In Fast Company on Sound Logos

And what is the sound of Wikipedia?

I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Rob Walker for a Fast Company story this week. He wrote about the Wikimedia Foundation’s current open call for “sound logos.” As he describes it, the connection of sound with branding is nothing new: “Jingles have been a staple of broadcast advertising from the beginning, and before that, traveling medicine shows were heavily musical.” I contributed some thoughts about the sizable breadth of Wikimedia’s creative brief — “both in terms of topic (‘the sound of all human knowledge’) and audience (presumably: everyone on the planet?)” — and he mentioned the recent Disquiet Junto music community project (the Junto is another effort of mine) in which participants contributed entries to the Wikimedia contest.

I think Wikimedia has a unique challenge ahead. While the name Wikipedia is widely recognized, Wikimedia isn’t, nor are the majority of its other activities, of which there are a dozen. (Have you used Wikispecies, Wikivoyage, Wikisource, or Wikidata recently?) I’m not even convinced that Wikipedia’s own visual logo is all that well known — that is, I’m not sure how many people would recognize it out of context. (Interestingly, as the Fast Company story notes, the Wikipedia visual logo — the jigsaw puzzle globe — was also the result of a contest, apparently won in 2003 by a 17-year-old, Paul Stansifer, who is now a software engineer at Google. The globe was then refined by someone else.)

The people entering the sound logo contest don’t have much to go on. Creative constraints are not just valuable but necessary. One of those is the audience for whom the logo is intended. Part of me wonders who truly has allegiance to Wikipedia. I wonder if it’s more the people who contribute to the ever-growing database of information than the people who use it. I’ve done some work for open-source projects, and the audience of participants in those efforts is often more “knowable” and central than are the actual end-users, which is a broader and more diffuse collection of loose cohorts. I’d recommend prioritizing practitioners — the people whose work fuels Wikipedia — because if the logo doesn’t register with them (or, worse, if it turns them off), then you have a serious problem to manage. (I loved the stage of the Marvel credit sequence logo when you heard the pages of comics flipping by during a montage of the company’s broad creative heritage. That spoke to a certain community, a certain subset of their audience. Perhaps tellingly, as the movies and TV shows continued to outpace the comics, the sound of the pages was removed.)

Read the full piece at 25th Anniversary Countdown (12 of 13): San Francisco Soundwalk

An archival ambient advent calendar from December 1st – 13th, 2021

The route shown here comes out at about 2,835 feet. That’s the length, roughly estimated, of a soundwalk I’ve taken my students on most of the semesters I’ve taught a course about sound at a local art school, the Academy of Art University.

A soundwalk can be understood as follows: Ever take a docent tour at a museum? A soundwalk is like that, except the museum is the world, and the art is the sound that surfaces in the world.

I’ve occasionally done this particular soundwalk for private groups. There’s a lot packed in on a stroll that lasts just over half a mile: urban sound, retail sound, public space, private space, Hollywood, silence, acoustics, architecture, noise pollution, urban planning, and much more. Only a few blocks away is Union Square, a central setting for Francis Ford Coppola’s classic 1974 film The Conversation, a great teaching tool about sound in its own right.

On a good day, we’ll have watched the movie in advance, and after the soundwalk we’ll wander over to the plaza to talk about the topics that Coppola, in collaboration with editor and sound designer Walter Murch, explores in the film: surveillance, perception, technology.

I didn’t teach the course in 2021 because Covid-19 impacted the school’s planning. This coming year is up in the air. Who knows what the future will bring, whether post-pandemic or during an extended mid-pandemid? Either way, I have no doubt that aspects of this soundwalk will have changed, in some cases drastically, because the city has changed. At some point I’ll walk this path again, and I’ll see what I hear.

This park serves as the next to last day of the 13-day countdown to the 25th anniversary of Read the full post described above: “A San Francisco Soundwalk.”

Teaching “Sounds of Brands” (2020), Week 6 of 15

In the age of COVID-19

This post will be out of order when I catch up with recent weeks, but it’s timely, and I don’t want to delay. Countless educators around the planet are quickly needing to come up to speed with how to translate an in-person class to an online class. My case is fairly straightforward, as it’s lecture/discussion-based. I did find my “virtual chalkboard” to be very useful, and I hope that others do, too.

Remains of the day: The university where I teach in San Francisco moved classes online as of today, resulting from COVID-19 precautions. The students and I met at noon for Sounds of Brands, week 6 of 15, via video conference. I thought there would, as a result, be no chalkboard to share afterward. But then I realized, shortly before our first online session, that I might employ a shared Google doc as a virtual chalkboard. I found it worked quite well. For one thing, it gave students something to look at other than my (along with each other’s) face. For another, it kept things focused, allowing me to collate their input in real time. I think without this virtual chalkboard I would have ended up with less discussion, because their unrecorded responses would have felt fleeting. The approach worked great.

This week’s class was part of the second of the course’s three arcs. The first is Learning to Listen. The second is the arc from which the course takes its name: Sounds of Brands. Today we discussed the role of sound in product design. This isn’t a complete summary of the day’s session. I just want to unpack a bit, as a series of line items, what’s on the virtual board:

“Accessibility” is the department at the school where students can reach out if they need support, which I imagine might be the case right now.

The “$72.80” is from a story I told the students. I wanted to share, at the start of class, a disruption I had myself experienced during college. I mentioned how my first semester at school, much of the non-teaching staff went on strike. That $72.80 is what our tuition included for food. We got that amount back weekly to feed ourselves. I talked about the negatives (for example, having elected to spend most of the money on used records, I ended up quite ill by Thanksgiving), but also about how this bonded our class through the mutual support we provided each other.

The list on the left (“Sounds in Product Design”) is examples students shared. I talked through a variety of topics, including how Harley-Davidson once tried (and failed) to trademark its engine (the big on “reverse engineer” arose from this, as well), and how Brian Eno made a Windows start-up sound on a Mac. None of the students (this is toward a bachelor’s degree) had heard of Brian Eno, so there are some notes in there about who he is.

I then shared a bunch of R. Murray Schafer’s thoughts and writing on sound: first, a 1972 Canadian government document in which he defined “soundscape” (derived from “landscape”) and then language from Tuning of the World on the “soundmark” (from “landmark”). The “Soundmarks (of SF)” list is of sounds the students said they associated with San Francisco as among the city’s soundmarks. One neat aspect of this virtual chalkboard is that I could fix spelling and reorder material.

After the students listed their soundmarks, I then reordered the entries in what I thought of as ranging from sonically unique to the city (the Tuesday public warning system, currently on hiatus) to the non-unique yet still closely associated (seals). That quote under “Soundscape” is Schafer’s definition, and we discussed how the word “audience” might be added to it.

The last bit is in the lower right. We discussed the difference between “explicit” and “implicit” sounds relating to products and services. The idea is to apply Schafer’s concept of the soundscape (and related concepts that didn’t make it to the chalkboard) to things and the environment in which those things are utilized. (For example, the sound of a kickstand, the rumble of tires on pavement, and the noise of wind are all part of the Harley-Davidson experience.) Those three examples on the chalkboard were ones students contributed to the discussion.

Anyhow, with about 40 or so hours’ notice to prepare the transition, that’s my first video-conference teaching summary. Class met for three hours. It went OK. I’m used to pacing, and I had to sit still. I’m used to drawing and writing on the chalkboard, and had instead to just type. I’m used to lots of things, but it went OK, and it’ll go better next week. One student showed up in our video conference about 15 minutes early for class, when I had the chalkboard on default: black type on a white background. Spur of the moment, I reversed the colors, so it began to resemble an actual chalkboard. The student agreed it was an improvement, so I stuck with it.

Teaching During COVID-19

Social distance in the virtual classroom

It looks as though my Sounds of Brands course as of this coming Wednesday — March 11, week 6 of 15 — will become an online course. That’s real-time online (aka a video conference), not an asynchronous online course. This is, of course, due to efforts in San Francisco to contain the COVID-19 outbreak. I had a guest speaker scheduled, but I think we’ll hold off on guest speakers until we’ve put the conference technology to the test.

And, yes, this means no chalkboard photos.

Teaching “Sounds of Brands” (2020), Week 1 of 15

This past Wednesday, February 5, 2020, was the first class meeting of Sounds of Brands / Brands of Sounds: The Role of Sound in the Media Landscape, a course I’ve been teaching since 2012 in San Francisco at the Academy of Art. The course is about the ways things express themselves through sound, and by “things” I mean companies, products, services, and so forth. It can be everything from the sound design of an electric vehicle to the jingle of a fast-food restaurant to the music played in a retail establishment. How sound is employed as a form of expression in the marketplace, especially beyond the realm of pop-music storytelling, is what we explore each week.

I’m hopeful to find the time this semester to detail the class sessions here on, but I also know I’ve tried and failed every semester so far. I’ve occasionally started off strong, and then the realities of teaching, and work beyond school, and life beyond all of that become reality, and the posts pretty soon fade out. I’ve documented the first week of class several times in the past, so the point of today’s post — as I get tomorrow’s class materials together — is primarily to link to those posts (2012, 2015, 2016).

To recap in brief, the course is divided into three sections, as depicted in the above chart. We spend the first three weeks on Learning to Listen (aka Listening to Media); the following six weeks on the core of the course, Sounds of Brands; and then the final six weeks on the opposite proposition, Brands of Sounds, or how things related to sound (headphones, music equipment, streaming services, record labels, etc.) express themselves in non-sonic ways.

Up top is what the blackboard looked like at the end of the first day of class. The writing seen here is a repository of notes, not a structured document. I’ll unpack some of that here:

“Sound Journal” refers to the centerpiece of the homework: writing four times a week in a diary about one’s experience of and thoughts about sound.

Below that are things like “laugh -> ha” and “keyboard -> click,” a list of a half dozen or so correlations between “things” and “the sounds things make.” That’s the result of the opening exercise in the course, when students sit for 10 minutes and write down every sound they hear. There are various things that come out of the exercise, among them an opportunity to discuss the difference between object and emission. To understand that saying “car” isn’t sufficient to describe the sound a car makes is an important lessons for a student just beginning to explore sound.

The note about onomatopoeia is pointing out that several of the things people heard (the list originated as bits of the students’ work in the exercise) that much of the description is quite literally a verbal expression of the sound. But some achieve a greater, more verbal level of detail, such as the “deep, guttural” sound of a motorcycle, and the “high-pitched, repetitive beeping” of a truck backing up.

The list in the upper left-hand corner contains elements the students noted in a series of TV commercials that, creatively, employ everyday noise sources (keyboards, pencils, coffee, books) to recreate the melody of a classic jingle.

Other terms, such as “soundscape” and “anechoic,” will be discussed more in week two, which happens tomorrow. I’ll try to get the time to report back on that class meeting, and the others as the semester proceeds. There are 15 weeks in all, 16 if you include spring break. There is one class meeting each week, and it lasts roughly three hours, a mix of lecture, discussion, and in-class exercises. Students than have nine hours of homework outside of class. If you’d like a copy of the syllabus outline, shoot me an email at [email protected]