Essentials of Lighting Design – By Arnoldo Offermann

August 23, 2013 by Dan Walsh


When I wrote July’s article, “Essential DJ Tech Skills,” our super-cool-awesome editor, Dan, told me it was a tad too long. Trimming this article stabbed my heart as the portion that was trimmed was about DMX lighting.  I begged and pleaded, but not even my Hispanic packing skills could get the point across without forcing text into someone’s advertisement… and advertisers don’t like that. Hahaha.

So alas, Dan suggested I just expound that piece into an an entire article. That was my V8 moment: Of course! I love to talk about lighting design—I’ve done entire seminars about it. As a matter of fact, at the last Vegas show, my “Getting the Most Lighting Excitement out of Your Lights” seminar (sponsored by ADJ) had a nearly-packed house and went 30 minutes longer than planned. So let’s talk about the ESSENTIALS about lighting…

You need to separate the essentials into two tangible categories: lights and control. After all, you can’t design without some sort of light; likewise, there has to be some sort of control, DMX or otherwise. First, take a look at your lighting arsenal and ask yourself “What can I do with this?” While a common mistake I’ve seen is that not enough thought was put out into bringing the right kind of lighting fixture, the biggest mistake I’ve personally seen is wanting to buy more without using what you already have. Quantity of lighting is not important here, as I’ve lit up entire dance floors with only two lights; but knowing what you have—and what you can do with—it is key.
Let’s separate the lighting by four types, shall we?


This is the foundation of ANY light show. You’ll notice most high-end venues or theatres spend more money on floods than anything else. A good flood sets the mood for the night and can be used as a wash or an uplight. Ultimately, if you have ZERO floods, you need to get some, stat. I don’t care what your market knows about lights- be a trailblazer or catch up; don’t stay in the middle. Floods consists of a pars, linears, or cyc lights. Balance and understanding how your flood distributes light are key. If you only have 25º fixtures and they’re only 10′ off the floor, you’re going to have a bunch of hot spots on the floor and you’ll feel like you need several lights to create a vivid wash over the entire floor. At this point, I urge you to look into diffusion gels. (Wax paper doesn’t count.) I use the ADJ LSF diffusion gels and I can flood a dance floor of 600 to 800 students with only four pars. It may sound hard to believe, but if you watch my videos, you know I do it all the time.


This is a single light in the center of your show that becomes the star. Is it the disco ball? UFO effect? Maybe a laser? Whatever it is, it’s going to WOW people when it fires out. If it doesn’t WOW people, it’s not centerpiece-worthy! Centerpieces often look incredible with fog or haze. Speaking of which, are you able to use fog or haze?

If you can’t, then you’d build your light show differently from someone who can. Why would you use a moonflower with no haze? Sure, it can be done, but all you’d have is a bunch of colored dots moving around. When we can’t use haze, the BANG of the show comes in with…


This is a term I made up for scanners, movers, or any light that comes in pairs or more. These lights complement the excitement for which the floods have created a foundation, and hold the primary movement of the show itself. Careful programming must be done with these as these are the lights the crowd really notices while dancing. Again, use of particles can take these lights to the next level.


These can be the big money-makers of the night. These are the lights that often become upsells: high-powered lasers, black lights, strobes, gobo projectors, H2O effects, etc. These lights have a VERY specific reason to be there. Their purpose is specifically to create impact. Thanks to modern technology, a single light now has multiple uses; When we bought our LED strobes, we wanted them to be bright, wide, and allow solid-on with dimming. This has quadrupled their use by making them useful as regular stage washes as well. LED strobes were a joke not even three years ago, but this has quickly changed.


Next, you need to consider how you’ll hang the lights. While you could just get away with a T-bar, the goal is to make more money with minimal investment. Technology changes on lighting so much that it gets mind-blowing how much money you can spend on a lighting rig. However trussing doesn’t change. Truss is truss is truss. I can take the same light show on a 20′ span and put it in the center of the floor on a 40′ span and double the price of the rig. This is how 4SchoolsOnly blew up in the last two years. More and more schools are seeing the floor-standing arrays that engulf the dance floor and they want in on the action. We have many corporate clients wanting to incorporate the use of truss to bring attention to certain parts of the floor.

We still use Ts for satellite floods. These are floods that hit the wide areas that the general floods don’t, but without being in the way. Often, these are run wirelessly for easy repositioning.
When it comes to truss safety, common sense really comes into play. You need to understand the weight capacity of EVERY stand you use, but this becomes even more crucial when you are suspending hundreds of pounds above ANYONE’S heads—yours or your audience’s. No, you don’t need to become an ETCP-certified rigger, but you do need to understand why your system works the way it does and what the weight capacity is under various circumstances. Please, please, please don’t think you’re going to be able to change truss configurations and not your insurance. Don’t let this scare you, as the price isn’t bad at all. We pay right around $1,000 a year for insurance that covers our setups.

Trussing changes dramatically when it’s lit up, but with careful programming, the truss becomes PART of the show. Well-timed chases or fades can create a movement in your truss that transforms your dance floor into a mini-Coachella. There’s so much untapped potential here…don’t miss out!
Of course, like a computer, lighting is only as smart as the person operating. (We’re in trouble! Haha.). Without a shadow of a doubt, to get to a new level of lighting design, you need a good DMX board. Looking back, we did this all wrong; We went from a hardware DMX board to an entry-level software to a much more advanced hybrid system. Yes, one could say we purchased as we grew, but in the long run, the software I use now is easier for the average person to get started with and has enough features to overwhelm full-time lighting users. Take my advice: Do not buy entry-level because you feel you are just starting. Play with several software options (most software is free, you just have to buy the actual proprietary DMX dongle). Take the advice from people who’ve used more than one software piece and find something that you know you’ll be using for a while. When it comes to light show programming, nothing is more painful than starting over because you chose to get a new DMX platform.

So much can be done with the DMX software, including having multiple purposes for the same light. It opens up the chance for your lights to make you many times more the profit than originally expected. Think about it: your movers now become scanning effects, spotlights, pinspots, floods (depending on the light), architectural effects, or even uplighting. Yes, if you want to see something cool, take 8-10 movers and use them as uplighting. Precise programming would create something that would blow ANYONE away!

Tell you what: If you missed out on MBLV last year, you really did miss out. Last year, in my opinion, opened up so many people to becoming more than just the source of music. Remember that lighting can enhance the music and create an experience that stimulates all the senses. With that said, you can watch last year’s MBLV seminar for free! Just go to:

So take a good hard look at your lighting arsenal. Before you go out and buy new lights, look at what you have and ask yourself what you can do to maximize every lumen out of every light!


Arnoldo Offermann is the creator of the video series Master School Dances and author of R U Rockin’ with the Best?! He has helped DJs worldwide become market leaders in school dances. In a soft economy flooded with $500 school dance DJs, Arnoldo enjoys watching 4SchoolsOnly yield dances of 10-20x that price tag. Learn more about his wildly successful series packed with ideas that actually work at

Dan Walsh Dan Walsh (104 Posts)

Filed Under: 2013, Lighting for Mobile DJs