‘Sound Design’: What it is, and what it should be

What do you think of when you hear the term ‘Sound Design’? If you would have asked me this question two years ago my answer would have been “Acoustic feedback”. Sounds that the designer consciously applies to products to provide additional information about the actions of the product. Think of the shutter sound when taking a photo on your phone, or the beep of the coffee machine that tells you that your coffee is ready. It is generally taken for granted that mechanical and electronic products often also produce unintentional sounds.

Nowadays I have adjusted this view. My work at Sorama has made me painfully aware of the passive noise produced by the products in my environment, and the consequences that this entails.

”Environmental noise is among the top environmental risks to health”, reads this CNN article from 2018. “Excessive noise can affect blood pressure, hypertension and heart disease, which can lead to heart attacks and mortality from cardiovascular disease. Children’s cognition and health are also affected.”

Willemijn - sound design.jpgEnvironmental noise

Let’s take a moment, close your eyes and listen. Environmental noise is everywhere. The traffic outside, the ventilation of your house, even the fans of your PC. Imagine the difference if each one of these products produced a few less decibels. Which positive effects would this have on your wellbeing and emotions?

In my opinion, “Sound Design” is the fact that as a designer you are in control of the sound that your product produces. Consciously and unconsciously. In practice, we are not quite there yet. The awareness of unintentional noise and the knowledge of how to deal with it has not yet completely reached designers and product engineers. Often the acoustics of products are only worked on out of necessity. For example, when a new noise standard is introduced (e.g. heat pump) or if there are complaints from consumers. Even then, the goal is often to get below a certain decibel limit, rather than  make the product as quiet as possible.

Decibels or the character of sound?

What does that actually say, the decibel value of a product? It shows the maximum sound pressure – the volume – that a specific product produces. However, this says nothing about the character of that sound. Is this constantly present, or does it only occur in a certain mode? Think of a refrigerator that is not constantly cooling. How annoying does the noise sound? Different frequencies are experienced in different ways. We do not even notice very high or low frequency noise, but our pets and children may.

There are still some improvements to be made in the field of “Sound Design”. To begin with, in the way acoustics are included in the design process. But certainly also how the specifications regarding sound are communicated to the consumer. Which product from your surroundings do you nominate for a “Sound ReDesign”?

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