Forming Meaning Through Our Most Personal Sense

Exploring Sensory Design with Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

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For Global Accessibility Awareness Day, Cooper Hewitt partnered with TEALEAVES and Microsoft Design, for a workshop in collaboration with artists from LAND Gallery and YAI ARTS, exploring the topics of memory, scent, and design.

The Senses Move Us Through Space

Deaf mythology tells the story of planet Eyeth. Here, visual-based communication is celebrated, doorbells ring through light, and hearing people are a minority. While Earth may present as an audio-oriented world in name, sight experiences are often privileged as the primary mode of meaning making. The story of Eyeth exists as a cultural celebration of Deafness and as an invitation to take this moment to consider the world around us and the barriers which were, at some point in history, designed. [1] Loudspeaker announcements in an airport, a phone call, a doorbell, a smoke detector—how might these tools for communicating essential information be designed with more users in mind?

Designers create built environments, products, and interactions that influence our engagement with the world around us—from the technology and clothing we use to the buildings, systems, and cities with which we engage. Historically, design often takes an ocularcentric approach, favoring a visual aesthetic experience, ignoring opportunities to connect through other modes. When design embraces our desires to engage through touch, sound, and smell, greater opportunities develop that activate inherent curiosity and support broader diversity. [2] By considering multisensory interactions, designers harness the potential to expand beyond limitations inherent to visual-based design. Inevitably, this can lead to more impactful and compelling innovation.

Understanding The Personal

The Social Research Centre’s 2009 The Smell Report describes that the “perception of smell consists not only of the sensation of the odours themselves but of the experiences and emotions associated with these sensations.” [3] Our interpretations of sensory interaction is deeply personal. What does home smell like? What does happiness smell like? Each of us has experiences linking our senses with emotion and memory.

We also know that sensory abilities change over the course of a lifetime. Learn more about how we think about the evolving way we engage with our senses through Microsoft’s persona spectrum. [4]

What does home smell like? What does happiness smell like? Each of us has experiences linking our senses with emotion and memory.

Fostering Connection

The need to connect is an inherently human experience. Understanding forms through the combination of sensory input coupled with our personal interpretation—allowing us to navigate and build connections. We then employ language to communicate about our direct experiences to orient and relate with others.

In 2011, McCann Worldgroup conducted a quantitative study of 7000 16–30 year olds. Their findings revealed that 53% of individuals would rather give up their sense of smell than their smartphones. At their core, both of these tools are essential in helping us form meaning and build connections. A gas leak, spoiled milk—we connect imperative information through our smell experiences. A trendy perfume, pine during the holidays—we also form social connections around our cultures, environments, and habits through smell. While we recognize the role of technology in generating information and social connections, this statistic presents a moment to consider the power of smell in our daily lives.

At the museum, we also consider how connections are formed. The stories we tell link objects to one another, the questions we ask ignite discussion, and the interactions we design all aim to create opportunities for building connections. On Global Accessibility Awareness Day, we are also considering how visitors might engage in our galleries through scent. We are creating an interaction card that pairs a scent with an object from Cooper Hewitt with the goal of fostering a deeper connection between visitors and the museum and its works on display.

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Extract from Ruth Starr’s article: ‘Forming Meaning Through Our Most Personal Sense’.

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