Product Sound: Curating Our Soundscapes

As brands embrace sonic branding and sound design for their products, is the world becoming louder?

I recently had the opportunity to be interviewed for the California Sunday Magazine  issue dedicated to sound and had a great conversation with the author Jack Hitt about sonic branding and the impact of using sound for products and brands. We had a long conversation about the more technical side of what I do as a sound designer, but what stuck with me the most was the more philosophical conversation about the past, current and future soundscape of the world that surrounds us. As new technologies and products are entering the market place at an unprecedented rate is the world becoming louder?

Sound has always been a part of the product experience. Whether it be an alert based sound, think ringing telephone, or a mechanical based sound, think the dial on an old telephone, sound has served a functional purpose of grabbing a users attention or reinforcing an action. As technology has advanced, engineers have been able to get rid of most mechanical noise made by products and the alerts and sounds that were once purely functional are now more curated and customized to the product or brand. What was once a really loud buzzer to signal that your laundry was dry can now be a much softer sound that won’t make you jump out of your skin. The ringtones and alarms of yore all sounded the same and tended to be extremely loud and obnoxious for their purely functional purpose, but now can be customized to the user or the brand. Even car engine sounds are changing. As EV’s become more prevalent, the soundscape around traffic is changing and has the opportunity to become more unique and potentially… wait for it… quieter (more on this in a future article).

Over the last several years, the interest and demand of using sound as a more strategic component to branding has increased dramatically. In the past, sound branding was just seen in the form of the sonic logo, see Intel Inside or THX. Today, brands are starting to understand the value of sound branding for their products. Plus, with the advancement of voice user interfaces, ui sound will grow in demand due to the lack of visual interfaces that guide users through experiences.

As this growth in demand is happening, I’ve become more and more aware of how important it is for sound to be used judiciously in product experiences. As new products enter the marketplace, population increases and consumption grows, it seems inevitable and logical to think that there would be an uptick in sound. This could very well prove to be true if not approached correctly and this is why it is more important now than ever for brands to be thinking strategically about curating the sound for their product experience. What should designers and brands be asking and considering in order to create an effective sound experience that won’t add to the noise?


Less is Often More

People are very sensitive to sound — the last thing you want to do in a product experience is paint it with sound. Overusing sound will create an annoying user experience that increases ear fatigue and actually makes it less effective. The key word here is Strategic — using sound in products needs to be a very strategic process. Sound is the spice in the mix that should add a layer of depth, not call too much attention to itself.

Have a Point of View

Having an established point of view for the sound experience is super important when trying to distinguish one product from another. Designers initially need to get well acquainted with the brand through creative and brand briefs, but it’s also very important to understand the competitive landscape in order to identify areas where you can stand out. As sound is becoming a larger part of the product experience, it is going to be ever more important to do the due diligence up front to make sure that the experience is on brand and also distinct from others in the marketplace.

Cohesion to the Overarching Brand Experience

Using sound in a strategic way for products opens up a great opportunity to make the experience more holistic from a brand perspective. What is the design aesthetic? What are the brand principles? What is the roadmap for future products and how can you harmonize the experiences? Try to find key moments that you can lean on in order to align the visual and sound experience to enhance the overall brand narrative.

How Will the Sounds Scale

When creating sound for a product, the team should consider how the sound experience will translate outside of this specific context. Hopefully, the brand will be able to use some of these sounds for marketing purposes for television and web content, so it is important to think about how these might sound outside of the product experience. These sounds also might scale across products if you’re working with a brand that has many current products or products in the pipeline. Designers and brands need to consider those playback systems and ask the question of how can they maintain a quality and cohesion across multiple touchpoints and products.

What is the Analog

Typically, the classic sounds that accompanied products were purely functional or mechanical sounds that gave us information (think the click when you take a photo). If there is an instance in a classic product experience that has always had a sound associated with it, it might be good to recreate some type of feedback, whether it be visual, audio or haptic, in its place. This way you know intuitively that something has occurred. Looking for the analog is often a good start when creating a scope of work for sound design.

Invest in Optimal Hardware

It’s always a bit disappointing as a designer to go into a meeting with a company who has grandiose ideas of a rich sound experience only to go with the cheapest, most low fidelity option of hardware. Of course as a designer, you take it in stride and create the best experience you can given the limitations. These limitations help to shape the design, so it’s very important to understand the constraints early on and communicate that to the brand so they have an understanding of what to expect. Over the last several years, this has gotten much better — just look at the difference between an old iPhone 5 and the current iPhone or the speaker systems in laptops and tablets. I expect this to continually get better, but it’s important that brands and sound designers be realistic on what can and cannot be done with cheap hardware.