What is Sound Design?

Sound design is the art and practice of creating, collecting, adapting, and producing audio elements. Like any other type of design, sound design is a process that involves turning an idea into an outcome. What makes sound design different are the tools used in that process. Whereas a graphic designer’s toolkit includes typography, images, and colors, the essential tools for sound designers are music, voices, and sounds.

In certain industries, like film, radio, and video games, it is taken for granted that sound design is integral to developing the narrative. Sound design is strategically employed to demarcate time and space, evoke emotion, create mood, and intensify action.

Thanks to the burgeoning field of sound studies, today, the importance of sound in almost every aspect and realm of human experience is being increasingly understood. With its power to affect setting, provoke feelings, and create memories, sound has been elevated from an afterthought to a cultural artifact worthy of study. By turning a critical lens to sound, we can better understand what it does – how it affects us and compels us to act. From that understanding, we can begin to imagine how we can better design sonic experiences both for today and in the future.

Sound design and emotion

Our individual emotional conditioning causes each of us to respond differently to certain sounds. For some, the sound of water rushing over rocks causes a feeling of calm. For others, water noises cause annoyance at a lack of nearby restroom facilities or incite fear as memories of a childhood canoeing accident flood in.

Despite discrepancies tied to an individual’s memories or ephemeral experiences, sound research confirms that certain sonic expressions almost always provoke similar feelings across listeners. In Western musical theory, for example, the major scales are typically described as having a bright and cheery sound while the minor scales are attributed qualities like dark and sad.

Marketers have long used music to provoke feelings that they want consumers to associate with their brand. Seminal sound research on music, mood, and marketing by Gordon C. Bruner II confirms such marketer’s intuition – demonstrating that music not only evokes affective, but also behavioral responses in consumers. Many companies, however, want the feeling of their brand to resonate beyond the point of purchase, and are turning to sound design to incorporate other sonic elements as part of the emotional experience of their brand.

Extending Bruner’s logic from music to the entire sound experience, the sonic branding industry has proliferated in the past decade. Such companies develop brand assets such as audio logos, original music, and sonic brand strategies, which include recommendations for video voiceover actors and music partnerships. With teams comprising sound researchers, strategists, composers, sound designers, and others, sonic branding companies use sound to amplify consumers’ emotional associations with branded places and products.

Sound design and memory

Many disciplines attempt to understand memory. From individual, autobiographical memory to the collective memory of a group or culture, people hold onto experiences that are both positive and negative. Memories are a way to link our past with our present, they help us understand a sense of self and belonging within our social world. We connect the sounds to emotional moments, which develop into memories that have the power to bring us back to a particular time or place. The sound of a drill may make you rub your tongue against your teeth, remembering a particularly unpleasant trip to the dentist while the sounds of bacon in the frying pan or dishes being placed on the counter remind you of the leisurely weekend breakfasts of your pre-children life. Saying that sound grounds us to spaces, means that it also helps cement us in a moment. It helps you remember moments, establishing a connection that is stored in your mind and recalled when heard again.

Branded sounds can help to pull customers back to moments in time with certain products or services. Using the newest Nokia phone but listening to it play the classic Nokia chimes conjures the memory of your first indestructible brick of a cell phone. That tone transcends the customer’s momentary interaction with the product, pulling the consumer-brand relationship through the decades.

Sound design and place

When we think about places, we often imagine how they look, function, and the social interactions that occur within. All of our senses are at work when we take in both new and familiar places. The sounds of a place, whether designed or ambient, are an important part of a holistic landscape. Both social and biological, sound helps connect us to physical spaces, and through listening and hearing, people build relationships to the physical world around them. Think of the sound of milk being steamed in your local coffee shop. Outside of this space, the pitchy sound of swirling milk would be out of place, but here, it seems to blend in.

Sound is visceral – it influences how we behave, interact, and feel about our overall experience in a place.

Soundscapes help root a person in a location but they can also alienate us from them. A poorly designed environment shapes the way we take in sound. Bad acoustics in a restaurant can ruin a night out, just as a waiting room that sounds like an echo chamber can feel cold and impersonal. By making purposeful decisions about the soundscape of their brick-and-mortar spaces, brands can curate the emotional, and potentially memorable, impressions that they desire for their customers.

In sum

Good sound design has the ability to create sonic experiences that are not just aesthetically pleasing, but also purposeful. For brands, using strategic sound design can extend branded product and service experiences beyond the visual realm. Because sound is strongly linked to emotion, a product that emits appealing sounds is more likely to strike a chord in the hearts of users. Since sound has the power to set the tone of how customers feel when they’re in a store, it can subtly affect purchasing behavior. And as memories can be both created and elicited from auditory experiences, skillful sound design contributes to the consumer’s lasting impression of a brand. With such compelling reasons, it’s not surprising that many brands are now considering how the sound of their brand can be designed to create a more holistic and lasting brand experience.

the author

Katie Hill

Katie Hill is a resident ethnographer at Idea Couture.

the author

Kate McDonnell

Kate McDonnell is an ethnographic analyst at Idea Couture.