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Dyson On: The hidden beauty of technological beeps

At their best so-called functional tones should be the subtle sonic signposts that guide us through our increasingly tech-driven lives. But at their worst they are just more irritating noise pollution. One Dyson engineer asks: “Is it time to redesign beeps?”


5 March 2020

The hundreds of beeps your technology makes to communicate with you often go unnoticed | Photo by Kyle Johnston on Unsplash

We live in an increasingly noisy world. When we’re on the move, the phones in our pockets buzz, beep and ring, at work our computers play melodies when we turn them on and off, and even at home our kitchen appliances are an orchestra of alarms. These are just a sample of the growing number of functional noises that we’re increasingly reliant on to communicate with our user friendly technological gadgets.

“A good example is Skype or other messenger apps which most of us use all the time,” says Tom Ridley a sound design engineer at Dyson. “When you send a message it makes a certain noise. When one arrives it makes a different noise, and you get different sounds for errors and connecting to the internet and almost all the programmes other functions. It has an audio vocabulary that people who use Skype will all recognise.”

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Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash

“These aren’t just sounds for the sake of it,” he continues, “they are supposed to convey meaning, so that you don’t have to keep visually checking if your email has sent or if the dishwasher is finished.” Tom is an expert in sound design. Over the course of his career he has created “tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands” of synthetic sounds, from simple bleeps to music scores, working on video games, films, and even apps.  Nevertheless he has very strong opinions about what beautiful sound design should be. “I think you could really ruin a good product with a bad sound,” he says. “Just look at smoke alarms. Functionally they have to make a very urgent, piercing sound to alert people to the fact that there is a fire or they need to change their batteries. But the problem is people are put off buying there really important safety devices by the premise of the infuriating noise it makes at 3AM when it is just trying to remind you to change the batteries. That’s why now so many people have replaced their old fire alarms with high tech, non-physical alternatives.”

His philosophy on the beauty of beeps is quite clear: “I think beautiful design is useful and transparent. A sound that, in isolation, is beautiful may or may not be appropriate for functional sound design. Sure, you can make something that’s rich and ethereal and expansive but if it doesn’t serve the purpose, then it’s not good design. When it comes to design, which is different from art, excellence comes in reduction and refinement of pure utility, with all the fat cut away. That’s beautiful design.”

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Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

“The sonic footprint of technological devices is undoubtedly a defining factor of contemporary auditory culture and the design of sound, sonic interaction and auditory communication within technology are therefore elements of cultural history that will be shaped by the thinking of designers and the practice of design.” With the growing dependence of connected and digital devices to organise our lives, these communicative sounds will grow increasingly important ways of navigating our futuristic, non-visual technologies.

But this guiding principle didn’t immediately shape the early years design of personal computing in the 00s. In the early days of mobile telephones, primitive hardware meant that handsets could only manage a monophonic beep, often arranged into primitive tones which became unmistakable. With the advancement of the internal speakers, these ringtones and functional sounds were replaced first by polyphonic tones which could handle a range of musical pitches, and later by completely synthesized audio capable of playing complex midi files like popular music or recorded audio.

“You could really ruin a good product with a bad sound”

This chronology can be similarly mapped onto the rise and fall of so-called ‘Skeuomorphism’ in the world of technology. Skeuomorphism, is the replication of real-world objects, or sounds, in a digital environment. In the early 90s when personal technology was still very new the only way to visualise digital functions was by using synonymous real-world examples. Apple were famously skeuomorphic with their apps when, for example, their calendar appeared to have leather binding or their fonts were made to look like they’d been written using a crayon.

But it is a trend which has fallen out of favour in the tech world.

Music sound desk

Even realistic sounding alarms and phone rings are actually synthetically generated and made to sound “real” afterwards. | Photo by Abigail Keenan on Unsplash

As Tom explains, “we’ve become more comfortable with digital products having their own identity the design has become much flatter. Notebook apps don’t have to look like a real book, they don’t have to have seams or guide lines, and most importantly they don’t have to make the sound of pages being turned.” What is truly important, however, is the process of making digital design suitable for the devices we use everyday. “Sound is a vital component in our experience of, and interaction with, design. The lack of opportunity to close our ears dictates that we are continuously and inescapably connected to technological devices through sound,” says Will Renel an inclusive designer at the Royal College of Art’s Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design.

He continues, “through the established field of Acoustic Ecology and emerging disciplines such as Sonic Interaction Design (SID) we can understand sound and auditory communication as an element of design that can create comfort, provoke memories, increase concentration, aid navigation and define shared experiences. On the other hand, sound can distract, isolate, exclude, challenge privacy and cause physical pain.”

“Careful consideration of how and why sound is designed within technology is therefore a vital component in the creation of innovative user experiences that move beyond functional qualities (noise reduction, signalling, alarms and so on) and mediate new sociological interactions with ideas such as non-visual aesthetics, auditory emotion and sonic inclusivity. The sonic footprint of technological devices is undoubtedly a defining factor of contemporary auditory culture and the design of sound, sonic interaction and auditory communication within technology are therefore elements of cultural history that will be shaped by the thinking of designers and the practice of design.”

With the growing dependence of connected and digital devices to organise our lives, these communicative sounds will grow increasingly important ways of navigating our futuristic, non-visual technologies.

Watch the video here.

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Cassie Molter

Email: Cassie.molter@dyson.com

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