12 November, 2008

Shut that door!

It's time for retailers to close their front doors. Not only do open doors admit traffic noise and fumes; they also let out vast amounts of wasted energy. A new UK pressure group called Close The Door estimates the cost at hundreds of millions of pounds a year, and is gathering excellent media coverage and growing political support: there's a private member's bill due in Parliament at the end of this year.

In the US, the Long Island Power Authority estimated that retailers waste 20 to 25 percent of the energy they consume by allowing air-conditioned cool air to waft out onto the sidewalk - and in some areas the proportion of shops with their doors open as a matter of policy was a high as 65 percent. According to LIPA Chairman Richard M Kessel:

“Customers should ask the stores to close their doors. What good does it do to worry about such issues as air quality, global warming and high energy prices when one is scooting in an out of stores that waste 20 to 25 percent of the electricity they use? The message from customers should be: Be Cool – Keep it Closed.”

Now New York's Mayor Bloomberg has passed legislation banning shops from leaving their doors open while running their AC. But in the UK the practice remains common in summer and winter alike. A stroll down London's Oxford Street reveals that the vast majority of store doors are wide open, leaking energy and admitting noise and fumes. In my book I wrote this about the aural consequences:

I have stood in booth-like cell-phone outlets on Oxford Street wondering aghast how the people who work in there survive without therapy, and how any sensible business conversations take place at all. To add insult to injury, some of them are playing semi-audible music, presumably in the hope that this will make everything fine. It doesn’t.

I speculated that the noisy and smelly front few metres of many stores is effectively dead space, with much lower takings per metre than the more comfortable back part of the store, negating any benefits retailers claim from their open doors letting more people in; also, closed doors stop people from leaving just as much as they stop them from entering.

I would love to see a return to the old-fashioned system of revolving doors, which keep the noise out, the energy in and require no power to operate at all. An extra aural (and also environmental) benefit would be getting rid of those noisy and wasteful hot air blowers that many stores use instead of air curtains.

Shops with closed doors would be quieter, calmer and much more pleasant places to be, and I believe sales would increase - as long as the retailers also control their habit of playing mindless music, which surveys have shown upsets at least a third of their customers.

I welcome the new campaign and look forward to some sensible legislation on this in the UK very soon.

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01 November, 2008

Stoke are noisiest fans in UK football - official!

Sky TV have been measuring the average noise levels at UK Premiership football grounds all season, and they have just released the league table showing which fans make the most noise. The results are surprising for two reasons: first because newbies Stoke City are at no 1 (and bottom of the table Spurs are in second place); second because of the high levels of noise achieved.

The Stoke fans' average of 101.8 decibels is just below the threshhold of pain, equivalent to a powerful stereo system on maximum volume. Though short of Sky's claim that it matches a jet plane taking off, this is nevertheless between three and four times louder than the noise level at which factory or construction workers are required to wear hearing protection (85 dB). Impressive output indeed - and just in case any Stoke fans are concerned, no damage will result from exposure of just 90 minutes a week.

The noise levels jump to an even higher peak when a goal is scored of course, and these get really intense. The noisiest goal award goes to Newcastle, whose fans reached an amazing 114.8 dB when Michael Owen scored against Bolton. That's like being in the front rows at a rock concert.

However there doesn't seem to be any great correlation between noise levels and league position or long term success: Manchester United are way down the table. Maybe success breeds complacency, while fear and desperation ignite extra fervour - which could also explain the Spurs result.

Here's the full table:

1 - Stoke City - 101.8 decibels
2 - Tottenham Hotspur - 97.58 decibels
3 - Liverpool - 95.4 decibels
4 - Portsmouth - 94.3 decibels
5 - Newcastle United - 94.06 decibels
6 - Aston Villa - 92.2 decibels
7 - Chelsea - 92.06 decibels
8 - Middlesbrough - 91.3 decibels
9 - Arsenal - 90.8 decibels
10 - West Bromwich Albion - 90.26 decibels
11 - Everton - 89.98 decibels
12 - Blackburn Rovers - 89.3 decibels
13 - Bolton Wanderers - 88 decibels
14 - Manchester City - 87.25 decibels
15 - Fulham - 87 decibels
16 - Manchester United - 86.5 decibels
17 - West Ham United - 86.15 decibels
18 - Wigan Athletic - 86.16 decibels
19 - Hull City - 84.6 decibels
20 - Sunderland - 84.05 decibels

28 October, 2008

What people really think about brands

I'm enjoying brand tags, a site that aggregates people's one-word associations with major brands as tag clouds. It's a fun and also very useful resource for anyone interested in brands or marketing, giving a quick and clear view of what people really think of those big brands. Essential, not mention addictive, and highly recommended!

25 October, 2008

Conversation with the Planetwalker

Wonderful meeting with John Francis, the Planetwalker who spent 17 years in silence while he was walking across the US and Latin America. I met John originally at TED2008 and it was a pleasure to catch up in London, where he is on a short visit for the launch of his book. John is a gentle man who has achieved amazing things: during his long walk he took a degree and a PhD in land resorces and then taught at degree level, all without saying a word.

In the 22 years that John walked, and the 17 years that he refrained from speaking, he found a gentle yet potent wisdom about our way of living. His message is simple but challenging: saving the world starts and ends with respecting ourselves and the people immediately around us - for if we care about others, we will behave in ways that don't create bad consequences for them, or for the planet. John is now United Nations Goodwill Ambassador to the world's grassroots communities, and a leading figure in the global environmental movement. he's also an inspiration to us all, and I heartily recommend his book Planetwalker.

Naturally with my sound-based perspective, what fascinates me most about John's remarkable story is how he was transformed by his elective silence. Within 24 hours of deciding not to speak, he discovered that he had never truly listened. With no possibility of answering people, he found that instead of planning his next remark, or judging his degree of agreement or disagreement, he was simply listening. For most people, the silent part of conversation isn't really silent at all: their internal voice is judging, assessing, cross-indexing, selecting potential replies, or working out how to impress others or to win the contest that often underpins conversation.

In my book I write about the different qualities of listening that exist, and distinguish three dimensions: active-passive, empatheric-critical, and reductive-expansive. Active listening is designed to make the other feel heard, using techniques such as reflection and summarising; passive listening is non-judgmental, akin to the way we listen to music. Empathetic listening is designed to make the other feel emotionally understood; critical listening has conscious filters in place. Reductive listening is selective, discarding whatever's not on-target for the listener's goals; expansive listening is simply curious, open to whatever comes.

What I think John Francis discovered as he walked in silence and listened to the world is the richness of passive/empathetic/expansive listening, the polar opposite of the most common position in the Western world, which is active/critical/reductive. When speaking is taken out of the equation, all that remains is experiencing the words of others in the here and now. It's no coincidence that many spiritual masters and religious orders have adopted silence as a practice. (For more about silence as a whole see my previous blog on silence here). The difference with John is that he undertook the practice in the real world, not in a walled community where it was the norm. His experience sheds unique insight on the value of silence. I think all children should spend at least a week in silence as part of their education. What a different world we would inhabit if we all learned to listen in this way!

19 October, 2008

Simplicity v Security - and whither privacy?

Well here goes... this feels like attempting a triple toe loop or a double pike, but I am setting out to post to my blog from ScribeFire within Firefox, with an automatic feed from my blog to Twitter via Twitterfeed. Then I will be trying to clip some material from the web with autopost to my blog via Clipmarks, and thus to Twitter... then the final step will be to set up some subscriptions on my blog. All that and I still won't have integrated Facebook, socialmedian, Evernote and many other tools that all promise to make me a nexus for all the universe's relevant information.

The odds of all this working are about 50:1 and it's taken what seems like (and probably is) days to learn about it, subscribe to all the various websites with their individual user names and passwords - OpenID notwithstanding. I know I'm verging on geriatric at 50, but I like to imagine that even the highly netted-up younger turks of my acquaintance like Mike Butcher, Thomas Power and Mitch Joel have their moments of overwhelm. There must be a great business out there for somebody who can integrate all this stuff and either configure or manage it for clients.

Meanwhile the main trade-off still seems to be between simplicity (one easy-to-remember username and password on all sites, with full auto-completion) and security (a different, secure name and password on every site, manually typed in every time). For most people the latter must involve buying and diligently using a secure database for all those passwords (I use a great little app called SplashID which syncs between my Mac and iPhone) - but these databases can presumably be hacked... not to mention the investment of time in retrieving the passwords and, even more annoyingly, finding that this website is yet another one you forgot to enter into the database and having to open a duplicate acccount! I suspect millions are choosing simplicity over security.

And then there's good old-fashioned privacy. I saw a talk at TED 2008 about the future of social networking. It was pretty scary. At the end I asked: "What about privacy?". The answer was: "Forget it - your children have already left it behind." While those over 30 agonise about what to post on Facebook v LinkedIn, what to tweet and who is a real friend, the teenagers are already out there sharing everything. Maybe it's the end of masks and role playing, and the dawn of a new, integrated and wholly honest age. Or maybe they will all get badly burned and find new ways to silo their personae online. Being British and my age I still value privacy, which is one reason why I react against the audio pollution in train carriages, where I receive all sorts of personal information I don't want about my fellow travellers as they rabit away on their mobiles, seemingly oblivious to the existence of those around them. The other day a man paid his builder in just such a carriage, reading his credit card details out for all to hear. Maybe privacy is indeed a dying value. I for one will mourn its passing.

15 August, 2008

The Sound of Silence

I'm just back from a short holiday in Northern Italy, where my wife is from. Doing what I do, I naturally listen to every place I visit and on this trip three experiences made me think about the subject of silence.

First was a visit to Isola S. Giulio in the middle of beautiful Lake Orta, near Milan. This small island houses a basilica and a convent for a community of nuns of a silent order, which is why it's known as 'the island of silence'. Encircling the island is a single footpath: La Via del Silenzio. Visitors are encouraged to walk the path in silent reflection, and every hundred metres or so there is a board showing one meditation on silence for the way out, and on the other side one for the way back. I was struck by these meditations because they are so universal. There is no hint of Catholic dogma; rather, they resonate with the deep wisdom mined by every spiritual path that has discovered the power of silence - which is most of them. I list these meditations at the end of this blog, so that you can use any or all of them without having to go all the way to Orta. Walking the path and internalising these reflections created a sense of deep peace and wellbeing, and of being fully present in the moment - which is probably saying the same thing in two ways.

Second by dramatic contrast was Milan's railway station. This is a monumental building from Mussolini's time, built on massive scale and with the acoustics of a cathedral. Sadly its grandeur is being eroded by the recent installation of many plasma screens showing a looped couple of minutes of advertising - with sound played through the entire station PA system. At first I thought they were playing opera, until the fragment repeated again and again as a small part of the loop, advertising as it transpired a mobile phone service. Opera in that space would have been interesting, pleasing and, with La Scala close by, very appropriate. The looped advertising sound felt intrusive, overbearing, irritating and even profane in that grand building, adding a gratuitous extra level of noise to the existing reverberating cacophany of train engines, footfall, voices and sundry machinery. When I lecture on sound I end with our Four Golden Rules for public sound. Rule 1 is: make it optional. Rule 2 is: make it appropriate. Rule 3 is: make it valuable. Rule 4 is: test it and test it again. The sound in Milan station breaks all four rules at once. (Incidentally, all the subway stations have two large projectors on each platform, again with sound booming out of them. Thank goodness that in London the projectors now being installed are silent.) I blogged earlier about the digital out of home industry that is putting screens up in every conceivable location, and about the need for these installations to integrate their sound carefully into existing soundscapes. Milan is a very worrying example of what could be the future in all public spaces if we're not careful. Never did silence seem more valuable than in this awful noise.

The third experience was high in the awe-inspiring Dolomites, which I think are the most beautiful mountains on the planet. We trekked for three days, staying at rifugii up to 2,500m above sea level. The air was like crystal, the views were overwhelming and from time to time we heard the silence of the mountains. In my experience, the deep silence of nature is to be found only in high mountains or in deserts (hot or cold), because in these places there are no birds or insects. When the wind dropped and in between the intermittent high-altitude overflights by Ryanair, the Dolomites offered us that rare experience. This is where I agree with Evelyn Glennie, who said in her wonderful film Touch The Sound that silence is itself a sound, and not just the absence of sound. The deep silence of nature is rich and pure: it is the essential context for all other sound, just as a dress in black (the absence of all colour) is the context for what it contains. This silence is the sound between all sounds. Immersed in it, one can start to sense connection and resonance with all of nature.

As we traveled back, I reflected on the different kinds of silence. At the extreme is an anechoic chamber. With no sound source and zero reverberation, this is the purest silence humans can achieve (because we can't survive in a vacuum, the ultimate silence). However, after a short time in such intense silence one starts to hear internal sounds: blood pumping, lungs and other organs moving, tinnitus in the ears. This overbearing artificial silence does not, it transpires, offer us the experience of silence at all.

In a truly silent building such as Worth Abbey Church late at night, silence settles on the listener like a warm cloak - but its overtones define the shape of the space. With eyes closed and without any sound, you can sense you are in a huge room. Indoor silence like this is rare and to be cherished, and is wonderful for meditation, prayer, contemplation, or even working. It has an entirely different quality to the silence of the mountains, resonating with all that is best about humanity rather than a deeper connection with nature.

The silence of nature is the finest of all, because in it we sense our connection with everything. However, it's becoming a precious commodity. If silence was golden in the 60s, it's a rare and precious diamond now. There are few remaining wildernesses which offer more than a short burst of true silence. Nature recordist Bernard Krause claims there is now almost no place on Earth – including the North Pole, Antarctica and the dense forests of Indonesia and the Amazon – that is free of aircraft overflights, the buzz of chain saws or other human clatter. Krause remembers when it took 20 hours to get 15 minutes of usable recorded material. “Now it takes 200 hours,” he says.

Away from wildernesses, there is a third kind of silence which comprises lack of proximate speech and machinery, especially cars, planes and trains. This is the silence one can experience at Orta: the soundscape is in fact quite rich, with lapping waves, birds, wind, and even distant human sound such as boats and high planes. It's not total silence, but in this quietness there is still peace, as we found when walking the Way of Silence.

In cities, silence is something that most people actively avoid. Their first reaction on walking into a silent room is to turn something on - radio, TV, stereo, anything to stop the silence. They have become so used to urban noise that they feel uncomfortable without it. I think urban living has created an addiction to noise as a means of avoiding being fully present. This is fully expressed in the way so many people now walk around with iPods on or speaking on their mobile phones. In the noise of the city, we are becoming like ghosts: not really there at all.

Silence is a medium for growing human consciousness, an invitation to be fully present, and a doorway to a sense of connection with the universe, or God if you prefer. How sad that we have made it an endangered species - and that this process is accelerating. Will we in future trek across mountains wearing our iPods? Have we lost the desire to be present, connected and conscious? Or can we preserve the silent places and benefit from them in the ways of our ancestors?

If you hope for the latter as I do, then why not respond to this blog by posting some places you know where silence can be experienced. And then take some action to protect them. Maybe we can start to reverse the tide of noise and defend the silence in the world.

The silence meditations from Isola S Giulano, Orta

  • In the silence you accept and understand
  • In the silence you receive all
  • Silence is the language of love
  • Silence is the peace of oneself
  • Silence is music and harmony
  • Silence is truth and prayer
  • In the silence you meet the Master
  • In the silence you breath God
  • Walls are in the mind
  • The moment is present, here and now
  • Leave yourself and what is yours

05 July, 2008

Noise costs retail millions

Canadian sound guru R Murray Schafer estimates that urban environments are getting noisier by around half a decibel every year. If that's right, our cities are twice as loud as they were 20 years ago. That feels about right to me - but it's the noise indoors in public spaces that I am really starting to struggle with. I'm 50, and so my ability to extract signal from noise is declining. This ability is called the 'cocktail effect' in the excellent book Sonic Experience by Jean-Francois Augoyard, which lists all the major sonic effects we experience. It's a common, possibly universal, aspect of middle age to have this ability dwindle, and it makes loud public spaces more or less intolerable. The act of pulling one strand from the spaghetti requires such intense concentration that it becomes exhausting. In my experience also seems to be a general increased sensitivity to background noise, especially OPC (other people's conversation). I am fine with a loud film or gig, but many modern restaurants and shops drive me nuts.

This was the subject of the recent piece in The Times by Stefanie Marsh (click here to see it online). I took Stefanie on a tour of some particularly bad examples in London's West End. Representing catering was Carluccio's. I enjoy their food but every one of Signor Carluccio's restaurants that I have visited sounds awful. The cookie cutter design uses no absorbent material at all: hard floors, tables, chairs, walls and ceilings and often box-shaped rooms all combine to create appalling acoustics, so that even at half capacity it's hard to hear your companion. When full, you just have to join everyone else in bellowing. Oh, and they play music on top of the din, which is just adding insult to injury. Probably the worst offender I know in London is Moro in Exmouth Market, where the same interior design principle (ban anything soft) combines with an open plan kitchen and tables about four inches apart to create a dining experience that could only be enjoyed in isolation with a pair of headphones on - and even then you'd need to be playing the Raconteurs rather than Chopin to drown out the din.

Shops are worse offenders in one sense. They may be quieter than Moro but the penalty they suffer from making the wrong noise is so much greater. Few people will complain or walk out of a restaurant because it's too noisy, though many will never go back. Shops on the other hand are far less sticky. Based on personal experience and interviews with many shoppers I believe that many people turn around and leave before they even get inside a shop because of its noise. The eyes are being told: "Come in, hang out, spend your money", but the ears are being told: "Leave at once, hostile environment, not safe".

Shops don't even know they are losing all this business. Most of them now keep their doors open all day, admitting the noise and fumes from the busy street outside and making the first few feet of the store virtually uninhabitable. Presumably this is based on some piece of research showing that people find open doors less of a barrier to entering. But open doors are also less of a barrier to leaving, which is the course of action most people take when they find themselves in an unpleasant soundscape.

Most shop soundscapes are arbitrary. Nobody designed them: they are the accidental results of design by people with no ears, plus music programming that's based on the incorrect assumption that jolly pop music is right for all occasions, plus the various activities taking place and machines operating in the space.

These soundscapes are also incongruous: they work against, rather than with the visual branding.

And finally they are hostile: they cause stress reactions such as release of cortisol or increased heart rate and blood pressure, and so people leave sooner than they would if there were a pleasant soundscape.

Every retailer knows that sales are related to dwell time, especially for more complex or expensive items or multiple-item purchases. In the current climate of reduced high street sales, it's bizarre that most retailers are turning many customers away and truncating the visits of many more with their bad sound. In effect they are shooting themselves in the foot daily, suppressing their own sales with inappropriate and unpleasant soundscapes. This thoughtless practice is costing millions every day. I know that's true because we've shown with clients that we can increase sales by 3-10% by installing an appropriate soundscape. And remember the population in the developed countries is aging rapidly, so shops need to be thinking about keeping older customers happier because there are less young ones to rely on. This means less noise and more clarity: soundscapes that are properly designed with a foreground and a background that go together harmoniously.

The smart retailers are starting to experiement right now, so maybe the antidote to retail recession will be beautiful sound instead of cheaper oil!

16 April, 2008

Sounding off in Brazil

I was honoured this week to speak in São Paolo, Brazil, at the 22nd Semana Internacional da Criação Publicitària (International Week of Advertising Creativity). My hosts were Brazilian advertising legends and top guns from the Long Play agency, Prandini and Luna. (In Brazil, when you’re famous you become known by one name, usually your surname. I knew the custom from their footballers, but I never realised it happens in business too.) A more charming, hospitable and clearly highly effective duo it would be hard to imagine.

I spoke twice, once to a full house of 400 students in the afternoon and then at 10pm to the same number of industry professionals. The reaction was powerful and positive both times. The students asked about the similarities between the effects of music and the effects of drugs (nice to know students are the same everywhere!) and the professionals were interested particularly in how The Sound Agency works with - or in spite of - advertising agencies. I recounted some of our experiences and confirmed that for now we find it far more productive to deal directly with the client, because agencies simply don’t understand sound: they may pretend they do and try to marginalise our work, or they may see us as a threat and make it a power struggle. The best agencies, of course, are curious and open, wanting to learn. I’m sure that in 10 years every agency will have the skills we have in The Sound Agency and will design and create with sound just as they do today with form, colour, light and texture. However, for the time being, we have skills that they don’t and so we need buy-in at CEO, or at least CMO level in order to be effective.

Although Brazil has such a wonderful musical heritage, the use of sound in branding and in public spaces is currently somewhat chaotic. For example, standing in the customs queue at 7 am in São Paolo airport, I was assailed by three Samsung plasma screens suspended from the ceiling. Were they showing beautiful images of Brazil to the tune of some soothing bossa nova or some irresistible samba? No, the selected content to welcome visitors to Brazil was... Yo! MTV Raps. It would be hard to think of something more inappropriate in that place at that time.

It turns out that these screens are the norm. The city has a local ordnance banning outdoor advertising, which makes for a slightly surreal experience. Not only is it vast - some 18 million people live there and it stretches away in all directions as far as the eye can see - but the only visual messages you encounter there are from graffiti artists. No ads in bus shelters; no billboards; no poster sites. As a result, the digital signage industry has gone indoors, so screens are everywhere inside the buildings and the vehicles of São Paolo. Many have sound on, and I sincerely hope that my talk to the local advertising community has given them some food for thought about the implications in terms of arbitrary, incongruous and hostile soundscapes.

I do believe that by designing visual and auditory environments to work together, we can create a quantum leap in powerful and positive customer experience. But we need to start now, before the world ends up like that customs queue in São Paolo.

I made some good new friends in São Paolo and thoroughly enjoyed the trip. On the way back I was lucky enough to marvel at one of the most spectacular sights I have ever seen: a vast, four-pronged thunderstorm in Northern Brazil at sunset, stretching from the ground to way above our cruising height of 35,000 feet. Splashed with golds and reds at the top, the cloud’s lower blackness was illuminated every few seconds from within by violent stabs of lightning. We changed course to avoid these potentially lethal monsters and I’m very glad I wasn’t underneath them. But from a few miles away they were possibly the most beautiful and dramatic things I’ve ever seen. I only enjoyed this because the in-flight entertainment system was broken. Makes me wonder what I’ve missed over the years outside the windows of other planes...

29 February, 2008

Sound at TED

TED (www.ted.com) is an extraordinary conference. Its acronym stands for Technology Entertainment and Design, and it brings together 1,600 fascinating people, and around 50 brilliant speakers, in a hothouse of ideas and connections. It's a highlight of my year to be back in Monterey. Already (on day 3 of 4) this is turning out to be a vintage TED. Sessions will be posted on the TED website in the coming weeks - I urge you to bookmark it and check regularly because there's been some stunning stuff.

This morning a highlight of the entire week happened, and it was about sound. MIT Labs' Tod Machover gave a fantastic presentation about the work they are doing in Boston, ranging from an ever-expanding range of new instruments designed to engage children in music, to their new Hyperscore software that makes composing an option for everyone in the world, to new work on music as therapy for those with both mental and physical illness or disability.

After debunking the cod science of the Mozart Effect (see my book for more on that red herring) Tod gave three postulates:

1 music is better if you make it
2 music is transformative
3 music shows who you really are

Along the way he covered the Toy Symphony, the Brain Opera, and the exciting new work Death and the Powers, which premieres in Monaco in September 2009 and sounds incredible.

The talk climaxed in a performance by Dan, a patient at Tewksbury Hospital MA who has cerebral palsy but is able to perform his compositions live thanks to a personal instrument (linked to Hyperscore software) that reads his facial and head movements and interprets them to drive tempo, phrasing, arrangement and so on. It was deeply moving to see this young man's movements become deliberate, precise and even beautiful and he drove this unique combination of technology and music, giving us a performance no-one in the hall will ever forget. The long standing ovation, and tears in many eyes, testified to the joy of seeing a human being liberated from a physical prison and allowed to express his whole identity in this wonderful way.

Hats off to Tod, whom I look forward to meeting in London next time he's over. I commend MIT Labs' work to you - check them out on the web and be inspired!