GE's New Emphasis In Appliances: Sound Design

In the kitchen of the future, your appliances might be scored with keyboards, woodwinds, and even a little guitar.

The built-in kickstand that props up Microsoft’s new tablet computer, Surface, requires two springs to operate. The mechanism in the final product, however, includes three. That third spring, the company proudly explained to reporters in a pre-launch visit to its headquarters, was added merely for extra sonic oomph, a bit of acoustic reassurance in the kickstand itself and a subtle, audible pronouncement of the device’s superior quality in general.

Of course, this type of thing isn’t anything new--in an episode of the podcast 99% Invisible, sound designer Jim McKee notes how "someone worked really hard" to create the satisfying snap you heard when you closed your old-school Walkman, and that was back when the only thing sporting a kickstand, audible or otherwise, was your mountain bike. But recently we’ve started to see companies spend even more time (and resources) shaping not only how their products look but how they sound, too.

General Electric, the appliance monolith, is one such company taking sound seriously. Instead of voicing all its next-gen dryers and dishwashers with the same beeps and boops, GE’s trying to distinguish its four appliance brands by giving them each their own unique sonic palette, culled from a fully realized, brand-specific soundtrack.

And what, exactly, are microwaves and washing machines supposed to sound like? According to GE’s designers, maybe something like catching a few seconds of a teenage rock band playing on a balmy summer night.

HEARD AND NOT SEEN

The reasons for the company’s new focus on sound design are manifold. On a very basic level, it’s about functionality. As appliances continue to move away from tactile buttons to touch-sensitive ones, electronic sounds are essential for giving us the feedback we need to work efficiently in the kitchen. If your microwave didn’t beep when you pressed its buttons, you’d probably end up with a lot of bags of popcorn that were getting zapped for 20 seconds instead of the full 2 minutes.

But when you look at some of the greater trends in appliance design, sound becomes important in ways that extend beyond basic functionality. David Bingham, a designer who’s heading up the sound initiative at GE, explained that as appliances become more "minimal" and "modern" in their visual appearance, sound will become an increasingly integral part of the package. "There’s a lot more social activity happening in the kitchen space," Bingham explains, and in response we can expect to see see appliances that are "much more integrated in their design." As dishwashers and the rest give up competing with cabinets and countertops in a visual sense, he says, "you’ll start to see a focus on the fit, finish, and feel qualities of the products, a greater sensitivity toward the material selection, and a focus on the experiential details, like what we’re now looking at with sound."

The sounds Bingham and his colleagues are working on aren’t simply features for next year’s models--they’re GE’s attempt to anticipate what customers will require of the company’s products five and 10 years down the line, when appliances might be heard as much as they’re seen.

"IF THIS BRAND WERE A BAND"

In the case of the kickstand, Microsoft’s challenge was fairly straightforward--they weren’t inventing a sound so much as embellishing it. But GE’s undertaking is much greater. Not only do they have scores more sounds to consider--distinct interactions like turning a machine on or off, or increasing or decreasing one of its values--but also four separate brands to accommodate, each with its own qualities and characteristics. The sounds had to be tailored to each.

The first step was the easy one: identifying the places that required sound to begin with. That list includes basic interactions, like powering a unit on or off, or changing a value like temperature, as well as some less obvious functions, like providing notifications of various urgencies. But the real challenge Bingham’s team faced was determining the personality for each of GE’s four appliance brands--the ultra high-end Monogram line, the restaurant-inspired Café line, the basic, overarching GE brand of appliances, and the long-ignored Hot Point line--and then turning those personalities into sound.

"We had a lot of back and forth," Bingham explains, "coming up with different expressions and images that collectively gave us a feeling for that brand." In brainstorming sessions, designers would ask each other questions like, "If this brand was a band, what band would it be?" Next would come questions about what kind of car it would be, and what kind of clothing store.

Ultimately, it was a process that involved people from all over the company--designers, of course, as well as individuals from marketing and advertising, executives and even members of the web team. In sussing out the true identity of the brands, Bingham says, "each of them had certain impressions or things they were most comfortable with from their respective disciplines."

Once those brand identities started to take shape, the sound designers started in on the individual interaction sounds. But quickly things got messy. "It was hard to get all of that to hang together and feel cohesive," Bingham recalls. So the team decided to put the individual sounds to the side for a while and instead work on something more substantive from which they could draw later. That’s how they began writing full, long-form pieces for each of the company’s brands--in essence, soundtracks for its appliances.

THE SOUNDTRACKS …

Each piece is between one and two minutes in length, and while they’re all variations on the same general musical theme, they all sound completely different. And that’s precisely the point--all that time spent figuring out what kind of car the brands would be was about pinning down the essential qualities of each, and how those qualities differed from one another.

Take the GE line. During the brainstorming sessions, some words that were thrown around to describe it included "purposeful," "authentic," "modern," and "thoughtful." From there, Bingham and his team accumulated a collection of design attributes--things like colors, lights, materials, buttons, and forms--that resonated with those qualities. On top of that, they layered other products, home, lifestyle, and leisure objects that fleshed the picture out. And with that world so thoroughly defined, all they had to do was find the music to fit.

In the case of the GE brand, the soundtrack is a driving, woodwind-heavy affair. "It’s got this nice, bouncing cadence that feels upbeat," Bingham said after he played the piece for me. "It gives this sense of someone looking off in profile, with their hair in the wind." He says his team tried to evoke "the happy feeling of driving with the windows down, off into a nice sunny day." If my washing machine can make me feel like that, I’m sold.

For Monogram, GE’s super high-end line, Bingham and his team composed a classy piano number--subdued, but not lazy. "It’s not a lackadaisical piano, Bingham says, "it does have some purpose and feeling." Overall it does a nice job of conveying the elegance and sophistication of the Monogram line; it sounds like something that would be playing in the type of store where you could buy a several thousand dollar dishwasher. The long-form piece for Café, a line of professional, restaurant-inspired appliances, is more ambient, relying partially on electronic sounds that are meant to echo the precision and power of the products. It was the only one complete enough for GE to share, and you can hear it at the top of the post. Unfortunately, it’s also the one that sounds the least like the other three pieces--more meandering, less melodic.

The fourth brand, Hot Point, is one that GE’s actively trying to reinvent as a more affordable, youthful line of products--and that meant reaching for the guitar. Its soundtrack is one that seems ready-made for a TV spot, with a toe-tapping tempo and a pleasurably insistent guitar line. Here again Bingham offered the scene his team was trying to evoke: "Think about walking on the street on a midsummer night, and hearing a bunch of teenagers playing in the garage, and they’re not bad--they’re actually kind of fun to listen to--and you pause for a second and tap your foot. It just feels very approachable and very comfortable."

… AND THE SOUNDS

Of course, no matter how tuneful, you wouldn’t want your dishwasher playing a full two-minute ditty every time it completed a cycle. And outside of one of GE’s fancy Monogram line showrooms, or maybe a TV commercial sometime down the line, consumers may never even hear these longer pieces. But ultimately, they proved essential in creating the sounds that will define GE’s appliances in years to come.

Only with those soundtracks established, Bingham says, could his team create a truly cohesive collection of interaction noises. "Once we became more and more settled on what that long-form piece was," he recalls, "we used that as a sort of grandfather of all the other sounds." In essence, the long-form pieces served as sonic templates. "We derived from that long-form piece--from the cadence, from the rhythm, from the instruments used--all of what turns into the interactive sounds."

The ways in which the sounds reflect the soundtracks they’re inspired by is clear when you hear them. For one thing, it’s a matter of the instruments used. Powering on a Monogram machine gives you two quick, ascending notes on the piano. Doing the same on a Hot Point machine gives you the same notes strummed on a guitar. On a GE appliance, you’ll hear a woodwind. Bingham likens it to sheet music. Obviously, ascending notes make more sense for an "on" function and descending for "off"--that’s a constant no matter what kind of appliance or brand you’re dealing with. But depending on how you play those notes on that sheet music, and what instrument you play them with, you’ll end up with a totally different result.

ROUNDING IT OUT

The way a product looks and feels goes a long way to telling its story--conveying what it’s meant to do and who it’s meant to do it for. But sound, too, can play that role. So it’s hardly surprising that companies like GE are putting more thought into designing the acoustic identities of their products as much as the visual ones. "You can touch, taste, smell, hear, and feel things," Bingham says. "Besides paying as much attention as we have to the visual portion of it, we’re looking to round that out with the auditory portion."

Bingham and his team are still tweaking individual interaction sounds for some of the lines, and we may not see the new elements introduced in actual products for another few cycles yet. But they’re confident the work they’re doing now will be a fundamental part of their appliances for years to come. And hey, if they can tease out the noise that tells me when my popcorn’s ready and makes me feel like I’m driving into the sunset with my hair blowing in the wind, I’m certainly not going to complain.

[Image: Ear via Shutterstock]

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3 Comments

  • Aimelise

    I read FastCoDesign all the time but rarely comment.  GE Cafe Appliances don't have a prayer in the marketplace if they don't improve their performance.  I purchased a full line of this series in Autumn 2007 and I'm already replacing my $500 microwave.

    I'm glad to hear they're focusing on UI, but they should put just as much effort into performance/reliability.  I'd love to support an American company, but the quality just isn't there.

  • Lkeane

    Thank you. This is long overdue user centered research. The range of appliances that beep, shriek, honk and treat us all like idiots have some of us living in acoustic nightmares.  Ringing 5 times to tell us the coffee is done, or 30 seconds is over on the micro wave, or repeating insistently until you walk over and open the dishwasher is not a soothing, pleasureful experience. What we need is choice. Maybe harp is for me while rock or jazz are for someone else. If we can choose our ring tones on our phones, why can't we choose what we want our environments to sound like? 

  • Stephoates

    Analog notes?! This idea (& article) is more at home on the set of 30Rock than it is in real life...This article smacks of sponsorship and I'm surprised FastCompany would publish something so vacuous.