Designing Sound and Silence

Introducing Google’s first-ever public guidelines for designing product sounds

Conor O'Sullivan
May 7, 2019 · 2 min read

Humans constantly experience sound, even while we sleep. Our brains are very good at background listening and deciding when to pay attention (or not). Yet so much of the information we try to convey in today’s product design is visual and screen-based. Investing in sound and haptic design is a great opportunity — not only to communicate more effectively, but to offset some of the demands we place on the visual domain, to another sensory channel.

I’ve spent 20 years designing sounds for products (including Motorola’s HELLOMOTO ringtone, Xbox Console sounds, and Google’s “G” sounds) and gained valuable insight into how good use of sound can enhance the design of emerging technologies. I also discovered that when it comes to creating sounds for consumer products, silence design is just as important as sound design. By emphasizing the concept of silence design, I’m not suggesting we never design sound again; sounds are hugely important. However, product designers need to rethink how to use sound — not just on an individual basis — but how sounds are orchestrated and come together for the end listener. A sound designer should strive to create a soundscape that feels like an honest expression of the product, with sounds that enhance the flow of interaction, and by using sound judiciously.

Think of designing silence as the visual equivalent of using negative space.

At Google, we’ve put together our learnings on sound design for anyone to apply, in the first-ever Material Sound guidelines. These guidelines provide best practices for how we use — and don’t use — sound to create experiences that feel like a natural part of the product, enhance user interactions, and contextually grab the listener’s ear. In my experience, the best way to understand and experience the power of sound design is by trying sounds out, auditioning sound with visuals to hear what it adds to the design, and using the guiding principles we’ve provided to keep the sound creation process on track. With that in mind, we’ve also included a set of downloadable sounds for designers to effortlessly start using in products.

Designing sound and silence not only empowers teams to compose a well-tempered product, but fosters a more sensory user experience — that starts by listening.

Sound good? Explore Google’s Material Sound guidelines for more.

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