Gus Nisbet, Creative Strategist at international creative sound and music agency MassiveMusic uncovers sound’s crucial role in navigating our environment, and how we can use it to our advantage in everyday experiences.
All species use sound to communicate, from mating calls to warning growls. Universally, dedicated noises communicate and inform certain actions and behaviours. Humans are no different. We’re hardwired to pick up on sound cues to infer meaning about the world around us. Whether it’s a truck beeping, a kettle whistling, a ticket machine chiming, or the satisfying ‘whumpf’ of a luxury car-door closing, we’re constantly navigating the world around us through audio cues.
Enter the world of product sound; the highly engineered, painstakingly crafted microsounds that guide us through day-to-day interactions and experiences. From smartphone apps, to domestic appliances, to the sound-rich world of travel and transport. Ever noticed how when you put your car indicator on there’s a gentle clicking? Or when you’re allowed to take your seatbelt off on an aeroplane there’s a warm ‘ding’? We’re surrounded by carefully constructed, intricately designed sonic systems.
Brands have been harnessing the power of these sonic associations and strategically orchestrating the background noise of our lives for years. Apple, for instance, has some of the most iconic product sounds – I know that when I plug my iPhone in, I'll instantly hear the familiar noise letting me know it’s safely charging away. Even as they’ve added new features like Apple Pay, in recent years, they’ve cleverly accompanied new features with new sounds so they quickly become normal to us. Even the FMCG sector has been harnessing the power of sound for some time; sonic interactions such as opening a drinks can or rustling a packet of crisps have been intentionally engineered to provoke a response from the consumer.
But why? Firstly, it is practical in that it gives users feedback about an action or situation. Secondly, it has the ability to build brand recognition, impact perceived quality, and influence emotion. This is where the magic happens.
Let’s take a closer look at sound’s functional purpose, feedback. A specific sound could be a bright, positive tone conveying something has been achieved successfully, or that something is safe and working correctly; it could be an off-key, dissonant sound highlighting you’ve encountered an error or there’s a problem with the product or system; it could be a neutral buzz acting as a notification or denoting a state change. All these use-cases convey important information via ingrained musical associations to a user, allowing for a more pleasant, safe, and intuitive experience. In the case of our recent sonic branding work with Accuweather, UI alert sounds, derived from a wider sonic branding strategy, serve to warn smartphone users of incoming dangerous weather based on their geo-location.
However, there’s a fine line. Too much sound and the interaction becomes confusing, annoying, or even distressing, especially in our ever-increasing digital landscape. Just like visual design, negative space is an important consideration. Approaching product sound design with a ‘less is more’ philosophy allows key brand moments and important sonic cues to stand out. That’s why these sounds need to be crafted with care, precision, and a musical mindset. When done right, they should feel intuitive, harmonious, and make our cluttered world sound more pleasant. These microsounds can also take the strain off visual communication, which, with the rise of screenless devices (and our collective sense of screen-fatigue more generally), becomes an invaluable use-case. This also illustrates an important point about accessibility and inclusivity. If you have a product that solely relies on sight to use, then you’re excluding the visually impaired from interacting with it. Using a combination of sound and sight to drive a user experience can make a product more accessible.
So how do we craft these sounds with care, precision, and a musical mindset? First, let’s look at visual brand design systems. Effective visual systems have a set of predefined principles and style guides – colours, typography, layout are all separate elements that combine to create a cohesive visual style, no matter which touchpoint they are deployed. These elements are strategically chosen to reflect the brand values, enhance positioning, and support the overall tone of voice. Not only does this holistic approach create consistency and build recognition, it also injects personality, uniqueness and flair into communications.
Microsounds designed for user experiences should be crafted in the same way. By establishing a set of core sonic principles derived from the wider brand strategy, including things like timbres, instruments, motifs, and sound design, as well as rules and guidelines on how these separate elements should interact with one another, you can build a unique sonic world that is functional (provides feedback and guides experience) but is also pleasing and memorable. This allows users to associate a particular sonic aesthetic with an experience or product, and if the user is having a grand time, they’re going to create a positive connection between the sounds and the brand. And when used in conjunction with other brand assets (like visuals), these sounds can supercharge overall brand recognition and positive association. This is summed up neatly in the Philips sonic ecosystem we crafted, where their wide range of physical products each have unique but connected sounds to guide user experiences, all informed from an overarching sonic DNA.
All in all, it’s no surprise that sound fills our waking reality – it’s an ever-present hallmark of existence. But we have the power to shape it and harmonise it, to create a more pleasant everyday experience for all. As we step forward into more sophisticated digital worlds, immersive experiences and complex systems, sound should not only be practical, it should be thoughtful and inviting too. So, let’s curate our sonic landscape strategically, because, in the end, we’ll all benefit.