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The Journal of Sonic Studies
Journal of Sonic Studies, volume 6, nr. 1 (January 2014)Daniel Hug; Moritz Kemper: FROM FOLEY TO FUNCTION: A PEDAGOGICAL APPROACH TO SOUND DESIGN FOR NOVEL INTERACTIONS

To refer to this article use this url: http://journal.sonicstudies.org/vol06/nr01/a03

Challenges in Sonic Interaction Design Education

The pedagogical approaches outlined above cover a wide range of relevant topics and competencies, but there are some specific challenges that are particularly tied to the treatment of sound in the context of an interaction design education. In the following we will outline these challenges.

The Stigma of “Functional” Sound

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Sound in interaction design is often understood as design element that has the right to exist if, and only if, it offers a specific functional benefit – otherwise it is superfluous. Usually, sound is used to notify, inform, or warn us, or, as is the case in sonification, to represent some kind of data flow. “Used” is to be taken literally, as the sounds are normally based on existing sounds, be it identifiable everyday sounds (in the case of auditory icons) or tones and musical sounds respectively (as in the case of earcons and most warning sounds).[1]

The (Undesired) Dominance of Technology

A second challenge is that in interaction design education, despite all opposing efforts, technology often is a key concern. At least in later stages of the curriculum, artifacts will have to be functionally implemented. In our observation, this leads to a design (and learning) strategy that tries to make do with what seems technically feasible. This fixation on “making things work” technically is a general problem for the aesthetic development of the students. Each day and hour they spend on technological implementation will be lost for efforts that deal with aesthetic definition, inspiration, experimentation, and ultimately self-discovery as “artist-designer”.

The Dialectic of Tools

We have mentioned above that tools play an important role in sonic interaction design. Provided they are simple enough to use, these tools can indeed offer a starting point for interactive sound generation. At the same time, every tool affords a certain functional and aesthetic direction, thus biasing the design and potentially misleading students to accept the underlying technologies as offering the only approach. This prevents the invention of new methods and tools for novel contexts and applications. The methods we are proposing here are no exception, but we claim that they are much more open to change and modification, very much as a sketch in a visual design process (Buxton 2008).

The Aesthetic and Technical Complexity of Interactive Sound

Starting from the already technology-heavy field of digital audio production, interactive sound demands a broad skill set, from knowledge about synthesis, acoustics, interface design, sensorics, and electronics, up to skills in analytic listening and music. These topics fill the curricula of full-time educational programs, for instance, in the area of computer music or composition for new media and, as such, are out of the scope of a curriculum in interaction design. In addition, we are dealing with the fact that sound will not play a central role in the professional life of most of our students.

The Mythical Sound Designer

Partially related to this complexity, sound design is often considered to be some obscure art form, performed by highly specialized eccentrics in esoteric and expensive high-end studios. This myth about sound design is particularly hard to battle. Interestingly, the vast majority of “making-ofs” and other sources of information on sound design (for film, mainly) usually serve to reinforce the stereotype. One reason for this lies in the nature of film sound, which – as with other cinematographic elements – ultimately aims to hide the artifice in favor of “suspense of disbelief”.

The result of all these factors is that only a small minority of students will even attempt to tackle interactive sound: Why bother with a “superfluous” modality which demands extensive technical skills usually taught at specialized institutions when dealing with such a complex interdisciplinary field as interaction design?