When I asked Jessica Helfand, co-founder of Design Observer, what excites her most about design in contemporary culture, she said, “That it isn’t just about design anymore — and that’s huge!”

This is precisely the logic that informed the first What Design Sounds Like symposium, hosted by Design Observer at the SVA Theater this past weekend. A reminder of the many intellectually enriching and free events available in New York City, the event featured an impressive roster of critics, thinkers, technicians, designers, and musicians — all assembled for an afternoon of presentations and conversation centering on the crux of sound and design.

The exploration of spacial sound is something on the minds of many today — from a recent New Yorker article praising the acoustical redesign of an Oakland restaurant, to an example of an artist recreating the sound environment of a bombed-out train station in Berlin, to David Byrne “Playing the Building.” It’s also one of the reasons Helfand thought it was such a pertinent subject to be explored.

“The line between looking and listening is porous and kinetic, and constantly changing,” she says. And the sound-based medium for exploring form “is still virgin territory; we felt it offered an unusual opportunity to explore not only what design sounds like, but what sound looks like. Curiously, the work that’s not overtly visual is in many ways even more visual, because it piques the imagination in new and unusual ways.”

She explains that she had a filmmaking teacher in graduate school whose first assignment was to have students shoot movement sans sound. “‘Sound lies,’ he said — and I never forgot that. Sound can be a panacea or a crutch; this was explored beautifully in the post Shutterstock did on the emotion of sound, and we wanted to take that even further.”

So, she assembled an impressive cast of thought leaders, including innovative sound engineer Alexander Chen; sound architect Nick Sowers; Debbie Millman, who was celebrating her tenth anniversary as host of her podcast “Design Matters“; MoMA curator Juliet Kinchin; and former New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere-Jones. One of the questions she sought to answer was, “How can visual communicators understand and better address this new, arguably media-agnostic world? It’s not just about words and pictures anymore.”

We sat in on the inspiring symposium to report on a few examples of design that are far more dynamic than words and pictures:

Alexander Chen

What would the map of the New York City subway system sound like as a string instrument? One of the more direct interpretations of “what design sounds like,” this is just one of the questions Alexander Chen is attempting to answer in his experiments drawing connections between design, music, and code at Google Creative Lab. Based on visuals from Massimo Vignelli’s subway map and the actual subway schedule, this interactive piece translates a static concept based on moving parts into a dynamic sound composition.

Screenshot from Alexander Chen’s Piano Phase


Nick Sowers

Soundscrapers founder Nick Sowers presented a visceral take on the concepts behind sound architecture, along with an argument for “acoustics in lieu of buildings,” in a conversation with writer Geoff Manaugh. “Sound is more than an experience; sound creates architecture, creates walls,” he says, referencing a time when he walked on the intentionally squeaky “nightingale floor” within China’s Imperial Palace, and understood how architecture and sound had been used for centuries as a defense mechanism to keep out unwanted intruders (in this case, ninjas).

This finding led him to several investigations, including a project that took him to more than 300 US military bases around the globe to uncover how military structures were designed, and to document the atmosphere of these bases through sound. Sowers and Manaugh spoke about conceptualizing space in terms of sound, or rather, “building something and actually not building.” Sowers is interested in thinking about cities as “mixing chambers of sounds” and architecture in terms of how sound moves through a specific material, rather than the edifice itself. The designer has even created “sound boxes” in different rooms of his home from field recordings he made while traveling.

Debbie Millman

For the 10th anniversary of her acclaimed podcast “Design Matters,” writer, educator, and artist Debbie Millman conducted a live episode, interviewing Audiobrain‘s founder Audrey Arbeeni. Within this conversation, the two touched on the concept of “ear fatigue,” a common theme throughout the presentations, and a condition that many of us inadvertently develop living in environments polluted by sound stimuli. Arbeeni’s interest lies in sound design — she’s responsible for the sonic branding of Xbox 360 and the NY Giants, and was music supervisor for seven Olympic Games — but also the healing power of sound. Because sound is housed in the reptilian part of the human brain, “it becomes a perfect response tool for recall,” she says. “It’s a powerful design tool because it can change the way we see.”

Juliet Kinchin

Juliet Kinchin, curator of the Department of Art and Design at MoMA, shared how the museum is engaging in new exhibitions that highlight the function of music and sound within contemporary art practice. She shared plans for one of the most anticipated exhibitions of the year, an ethereal retrospective of the work of Icelandic musician and artist Björk. She also talked about an exhibition she curated, “Making Music Modern: Design for Ear and Eye,” and the ways in which design and music have overlapped throughout the century. “Music and design — art forms that share aesthetics of rhythm, tonality, harmony, interaction, and improvisation — have long had a close affinity, perhaps never more so than during the 20th century,” she says of the exhibition.

Finally, we were so inspired by the talks that we created our own representation of “What Design Sounds Like” using footage and audio clips from Shutterstock’s collection. Check it out below and let us know what you think!