Speak, machine, speak! (on nothing in design)

Coke_machine There is a revolution taking place in the world of marketing.  Consumers are tired of the best efforts of the designer and the brander.  They find tedious our efforts to anticipate the terms and phrases they want to hear.  In the words of that old Talking Heads song, it’s time to "stop making sense."

Let me introduce you to the Coke machine in the basement of Building 6 at MIT.  I was standing there the other day trying to get a bottle of Dasani at the break. 

I could hear the coins go in.  And then there was that long pause, the one that makes you think, "damn, this thing is not going to…"  And then there is this great rumbling sound as the plastic bottle pachinkos its way through the machine, and into the opening. 

Sometimes I try to picture the mechanics of a sound, but finally I give up.  The mysteries of a Coke machine are impenetrable, knowledge too terrible for the likes of this anthropologist.

This is a wonderful sound because its low and rumbly.  But I especially like because it’s accidental.  It just happens to be the sound a plastic bottle makes as it tumbles through a Coke machine.  Call it a "found sound."

No one designed this sound.  This isn’t like the car door closing sound that Detroit builds into cars to persuade us that we have bought wisely, that our automobile is a paragon of quality and workmanship.  No, the Coke machine is a little like my dishwater.  It gives off a sound in spite of itself.  In the case of the dishwater, the sound is tumbling, but not rumbling.  It sort of swooshes, an ocean in a box.  (Dude, those saucers are surfing!)

The keypad of my ThinkPad makes a sort of plastic rustle and the hard drive makes a high pitched whine  The first makes me feel extra productive.  The second reminds me that everything I do on the keyboard depends on a mortal hard drive.  Other sounds I don’t like: the noise candy wrappers give off in a movie theater.  These suspend my suspension of disbelief.  Not all found sound is a blessing. 

The charm of found sounds is that they are not designed.  They just happen.  Not one thought to make them.  No one was trying to anticipate what a middle age anthropologist wants to hear from his Coke machine, dish washer or ThinkPad.  And this is charming because these objects become a kind of whiteboard.  I don’t have to shift anyone’s meanings to attach my own. 

And this is what I am proposing, that we make more things in the object world speak but signify nothing.  Because as I say, consumers are tired of our best efforts in the area of meaning management.  Part of the problem is the continued tyranny of KISS regime marketing (Keep It Simple, Stupid marketing). No meanings are always better than moronic ones. 

But some designerly meanings are the work of a virtuoso.  (I am the husband of a designer, so I know some of these paragons first hand.)  Their meanings are welcome.  They make objects more interesting, more vocal (positively scintillating), more companionable (positively chummy), more evocative and musical. 

I merely wish to say that there is a place in a design brief for "no meanings."  We should leave a place for the object owner or companionable to insert their own work. You know, like those great signs in Mexico City that say "disponible." Because, as it turns out, Shakespeare’s Lear was wrong: something comes of nothing, after all.  Nothing speaks!  Sorry (the marketer forgets himself), make that: nothing speaks like nothing! 

Note: this post is being published both here and at Gain, the AIGA Journal of Business and Design here. Thanks to Debbie Millman for including me!

12 thoughts on “Speak, machine, speak! (on nothing in design)

  1. jkh

    that rumbling sound of the vending machine indeed is so good – if it would not be there it would have to be invented.

    in case of doubt pro picasso who said: i am not searching, i am finding.

    and: when the new mini came out of the bmw design studios much of the criticism it got was actually because mini aficionados considered it ‘over designed’… there were little items that where just ‘found’ as you would say and had charmingly been put together in the garage much like in the case of traditional british automotive design.

    bmw’s mini designers were actually very proud then to point out the one detail in the new car that had actually been added by pure accident. – the exhaust pipe in fact was modelled after a coke can which was replacing the original and then broken end of the exhaust pipe when showing the final model for corporate board approval. the design was approved – so was the coke can sticking in its rear end.

  2. peter

    I don’t know if the sound of the Coke machine is designed or not. But increasingly manufacturers are turning to acousticians to design the sound experience of their products. The Acoustics Research Lab at the University of Liverpool, for example, provides this service to new product developers. For many industrial products, ensuring proper performance of the product in the presence of sound vibrations is also a consideration requiring help from acousticians. See:


  3. Steve Portigal

    I guess designing these sort of sounds is probably like being a film director or editor – you don’t want to make someone aware that your work is going on, it should just feel natural. Versus overt sounds like startup bongs that leap out of the experience and announce themselves.

    I was in a Nissan dealership in the Ginza last month and the car door “chunk” was one of the most satisfying acoustic experiences I’d ever observed.

    You might like to check out Noel Franus’ blog on “audio identity” – http://www.intentionalaudio.com/blog/

  4. pnautilus

    Duchamp said it best, when asked about his famous R. Mutt urinal. He quipped (forgive me, oh great anthropologists, for not having adequately cataloged his exact words) that abstraction forces the viewer to engage. It forces the audience to create and apply meaning where none existed before.

    Coke ad. Screen is black. Clink of quarters. Rumble of machine. Hiss of open can. Logo. Great, now we’ve created a beautiful campaign. It won’t really translate to print though. What do the follow up ads look like? What happens when Coke fights with the AE, about the ad being off message, and hires Crispin, Porter and that other guy whose name no one can pronounce? What then, oh great abstraction? What then KISS? Marketing sucks because marketing people suck. We are, as a whole, oftentimes better dreamers and buzzword dispensers than we are workers. We don’t let our agencies play, and when we do, they are usually too beat down to get up for the challenge. We are so scared about what the VP, or the C-suite, or the Board is going think, (a bunch of folks who, mind you, are nowhere near most target demographics) that we forget to let the creatives be creatives, and the thinking audience use their brains. I hereby declare this the ab-hocracy. Down with pandering, up with thinking.

  5. Eric Nehrlich

    Along the lines of found sounds are found uses. One of the fascinating things to me in the design world is when a product is created, released, and then used by its customers in a completely different fashion than for what it was intended. This happens most often with software, and results in the company either using its customers as lead user innovators (a la von Hippel) or trying to snatch back control of “its” product from the customers (e.g. Friendster vs. Fakester).

    There’s a lot to be said for releasing potential products (again, especially software) in a rough state (a place for “no meaning”) and letting the users make their own meaning, and following their lead.

  6. peter

    Eric —

    What you say about software is one of the motivations, perhaps even the main one, for the open-source software movement. Companies want to fiddle-with and tweak their software applications, customize them to their own particular environment, even use them for new purposes unintended by the vendor (as you say), and doing all this usually requires customer access to the source code.

    As Grant has been arguing, we marketers need to appreciate that marketing and advertising are now also in that same place: we are increasingly in a world with open-source branding, open-source product development, and even (or especially) open-source meaning-making. Marketers should embrace this new world, and develop techniques (analogous to von Hippel’s) for including everyone in the creation process. Maybe the success of open source software has something to teach us about how to do this.

  7. vmenon

    not sure if the new coca-cola happiness factory campagin (link below) had anything to do with the sound behind the machine but reading your post i could not help think of all the little creatures inside a coke vending machine going about their work to dispense that bottle of fizzy happiness like they show in the campagin. Maybe its them making that plastic and metal pachinko sounds.


    gr8 post..thank you

  8. srp

    If you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made. Design that looks “accidental” may be popular, but it is still design. Suppose you found out that the sound of the bottle in the Coke machine had been engineered somewhat? Would that ruin the experience? I don’t think so.

    I once had a guy from 3M tell me that they made sure that Scotch Tape made a better sound when you peel it off the roll than its rivals. When 3M manufactured private-label tape for others, they tried not to make it sound as good. Sealed Air is going against this sort of thing, as their long-term strategy is apparently to shift away from Bubble Wrap to an otherwise superior technology that lacks the kinesthetic/acoustic appeal of BW.

  9. Pingback: Convergence Culture Consortium (C3@MIT)

  10. M E-L

    Take the sound of a camera shutter.

    My old Nikon makes it when you take a picture. It’s a product of the mechanics of the device.

    My digital Lumix can make the same sound, if I wanted to. Reproduced and spit out of a tiny speaker. That “shutter” sound now stands for “a picture is being taken.” You can hear it everywhere. (I suppose I could hack the camera to make the sound of breaking glass if I were perverse.)

    Someday in my sons’ future, when 35mm film is no longer made, that sound will still be made by devices when they take a photo, free of any referent at all.

  11. Noel Franus

    Great post. It seems that the most pleasing sounds, like many of the best experiences, are those that are unplanned, purely organic or entirely happenstance: the squeaky water-well pump; the bouncy bedsprings during whoppee-time (check out the beginning of the film Delicatessen); the hum of a distant train at night.

    The funny thing about marketers isn’t that they design this sort of thing and often get it wrong or overdo it…they don’t, in fact, do any of the work at all. The people who understand the impact of sound X (researchers and savvy designers) are rarely in touch with the people making the decisions to spout out a sound in the first place. You’ll never see an acoustic technician and CMO in the same room. So we wind up with what we do, obnoxious product sounds, websites and all.

    I’m all for environmental sounds that provide affordances and improve public safety, etc. Not so wild about making noise for the sake of making noise. Thanks for bringing to light one of the seldom-made cases for wabi-sabi in the land of sonic brands.

  12. Nils Davis

    Without knowing anything about the truth of the matter at all, I’d be shocked if the Coke machine sound *wasn’t* designed. Certainly many sounds are – the Harley-Davidson roar and the AT&T bong are well-known examples of actually *patented* sounds.

    And the science of using sound for persuasion/storytelling has been well-known in the movie business since they started talking in movies.

    Consider also that Coke machines have made the same sound no matter if they dispensed glass bottles, cans, or plastic bottles. Hard to believe that’s an accident. My conclusion – a designed sound.

    Answering srp above (“Suppose you found out that the sound … had been engineered … Would that ruin the experience?”) I’d have to say “No.” I’m kind of a geek, but it almost makes it better. It also gives more depth to the Harley roar for me.

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