Image by Julian Kleyn)
In order to convincingly deliver an intended style, mood and emotional response, you need to have all of your elements be thematically consistent. Too disparate of elements, when combined, will be jarring and confusing to people.
Decide on the intended mood and emotional response you’re trying to create, and make your design consistent with it to convincingly deliver that mood and emotion. Everything should be aligned with the same direction: the font, color choice, effects, element arrangement, icons used, and even the copy (the “lyrics” if you will).
Otherwise, that unbalanced goth/rainbow/grunge/balloon design will confuse and turn away practically all people.
4. Make People Feel Ecstatic
A well-produced tune doesn’t just sound great – it makes people feel great. They’re not just listening but feeling ecstatic by the end of the tune. And they keep coming back for more. That’s why people often have their favorite tune/artist/album they put on again and again.
The reason well-produced music can make people feel great is because, as mentioned earlier, the intended emotional impact is at its maximum level. Plus, another part of a well-produced tune is the expert pacing and structure of the music. The momentum in the music makes the tune reach a certain point that absolutely gives people goose bumps and makes them feel ecstatic. This climax can be the final chorus in a song, the hands-in-the-air peak in a dance tune, the final glorious moments in a great groove, and so forth.
You can apply the same technique to your design. Make it a sheer joy for people to use it. Not just functional, but exciting or even fun to visit the website. Make people feel ecstatic.
That way, people will keep coming back for more.
(Image by Giorgio Montersino)
Apple gets it when it comes to their hardware (and their software). People get genuinely excited to just hold an iPhone in their hand – and once they start using the thing, they feel ecstatic. Notice how first-time holders of the device just tap and slide things just for the heck of it, with a big smile on their face.
With your design, that doesn’t mean adding bells and whistles or unnecessarily-flashy transition effects. It’s just about creating a striking visual appeal (as mentioned in the previous points), paying attention to the little details that’ll make people smile or laugh when they notice them, and making it not just functional but a sheer pleasure to use and browse around.
Assuming that the content is remarkable, if the design is enjoyable and fun enough to use, many people will want to keep using it just because of the design, creating that ecstatic feeling – no matter how big or small, but enough to warrant a return visit.
- Better User Experience Through Storytelling (Part One)
- Better User Experience Through Storytelling (Part Two)
5. Use the Right Tones and Rhythm
A dissonant combination of notes or sounds and a messy rhythm section can ruin an otherwise great tune. So well-produced music uses the right tones and rhythm to create the satisfying, ear-pleasing, and musically-intended tune.
Similar to point #3 of being thematically consistent, all the sounds in the well-produced tune use the right tones to harmonically gel, and the rhythmic patterns fit like the gears in a Rolex watch. And when it all works, the listener doesn’t even notice – like the best special effects. It’s only when something’s off that the ears perk up, and enough of those improper tones and rhythm can have the listener reaching for the ‘next’ button to skip the tune. The same applies to your design: use the right tones and rhythm.
In this case, tones = color tones and color schemes, and rhythm = vertical layout and typographic balance. You want all of them to be visually-pleasing and readable.
(Image by Julian Kleyn)
Just like how properly-tuned, harmonically-compatible sounds are combined to get the right tones (as well as the right notes played), and the properly-interlocked rhythm structure used in the groove to get the right rhythm, so too should you choose the right combination of color tones, and make sure the vertical layout and typography is properly spaced out for maximum readability and usability.
If an incompatible color scheme or combination of color tones is used, your design will look off. It might be a minor visual annoyance or flat out unpleasant to look at, but either could be enough for a person to want to leave and not return.
The same goes for vertical rhythm and typographic balance: if it’s hard to make things out, find something, or read the words, the person can leave out of annoyance or frustration.
Don’t make visitors hit the ‘close’ button – use the right tones and rhythm.
- Color Theory for Designers, Part 1: The Meaning of Color
- Color Theory for Designers, Part 2: Understanding Concepts and Terminology
- Color Theory for Designers, Part 3: Creating Your Own Color Palettes
- Designing With Grid Based Approach
Listening to Well-Produced Music Can Improve Your Design
Well-produced music is like a great design, just done in audio.
So next time you’re stuck on a design, put on music you think sounds great. You’ll get some new, much-needed insight on how to improve your design. You can even add that music to your workflow: have it play in the background while you work.
(Image by Alexandre Normand)
To recap, these 5 ways show how listening to well-produced music can improve your design by providing some fresh inspiration:
- Don’t Overload With Too Many Elements – too many details diminish the design and make it messy, so have only the amount of elements needed to maximize your intended impact.
- Put the Focus On the Main Element – to have maximum impact and catch people’s attention, put the focus on the main element and have the rest support it.
- Be Thematically Consistent – decide on the intended mood and emotional response you’re trying to create, and make your design consistent with it to convincingly deliver that mood and emotion.
- Make People Feel Ecstatic – your design should not just be functional but enjoyable, exciting, or even fun to use, increasing the visitors’ return rate.
- Use the Right Tones and Rhythm – choose visually-pleasing and readable color tones, vertical rhythm and typographic balance.
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