Here is the last post in my four part series on the Sound Portal, displayed in Trafalgar Square as part of the London Design Festival last month. The Sound Portal displayed five soundscapes created by five sound artists. This post talks about sound in design and audio branding.
In the previous posts I talked a little about my thoughts on the soundscapes and how these soundscapes relate to the human experience and how this might relate to design as well as audio branding. This week I’ll go into more depth on my thoughts about what these soundscapes can teach us regarding the use of sound in design and how sound can make any design brief stronger through audio branding (aka sonic branding).
The first piece contained a chanting, processed voice. Language was central here and it’s use had a calming effect that induced security; but what is interesting here is the language used wasn’t decipherable and the fact that the voice was so heavily processed further removed it from humanity. Even so, the brain could still make out that some form of talking was going on. The fact that meaning had been removed from the voice seemed to allow the listener to experience the calm, meditative effect of the chanting while still appreciating that the voice had something to say. This shows that sound only needs to seem like a voice for us to register it emotionally. This could be important in the same way that some TV and radio adverts use audio branding. Popular text message bleeps to activate our attention and awareness to make us more susceptible to receiving information. We are social animals and we like human contact, so the voice is emotionally stimulating to us; it just appears that content isn’t necessarily important to gain an emotional reaction. If we pick out the qualities of the voice that provide emotional reaction, maybe we can use them to add emotion to a work of sound. Of course, film sound designers have been doing this for years by creating evil voices that speak invented languages etc, but there could also be less obvious, more subtle applications that contribute to audio branding…
A couple of ideas stood out with the second soundscape. Firstly, the use of birdcall seemed to have a pleasant effect, even though the birds were caged. For some reason, the human brain responds well birdsong. You could say that this is due to melody but birdsong is still very pretty, or maybe even more so when there are so many birds that you cannot pick out individual songs. Again, what are the qualities of the sounds that evoke this emotional response? It could be said to be a product of evolution. Birds aren’t dangerous to us so we recognize their calls as comforting. If this is the case, then using ‘friendly’ animal noises in soundscape will produce favourable emotional responses. In terms of branding and audio branding, connecting positive emotion to a product helps people relate to that product, makes them more open to accepting it, and therefore increases the sale volume of that product.
The second idea that stood out here was the use of space and how this could be use din audio branding. During this piece, the soundscape moves through various spaces. On one level, as this happens, the listener gains a sense of journey as the scene changes, giving a sense of wonder and intrigue. On another level, the listener is moved through various sensations and emotions related to the spaces. Both ideas could contribute to audio branding. Think about how it feels to be in a large cathedral, a walk-in cupboard or on an open field; a sense of freedom and large space could be beneficial for somebody living in a small flat/apartment or a sense of coziness could be set up for those who want to get away from a sterile atmosphere. This could all be done purely in the audio realm, but space could also be manipulated by use of audio delivery – positioning of speakers, headphones, subwoofers could all be used to different affect. All could enrich audio branding.
Tom Jenkinson’s piece, talked about last week, used hardware as well as sound. A quirky, interesting use of speakers could add so much to audio branding; imagine hidden speakers giving out sounds every now and then, or even speakers that are activated when somebody sits in a chair, etc.
The soundscapes exhibited at the Sound Portal also used music to varying affect. As described in an earlier post, using musical instruments to make sounds that don’t follow the rules of music invites the listener to think about the piece as music; this could allow the listener to create their own meaning. Of course, this relinquishes some control of the experience to the listener and their memories, which isn’t right for every design situation, but when you know the tastes and experiences of your target market, this could actually work for the designer; music genre in adverts is always tailored to the target market. Of course, the rules will change if the sounds used only suggest music but a stimulus that provokes meaning will offer intrigue and deeper cognitive processing that will cement an atmosphere and it’s associations in the listener’s mind.
The use of actual music can have more subtle effects away from audio branding too; did you know that faster music is used to encourage people to act more quickly in a store with the goal of increasing sales? Obviously, this is to do with tempo and rhythm not the likeability factor of the popstar, therefore designers do not have to pay huge copyright charges to gain this particular effect. On the flipside of music, in other situations where less is known about an audience, simplifying delivery and removing idiosyncratic meaning from audio will make it more relevant to more people. Some sounds are pretty much universally recognised as they reference the world in general and not a particular lifestyle; birdsong, gentle waves on beach, wind, rain, heartbeat, breathing, a calming melodic hum made by a person, etc.
Although sound has been designed to meet a brief (arguably) since Walter Murch worked on Apocalypse Now the late ‘70s, there are various applications that you may not even know about: the spaces inside cars are designed with their effect on acoustics in mind, as well as the audio for indicator tick-tocks, the engine sound and even what noise the door makes when it is closed. Audio branding is a growing application: companies think about what sounds they want associated with their business to allow them to project the correct image. This includes the music used in adverts and call-waiting as well as the noises their websites and software applications make. Music can easily be used to target a particular audience – taste and consumer habits are related – but the use of sound outside the realm of music really taps into the psyche; the space the sounds are recorded and played back in, the physical qualities of the sound, associations between sounds and emotion, evoking memory with sound, etc, etc.
Sound has uses from being specifically tied to a product, such as the noise of car indicators, to subconsciously imprinting atmospheres and emotions on a group of people. Powerful stuff. Recognising that sound is as important as sight and touch opens up many exciting possibilities for design and also gives the opportunity for forward thinkers to get ahead of their peers and offer something unique to the world. Audio Branding in design could be applied to any type of event, a company’s reception office, a business website, retail environments, public spaces, promotional material; in fact I’m pretty sure sound can be used to bolster any brand or atmosphere in any traditional design situation.
If you would like to know about how sound and audio branding relate to your own work, please feel free to get in touch.