Decoding and Designing Sound

Sarah Churman was born deaf. After 29 years she heard her own voice for the first time. Her reaction is priceless. This is the magic of sound - the theme of our newsletter today.


Sounds trigger emotions

The sound of the bite into the apple tells you how fresh the fruit is. The sound of biting the potato chips (or crisps as the British would say) tells you how stale or fresh the packet of chips is. Try eating the packet of chips with your ears shut and the chips will taste different.

The pitch and tonal quality of a can’s opening hiss can make its contents seem fizzier or flatter, warmer or colder. Unilever has actually designed the nozzle of Axe under-arm spray to sound more "masculine" like a kshhhh...hhh than the Dove spray (that sounds more like a polite psssssss...) for women.



Sounds often convey discreet signals. The deep thud of a car door closing tells others that someone important has arrived. When you reverse the car, the beep warns others and warns you when you go dangerously close to an object.

An entire generation of Indians have grown up listening to the voice of the legendary Ameen Sayani. He compered radio shows and his style of speaking has been imitated by generations of Radio Jockeys across the sub-continent.

The CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite's famous signature line, "That's the way it is" was a shorthand for trust - an essential element of news.

The sound of R2D2 or the way a light sabre sounds like has to be designed. As the voice assistants like Alexa and Siri become more common, it will be important to design the "personality of the voice assistant". The personality is a differentiator for the brand.

When you turn on Netflix, you hear the sound logo go Ta-dum (yes, that's what it is called). Listen to the story behind the Netflix sound logo.

Sounds capture time

Your laughter, your sneeze, and even your walk have distinctive sounds. These have changed over the years from the time you were a baby through the teens to adulthood.

Every bird and animal has a specific sound that sets it apart. The sound of a Japanese street bike is designed to help it blend into the background, but the Italian Ducati motorbike is designed to let your neighbours know that you own one. The best known brands use sound as a proxy for building a relationship.

Seasoned users of the internet will recognise the sound of the dialup modem. Those who went online later will never know the joy and anticipation, this sound created, in millions of hearts! If you recognise the sound of the dial-up, pretend not to recognise it. It will give away your age!

Sonic Signature of Mobile Phones

Decoding sound signals

As a society becomes prosperous, music becomes more individualistic.

When I was growing up, the radios at home played movie songs. It was loud enough for the neighbours to listen. Everyone knew those songs. It was only when my father played Indian classical music that the volume

would be turned down because the neighbours didn't enjoy classical stuff. The common vocabulary of songs gave rise to a game called Antakshari wherever Bollywood music was popular.

As a society becomes prosperous, music becomes more individualistic. Everyone listens to their choice of music on their own headphones. Millennials have pushed music to the background. It is always on. People play the background sounds of a coffee shop when they work alone, to avoid feeling isolated. Would that work in the office?

Read: Why you can focus in the coffee shop but not in the office

Sound ideas

Some offices are encouraging employees to get vaccinated if they wish to be back in the office. What would that sensory experience of being back in an office be like? Designing the "ambient sound" could impact productivity and take away feelings of isolation. When people wear sound cancellation headphones and listen to loud music at work, they may miss the fire alarm when it wails. Sealing off ambient sound can make you vulnerable.

When you go into an office, your brain picks up the sounds and tells you how to behave. If everyone talks in hushed tones, our behaviour automatically gets to be more mellow. The feeling of psychological safety can impact the level of creativity and innovation. It can change the level of belongingness that employees feel. That is the power of the intangibles.


Read more: How packaging choices can change the flavour of food

Watch: The Magic of Making Sound

Recommended reading: The Sonic Boom: How Sound Transforms The Way We Think, Feel and Buy

I want to acknowledge the Clubhouse room Trends and Weak Signals that @Competia hosted last Saturday where the guests spoke about sound design that was the inspiration behind this issue of my newsletter.

My website:

Did you know, this newsletter gets its name from my book Dreamers and Unicorns - How Leadership, Talent and Culture are the new growth drivers.


Add new comment

Please enter the text you see in the image below: