Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Black Noise Branding

I'd like to introduce a new concept I've been thinking a lot about for some time now, which I call BLACK NOISE BRANDING.

As Invisible Branding is to Design strategy, Black Noise Branding is to Sonic Branding, –not polar opposites, but complimentary concepts capable of full integration.

FYI: "Invisible Branding refers to those stakeholder touchpoints that have little or no visual presence in the market". Such 'invisible' touchpoints include vision, relationships, training and strategy (Invisible Branding by Josh Levine, Steal this Idea).

At first, Active Noise Control and Black Noise Branding appear to be identical tasks, but they are actually quite different.


Active Noise Control implies the exclusive elimination of nuisance sound. In contrast, Black Noise Branding implies a positive effort to shape a given acoustic ecology by creating deliberate (though possibly random in execution) intervals of Silence. The result does not produce a vacuum, but rather an opportunity for audiences, users and consumers to listen, contribute and arguably co-create –or at the very least, co-habitate the space.

If it's Silent, then why is it called Black Noise Branding?

Silence is sometimes referred to as Black Noise.

In our case, the Silence is not happenstance, but deliberately shaped within a given Acoustic Ecology, and therefore designed.

You don't need to possess synesthesia in order to know that sound comes in all sorts of colors. And anyone who owns a synthesizer probably knows the difference between White Noise and Pink Noise. In fact, noise comes in many (formally and informally) designated colors, including: Red, Blue, Brown, Violet and Gray.

That Silence might be designated Black Noise –or noise, at all– may make little sense at first until one realizes that Silence is generally relative, rarely absolute. A hushed street or garden, for instance, become all but that when you actually stop to listen. Suddenly, what might have initially seemed a dull Acoustic Ecology starts to hum and buzz with with all sorts of natural, ambient sound.


John Cage made effective use of silence with his popular avant-garde work 4'33". By 'popular', I don't mean that a lot of people like it; I mean a lot of people have heard about the work, and once aware of it, have a strong opinion about it (regardless of whether or not they've personally experienced its effect).

However, if you're unfamiliar with the work, all you need to know is that in the manuscript, Cage directs the performers to make no sound at all. Instead the musician or musicians sit quietly for the entire prescribed term: four minutes and thirty-three seconds.

Most audience members describe the result as an uncomfortably long period of silence (and thank God when it's over).

The surface of the moon would actually provide a silent venue, but here on Earth, the result is Black Noise.

The interesting thing is, many audience members find themselves captivated by 4'33" –and no one forgets it easily, probably because Cage has made his audience co-creators of the final experience.

Black Noise isn't defined by absolute silence but rather by relative quiet interrupted with random spikes of ambient sound. In the case of the Cage piece, the shuffle of programs and feet, miscellaneous coughs, the leakage of outside traffic and weather, and all manner of sound for as far as the ear can hear –all become transitional audio components of the work, even if they only exist in the ever-changing and fast-fading present moment (if the 'performance' is not recorded).

4'33" works precisely because what Cage has done is framed these few minutes upon the premise that a formal work is, in fact, in progress. And audience members don't actually experience silence. Instead they are sort of tricked into a heightened sense of awareness, which leads to an almost compulsive act of sustained listening to (and for) any and all sounds that manage to leak into the room and which suddenly serve to fill an increasingly less and less silent space.

Half the controversy surrounding the work is not that silence is presented as music, but that when audiences finally open their ears to LISTEN, they come away amazed to learn that most of the time they're not really focused –that sighs and honks and and hums and buzzes whirl about them all the time, if only they would tune in from time to time, they might notice it. For a little while, for 4'33" to be precise, they suddenly do.

4'33" provides additional interest for us in the knowledge that like sound, (relative) silence' can also captivate an entire room of individuals, perhaps even as readily as a graphic. Attention is gained not by a flashy image or well designed logo –but, really, the opposite of all that: Deliberately framed Black Noise.


Supporting this concept is the premise that absence of external sensory stimuli invites internal stimuli, such as anticipation or an awareness of self.

In the Benita Raphan documentary on Polaroid inventor Edwin Land, the film maker makes a strong point that indeed, Absence is Stronger Than Presence (1996), as easily demonstrated throughout the Twentieth Century by the sheer excitement garnered by even one undeveloped negative. Interestingly, excitement is experienced not after the film has developed, but before it's developed, or while it's developing.


If I look for another current, successful example of Black Noise Branding in action, the first thing I think of is the GOOGLE home page.

Note, Black Noise is metaphorical for our purposes, and can imply absence of Audio, Image or any other sensory data.

In contrast to Invisible Branding, which implies, not the absence of design elements, but rather intangible assets, Black Noise is indeed defined by absence. However, like Cage's work, Black Noised produced by absence of an aural focal point becomes a branding tool when framed by an idea, motivation or communication strategy.

As it happens, the Google home page essentially presents those who interface with it with visual silence, and in doing so invites interaction and contribution.

Sure, today, in 2008, the Google logo is perhaps the most recognizable brand in the world. But in 1998, when the company launched, most people looked at Google and saw a simple, unbranded website. That is, they saw nothing, but Google's interface designers somehow coaxed them into engagement.

Fast forward to the present, a decade on, and it's impossible not to notice that graphic artists worldwide continue to draw inspiration from the concept of visual silence, due in no small part to Google's success, and in the process access similarly powerful image statements.

At the beginning of this series I wrote:

"...from corporate messaging to personal ringtones, sometimes it's good to remember that the relative absence of sound, what we think of as SILENCE, can still be quite effective..."

But what's so special about the absence of sound?

Like many things, there is nothing particularly special about it. –At least not until you frame the perceived vacuum within a defined (and therefore branded) context, or by demonstrating contrast.


'Silence', 'Relative Quiet', 'Nothingness' -it all sounds pretty negative and nihilistic, but in fact a kind of anti-nihilism and negative branding is driving much of our present culture, if only because designers have rediscovered absence not only creates anticipation, but defines contrast.

For instance, consider that not only do Great Color TVs Depend on Black and White (New York Times, May 2008), manufacturers such as Pioneer, have gotten hip to the notion that the pursuit of absolute black –the absence of color– may just be the most effective way to brand their new electronic products.

It follows that the strategic use of Black Noise can also serve as an effective utility in the Music Designer's sonic branding tool kit.

After all, every composer knows what a REST is.

FYI: The Wikipedia definition of REST is: "A Rest is an interval of silence".

Rests (of varying degrees) usually appear between phrases. It is a place where a singer, for instance, can catch his or her breath. For listeners, a rest increases anticipation for what follows, but also simultaneously delivers a brief moment when the ear can wander elsewhere (but not too far). Composers can actually use rests in order to invite both increased focus or distraction (in audiences), depending on the requirements of the score. The result is that any musical statement that follows is consumed with rapt attention.

Within the context of sonic and audio branding, Rests (intervals of silence) hold the potential to present listeners with an invitation to listen to the ambient sound around them, and connect with it. Or to elicit a desired attention level before introducing a formally constructed Sound Mark.


Likewise, a Sound Masking consultant might consider re-positioning a noise suppression service as an audio design solution, especially if the assignments can generally be described as shaping quiet space from a busy existing Acoustic Ecology.

I should clarify: I'm not simply suggesting repackaging Isolation Foam and Mass Loaded Vinyl in a new Black Noise wrapper.

Simply consider that the hypothetical pairing of a Noise Reduction professional with a Brand analyst possessing sound aesthetic judgment on any given project might in fact maximize user or customer experience by virtue of their collaboration, rather than continuing to follow the old model where the foam went up on one day and the orchestra came in on another.


Strategically Composed Intervals of Silence:

• Defines Contrast (as Pioneer demonstrates)
• Creates Anticipation (as Polaroid demonstrates)
• Heightens Awareness (as Cage demonstrates)
• Invites Contributors (as Google demonstrates)

If your brand is private and built-to-last, then of course the best solution is using traditional noise control to carve out a space (physical or virtual) to feature your solid state sonic branding.

But if you're creating a public and fluid environment or user experience, and thereby inviting co-creation, and if you're open to other voices enhancing and enriching your brand story, then perhaps the solution (also) includes the tasteful and expert application of branded Black Noise.

* * *

Click any link below to read all the articles in the six-part July 2008 UNBRANDED series detailing the relationship between Effective Sonic Branding and Black Noise (Silence):


That is the Question.

Part 1: Non Branding For The Best Branders
Part 2: Sonic Branding or Silent Branding?
Part 3: Websites and Sonic Branding
Part 4: The Sonification of Everything
Part 5: Silence Please, for the Soundtracks of Our Lives
Part 6: Black Noise Branding

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