This is the second article in the series A new era for audio. You can read part 1 here.
A design language for sound
Sound today is not only used as decoration for visual design. Following the introduction of smart products, voice assistants and podcast successes, sound today is more and more frequently operating solo. Without visual guidance from e.g. a screen, it becomes increasingly important that the sound design is both recognisable and understandable.
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.
Semantics’ role is to make the audio language understandable and logical. The parking sensor in your car is a good example of this.
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.
The second ingredient of the audio design language is timbre. The timbre is the sound character that plays out the semantics. Using the Morse code comparison again, these semantics can e.g. be played out as a beep, on a piano or any other timbre able to produce long and short notes. The choice of timbre also helps to set the mood - whether the sound should feel positive or negative, comforting or alarming, fun or serious, epic or intimate etc.
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
In UX sound design there are two types of timbre; skeuomorphic and tonal.
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
The choice of timbre is essential in order to make the audio language noticeable in the context it’s supposed to be heard. It can also add emotions and texture to a brand identity or the experience you’re creating. When IKEA launched its app IKEA Place, Plan8 was assigned to design the sound. Inspired by IKEA’s heritage in wood we decided to explore timbres from wooden materials.
..and down the line it resulted in this:
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
Finally there are a few general principles when designing sound for products or experiences. We call these design principles “POUND”.
- 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
Plan8 operates in the intersection of audio, emerging technologies, advertising and art. We help clients make their products, experiences or entire brands communicate more effectively through remarkable ideas and purposeful audio design.
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.