I heard some great advice at VFS from Animator Aaron Gilman: http://www.aarongilman.com/, who works at Weta Digital in New Zealand. He noted that when an Animator would be applying for a job with him, he would always ask the same interview questions: “What is the Inspiration for your work? And what is your Reference?” He explained that if the response from the Animator is: “It just comes from my imagination.”, they would rarely ever be hired. His team was always looking for a “Reference” the candidate had studied and used for inspiration. He would ask: Do you study a particular style of Animation? CGI? Stop-Motion? From what countries? And WHO in particular? He mentioned “Reference” is incredibly important as a point of discussion and idea generation among Animators.
I think “Reference” is a great idea to apply to Sound Design work. In order to start understanding what makes sound work with visual information in Film/TV/Animation, you need to listen to what specific sound designers have done in the past, so that you have your own “References” for idea generation and discussion. It is a great way to start picking patterns that reference specific Genres of Film Sound, and help you understand how other sound designers advance narrative and build tension. Pick some of your favorite films and find out the names of the Sound Designers involved. Start studying their work and find out what types of sounds they consistently use. You might start hearing a technique that can get you moving in new directions and help you ace the “Reference” question.