How to Build a Soundscape in Retail and Restaurant Environments

No, you’re not paranoid. Restaurants are getting louder, shopping malls are getting noisier, and the music in your favorite clothing store is getting worse – although that last one’s likely a consequence of age, not design.

As budgets tighten and the materials that used to dampen noise (tablecloths, carpeting, heavy curtains) fall out of fashion, customers are noticing the rise in decibels and they’re not happy about it.

In 2016, Consumer Reports revealed that customers complain about excessive noise in restaurants more than they complain about anything else — including the food. Apple’s Palo Alto flagship is well-known for being “almost unbearably noisy.” And so many people complain about holiday music in the winter months that one mall in the UK has started offering free earplugs to stressed-out shoppers.

That’s not to say that all noise needs to be avoided. No one likes eating at a silent restaurant, and the sounds of hustle and bustle can make any space feel livelier. There’s also some research indicating that particular kinds of background music can encourage shoppers to spend more. But all of those benefits require controlled sound, not freewheeling noise pollution.

So we asked a few of our branded environments designers for their advice for creating a well-considered soundscape in retail and restaurant spaces.

1. Picking a playlist isn’t enough

“Too many companies think that sound design begins and ends with a Spotify subscription,” says Beverley Wells, Director of Branded Environments. “They often forget to consider sound until the final stages of the design, if they consider it at all, but it has an important impact on the overall sensory experience of every environment.”

If your sports bar features televisions in every corner, each playing a different game, which — if any of them — will be routed through the main speakers? Is the bustle of a noisy mall battling your store’s sound system for shoppers’ attention? Is that clattering and cursing from your open-concept kitchen ruining the peaceful dining experience you were aiming for?

Being aware of these potential issues beforehand will allow your design team to put a plan in place that cuts down on the number of customers showing up with earplugs — or opting not to show up at all.

2. If possible, start with the bones

In a perfect world, designing for sound would start during construction with the use of fleet managers, according to designer Elena Moliotsias. “That’s when you’ll have the most control over how sound moves around within your space.

“Construction can be expensive enough that builders will often put off soundproofing, kicking the cost down the road for whoever winds up using the site. But choices that seem purely aesthetic — like the height of a ceiling or the curve of a wall — can dampen or heighten noise dramatically.”

Elena recommends consulting an acoustical consultant during the design process to assist with providing the best advice during the early stages. “This step is key when designing a space such as a concert venue, where not only is it essential to provide the highest quality of sound to the concert-goer, but equally as important to soundproof the building to eliminate noise leaking to the outside.

“Your contractor will also be able to offer suggestions for specific noise reduction solutions, so it’s important to have that conversation early, before the walls go up and there’s not much left to change.”

3. Think modular

Big, open, minimalist spaces might be trendy, but they’re a nightmare for anyone trying to have a private conversation at dinner. And anyone who’s been grocery shopping with young children can attest to the ear-splitting echo of a crying child in an almost empty room.

“This is one thing bank branches do really well,” says Elena. “No one wants to feel like they’re sharing private financial information with the whole branch, so banks have responded by using partitions and other barriers to embrace open design while protecting consumer privacy.”

By dividing your space into specific, designated zones, you can stylishly limit the noise pollution spreading through the environment.

4. Soundproofing doesn’t need to be ugly

When we asked Creative Director Sharon Eugene for advice on designing for sound, she immediately pulled out a sample box of colorful Zintra Acoustic Solutions.

“A lot of people put off soundproofing because they think it has to be an expensive eyesore. But materials like these, or Luca Nichetto’s beautiful acoustic panels, can be arranged so subtly that they fade into the background, or so artfully that they become a focal point in any space.

“Like any other material, they can get expensive if used to excess, but positioning them strategically can help absorb both internal and external sound, without sacrificing the look and feel of your space.”

Unless you’re designing a sound studio or a concert venue, noise levels probably won’t crack your list of top concerns when planning your next branded environment. But for visitors trying to have a conversation — or even just trying to hear themselves think in a busy space — the level of tolerable noise around them can make or break an experience. So, the next time you’re strolling through an empty building, imagining the possibilities, take a moment to consider volume control. Your customers will thank you.

Get Strategy + Design delivered straight to your inbox.