Sonic Information Design

Stephen Barrass



In a social science study of the International Community for Auditory Display (ICAD) Alexandra Supper observed two cultures she called the “correlation co-efficients” and the “trained ears” (Supper 2012). The correlation co-efficients come from scientific and engineering disciplines where statistical significance in controlled laboratory experiments is the hallmark of objectivity and research rigor. They argue that contributions to ICAD conferences should include empirical evaluations “to encourage increased standards and increased quality of the papers” (Degara Quintela, Nagel and Hermann 2013). On the other side, the trained ears come from computer music and the sonic arts where evaluation involves a subjective critique of aesthetic qualities and cultural context through self-reflection and expert feedback. They argue that scientific experiments involve non-experts in simple tasks focusing on aspects that are easy to measure rather than those that are relevant in actual practice. Much richer information can be perceived from practical examples than can be conveyed by statistics or graphs (which is really the point of sonification after all !).


The debate between the correlation co-efficients and the trained ears reflects C.P. Snow’s characterization of the cultural divide between the sciences and arts in western academia (Snow 1959). In another review of disciplinary divides, Nigel Cross identifies design as an alternative to scientific and artistic research methods. He describes science as focused on understanding the natural world through experiment and analysis, using methods based in rationality and objectivity. He characterizes the arts as exploring human experience using methods of criticism and evaluation based on reflection and subjectivity. Design, on the other hand, is focused on the artificial world created by the human mind, using imagination and practicality to model and synthesize new ideas and innovations (Cross 1982).

This paper argues that the idea of design is well aligned with the pragmatic and applied nature of auditory display. Design provides a complement to scientific and artistic approaches that can bridge the divide between the two cultures. The argument is developed through the rest of the paper in the subsequent sections. The background section describes how the field of auditory display has developed through three waves of research focus. The following section on evaluation identifies this as the bone of contention between the scientific and artistic research cultures in ICAD. This section also describes the proposal of “explorative evaluation” as a new method in the closely related field of data visualization. The next section on paradigms describes the human factors, cognitive science and phenomenological paradigms in human-computer interaction (HCI), and the design research paradigm underlying interaction design. The final section synthesizes this material to propose sonic information design as a paradigm for auditory display founded on design research. The final section goes on to describe various design research methods that sonic information design offers to complement scientific and artistic methods in auditory display.