the overlooked art of acoustic design

Sound has become the poor relation of modern design. Yet design without acoustic design isn’t worthy of the name.

Endless TV programmes and magazines gush on about visual design. Their “designers” energetically throw around a flourish of colours, cushions, fabrics and weird objects seemingly sourced from the grot shop.

Yet when it comes to sound, there’s usually no mention or awareness of design at all. From mumbling actors in TV programmes, to music that drowns out dialogue, to noisy restaurants apparently optimised to recreate the decibel rating of a jet engine speeding up for take-off. Even in the loos there’s no escape as the Dyson hand driers emulate the ear-bursting sounds of a demented, revving hoard of Hells Angels bikers echoing off the tiles.

Without acoustic design, visual design is a job only half done. What’s the point of a visually appealing aesthetic and design if the space sounds like the test tunnel for a new F1 engine?

Any “designer” worthy of the name needs to pay as much attention to the acoustic properties of the environments they’re creating as the way they look. There’s no excuse for creating restaurants or pubs in which diners need to shout ever louder at each other to be heard: the principles of acoustic design are pretty simple to follow.

If designers carry on only doing half the job, focused only on the visual and not the aural too, it’s time to impose regulations and standards on public places, limiting the maximum decibel rating permitted.

In the meantime, I’ll carry on laughing at anyone who presumes to call themselves a “designer” who knows or cares nothing about acoustic design. But for now I’ll have to laugh extra loud to make myself heard.

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