A new era for audio — part 2

This is the second article in the series A new era for audio. You can read part 1 here.

A design language for sound

Colors, fonts, icons etc. make up the design language that helps us understand and recognise a product visually. There is a similar concept for audio. When creating a design language for sound there are two key ingredients to consider; semantics and timbre.


When using the parking sensor we immediately learn that the distance between the notes relates to the distance to objects around the car. The audio semantic, the tempo of the beeps in this case, makes the user experience completely intuitive.

Another common audio semantic is pitch. Similar to using the color green in visual UX-design, a pitch going upwards commonly indicates a “positive feedback” such as on, start, yes, add, confirm, connected etc…

…while a pitch going downwards creates a “negative feedback” such as off, stop, no, remove, disconnect, error etc, similar to using the color red.

Common semantics besides pitch and tempo are dynamics, motifs, the number of notes or note value(duration) such as in Morse code. In Morse code the combinations of long and short notes represent letters and meanings, e.g. “short-long-short” for letter R. With this approach the audio language can function as a system where “building blocks” are combined into various messages.


A central role for the timbre is also to create recognition. Listen below to the very first note of a famous hit-song from the 80’s.

Even though the sound clip above doesn’t reveal any melody, rhythm or harmony, you may recognise the timbre and can identify the song only by hearing the first note.

Two types of timbre

Skeuomorphic sounds can be explained as a “real-world representation” of what something sounds like, such as when you empty the trash on the computer or the sound of a shutter when you’re using the camera on an iPhone.

The second type of timbre is tonal sounds. These sounds are more abstract and we have to learn their meaning, e.g. that the tone below means we‘ve got a new message.

Tap on wood

In the recording studio exploring the sound of wood for IKEA.

..and down the line it resulted in this:

Credit: IKEA, SPACE10, Norgram, Sander Van Dijk and Plan8

Sound helps to make an app more tactile. The fact that phone and tablet surfaces are made of glass doesn’t mean it always need to feel like that using them. Why not tap on wood, swipe on paper or zoom on rubber? Well-crafted audio instantly makes an app interface feel more human and delightful. It can also be used to make on-boarding feel quick and easy, make stats entertaining or to make rewards feel more rewarding.

General design principles

- When sound lacks purpose, people usually find it annoying and turn it off. To avoid that, be sure to clarify why, how, where and when sound is beneficial to your product, experience or brand. Not only will that benefit your design, it will benefit our society.

- Your sound should not be mistaken to come from someone else. Blindfold a panel and test that your product or band audio is own-able.

- For sound to make sense without visual guidance it needs to be understandable. Clarify what you wish people to feel, think, say or do when hearing a certain sound. Test that your semantics and timbre have the desired effect!

- Sounds played in big PA-systems need a different treatment from those to be played in a small device. Are you designing a sublime ambience or a fire alarm, for closed head-phones or speakers in an open area? Knowing your context is king!

- There are sounds that people mute immediately and there are sounds they want to hear again and again. Certain audio has that x-factor and just sits right. Maybe these sounds has a strong purpose or surprise you in a good manner? Maybe they remind you of something nice from the past or transform a dull surface into something tactile and interesting?

Plan8 is a design agency, for music and sound

We are a team of music composers and sound designers, strategists, technologists and visionaries sharing the love for innovation as well as the belief that it’s about time to transit some of the attention burden from our eyes to our ears.

Founded in 2008. We have offices in Stockholm and Los Angeles and work globally.



Plan8 — a design agency for music and sound.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store