SVA MA Design Research

SVA MA Design Research, Writing & Criticism1 is a one-year graduate program2
devoted to the study of design, its contexts & consequences.
Our graduates have gone on to pursue research-related careers in publishing, education, museums, institutes, design practice, entrepreneurship, & more.3

  1. Formerly known as D-Crit
  2. About the program
  3. Applications accepted on a rolling basis. All successful candidates awarded a significant scholarship!
SVA MA Design Research

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Designing Sound: Aural Agency in the Twenty-First Century – SVA MA Design Research

Stephanie Coffee

Designing Sound: Aural Agency in the Twenty-First Century

The NBC chime is the first aural logo.

NBC Studios

Alessi Whistling Bird Kettle (1985), Michael Graves 

Michael Graves & Associates

Industrial designers created a list of descriptors that could fit the “personalities” of sounds. In total, around 25 pairs of polarized descriptors were generated. Examples include masculine and feminine, strong and weak, intense and subtle, dirty and clean, cold and warm, and modern and traditional.

We all live bathed in non-stop sound.

Our ability to constantly systematize aural stimuli is innate and incredibly powerful but it is often either taken for granted or disregarded completely, especially in industrial design. Within modern societies, sound’s power—albeit strongly “felt”—is difficult to specify empirically, as its status has shifted from active ingredient or animating agent to inanimate product. The failure to recognize the power of sound is due to an inappropriate model of conceptualization—sound is thought of as an independent stimulus, completely divorced from its circumstances of production, distribution, and consumption.

It is impossible to discuss the agency of aural stimuli when abstracted from their context of use. Art forms such as theater, film, and video games consider the emotional implications of select composed sounds carefully before implementing them into their respective formats. Why then, should the sounds that orchestrate our quotidian lives be considered any less?

In the late 20th century, digital memory and personal computer technology introduced the possibility of including pre-recorded sounds as part of an interface. As auspicious as this technology is for the field of interaction design, the power to distribute sound into virtually any device brings with it specific challenges and obstacles. With respect to the ways in which we listen to sound, a surplus of non-actionable sounds in any given environment interferes with our reactions and serves only to annoy and distract us. In some cases, the discordant or otherwise “ugly” acoustics of an industrial design can interfere directly with its functionality far more than other aesthetic faux pas, much like the ham-handed application of a garish typeface.

Designing the aural aspects of a product is a natural extension of experience design, but since audio feedback is rarely composed with respect to how and in what contexts the user will be listening to it, the sounds produced by products are usually relegated to the simplistic, binary role of delivering affirmative feedback exclusively. The results are notorious: car alarms that yell at us hysterically, appliances that beep unintelligibly and cellular phones that chirp botched versions of pop hits.

When sound is used semiotically, or in the absence of human presence, it is necessary for designers to decide exactly what the sound will communicate to the user and what sonic properties will be required in order to fulfill this purpose.

In the 1920s, musicologist Paul Nettl divided music into the following categories: music that accompanies something else, utilitarian music (Gebrauchsmusik) and music to be listened to for its own sake, or freestanding music (Eigenstandige). Even at this early juncture in the age of technology-bound sound, different ways of listening were being stratified. Music theorist Anahid Kassabian discusses what he calls “inattentive engagement” and argues that the kind of distracted listening that occurs with utilitarian music still conditions our subjectivity with respect to the musical minutiae imbedded in industrial designs, and should not be disregarded.

In his book, Designing Pleasurable Products, design strategist Patrick Jordan places the types of sounds used in current products into two categories: signal and identity. Signals give users cues about the state of a product: the sound of a jar lid popping indicates that the food inside is factory fresh, the roar of a car engine indicates that a vehicle has started up. These examples refer to the natural or “consequential” sounds that a product makes simply as a result of being in a particular state. As implied, artificial, or “added,” sounds are attached to announce that something has occurred within the product, and this occurrence usually requires some sort of reaction from the user. The whistler on a teakettle, for instance, tells the user that the water has boiled and the tea is ready to be steeped. Certain designs make a series of successive sounds that change in order to signal that different processes within have occurred and these events may require the user’s attention; imagine a stove with a timer that plays a warning beep one minute prior to completion and a different beep, or series of beeps, upon completion.

The creation of cacophony is one potential hazard when sound is not standardized across a family of devices, but just as significant is the fact that we listen to alarming sounds, like those created by the motor or horn of a car, differently than we do other non-threatening, more instructive sounds. Although we don’t often hear them regularly in their original modality, historical acoustic sources of sounds (such as whistles, church bells and train horns) are still very much with us, so much so that we often think about and define modern digital sounds metaphorically in terms of their old counterparts.

To produce sound sans electricity, objects must be activated manually in order to vibrate and create resonance. Old air raid sirens, church bells and organ pipes were designed based on the energy one person could deliver by cranking, shaking or blowing. Electrically charged designs still work with the same sound activation principles in mind. A mechanical telephone would receive voltage, providing just enough power to repeatedly slap a tiny hammer against a metal bell to produce a ringing sound. The archetypical telephone ring was designed to produce the maximum sound pressure level in the air from minimum voltage; sound quality was entirely dependent upon how these historical sounds were produced. The formal properties of these early sounds were based exclusively on the engineer’s aesthetic, where the focus was on producing an energy efficient signal rather than a miniature composition.

During the 20th century many of the sounds we still hear in designs today were codified. We’ve grown so accustomed to hearing certain sounds in certain contexts that we react in a Pavlovian way. If designers were to completely overhaul established acoustic systems, especially in alarm devices, they would run the risk of disrupting our very delicate response system. Changing ritualized behavior can sway a person’s sense of equilibrium and create cognitive dissonance. This does not mean that sound systems are completely inflexible; in fact, subtle compositional changes to the familiar beeps and chirps in many devices can communicate very specific information to the user and, in turn, improve its usability.

In a 1998 study, Patrick Jordan addressed these potential communication difficulties using an approach wherein the designers involved learned to “sonify” metaphorical information. Industrial designers created a list of descriptors that could fit the “personalities” of sounds. In total, around 25 pairs of polarized descriptors were generated. Examples include masculine and feminine, strong and weak, intense and subtle, dirty and clean, cold and warm, and modern and traditional.

Surprisingly there was a high level of agreement about the descriptors that applied to a particular sound. Researchers at Delft University’s Sound Design program refer to this type of adjective-bound composing as “audiolization” or “acoustic sketching.” Elif Özcan, a researcher at Delft, likens this process to visual sketching and suggests that linking an abstraction, like sound, with semantics can make an immaterial concept more tangible. It is often difficult to pin down in terms of formal properties exactly what it is that makes a sound appealing or distressful. For example, it’s not easy to articulate why you may prefer the Beatles to the Rolling Stones in terms of the formal properties of the music they make. However, it is easier for people to describe music in terms of its experiential properties—or its personality.

As a primer to her process, Özcan asked what physical features of a product could evoke friendliness:

Designers could use rounded shapes, bright colors that do not hurt the eyes, or softer materials in order to evoke friendliness. Using this idiosyncratic approach, designers could search for a bath duck with a squeaky sound, cat bells for their jingly sound, or a wooden wind chime for its full, round sound. Then, they can analyze the spectral-temporal content of the material collected and come up with physical sound descriptions: so in this case, we can understand that friendliness for sound means overlapping, repetitive sonic events with a rather high-pitched sound that has a short round envelope.


After using a similar audiolization procedure with their set of 25 adjectives, Jordan’s team applied the appropriate sounds to their chosen design, a sandwich maker. The designers imagined the following scenario to understand how this device would actually interact with the user in a realistic domestic setting: a person sits in his or her living room watching television, while the sandwich maker toasts bread for a mid-show snack. Three different sounds representing three different phases of the cooking procedure are implemented: one corresponds to the machine starting, one to the toast being browned and one to the toast being burned. The personality of the sound started as friendly and informative but grows increasingly stern and authoritarian as the snack starts to burn.

Jordan’s team was aware that as the product was associated with food preparation, the toaster should have modern, calm and clean experiential properties. So in this case, as is the case with most sonified designs, the sound had three purposes: as a signal to inform the user of the state of the product; as a navigating sound to inform as to the degree of doneness; and as an identity sound, to indicate cleanliness, hygiene and efficiency. While not technically complicated, these subtle variances in tone and frequency can communicate specific information to the listener, and in turn, these sounds may be perceived as a necessary element of the physical design instead of an ancillary embellishment.