August 30, 2023
Crafting Multi-Sensorial Design Experiences
Human beings are afforded an exceptionally rich experience of the surrounding world. Think back to the last time you were on a beach, the last time you stayed at a hotel, the last time you sipped coffee at your favorite cafe—these environments are probably very distinct in your mind. You wouldn’t need to deliberately piece together the smell of roasting coffee beans, the sight of delicious pastries, and the sound of soft music to know that you had entered a coffee shop; our sensations of the world, vibrant and immersive, are highly automatic. But how do we maintain this magical, effortless perception of reality?

Our conscious experience of life, from moment to moment, is produced by a complex web of sensory information: we integrate the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and haptics of any given circumstance implicitly and at lightning speed. This seamless processing then elicits specific emotional and behavioral responses.

The importance of multi-sensory stimulation is a burgeoning concept across all markets in the design industry. When creating experiences for the modern-day consumer, conjuring the most engrossing, captivating encounter possible has become the clear priority. The rise of virtual reality is an ideal example--we want to be transported to other worlds, enveloped in stunning animation that feels real enough to touch. Designers are moving beyond only the visual and are skillfully activating haptic, olfactory, auditory, and gustatory touchstones to gift consumers with unforgettable experiences.
As a species, our most primary sense is vision, and when it comes to design, optical elements clearly take on extraordinary importance, setting the stage for all following impressions. The eye will first notice motion, edges of shapes, contrast, and color, so carefully crafting these features is crucial to evoke the desired mood for patrons.
Although sight is paramount, a sense that goes vastly underappreciated is touch. We have thousands of sensory neurons devoted to tactile understanding, with touch being a principal sense through which we orient ourselves to our surrounding environments. Design materials come in all forms: raw, polished, cold, warm, and more. They can also vary in texture, though multiple research studies have determined that we prefer to interact with smooth rather than rough objects. The haptics of a space, apart from setting a distinct tone for customers, can also serve as a functionally useful tool for designers. For example, to mitigate the safety risks of patrons’ failure to hold onto escalator hand railings, companies have strategically warmed the banisters’ surface material, successfully encouraging tactile contact.
Smell, out of all of the senses, has the strongest connection to the brain’s limbic system, highlighting its importance to emotion and memory. A scent can transport us in time, back to loved ones who always wore a particular perfume or to mornings spent making a delicious breakfast. It isn’t hard to imagine olfaction’s significance to design: a company’s signature smell carries lasting affective associations, serving as a potent device to set its brand apart in consumer recollection.
Although we may not be able to touch or see it, sound has a profound influence on mood. A number of studies have linked music to lower heart rate, increased release of dopamine, and enhanced relaxation for better sleep. Designers can employ style of music to their advantage, strategically eliciting targeted behaviors from customers. Energetic music will encourage interpersonal interaction in social spaces, while dulcet music will induce tranquility in areas jammed with long lines. Apart from music, acoustic properties also prove crucial. The materials and layouts designers utilize, each carrying distinct implications for sound’s reverberation throughout a space, must be selected with intention.
The last sense to be covered, taste, is unique in that it is profoundly influenced by other senses. Thus, particularly when designing spaces linked to dining, awareness of gustation’s intricate interplay with smell and vision is worthwhile. Olfaction’s role in taste has been well-documented, as ambient fragrance can affect patrons’ appetite subconsciously: one study filled a restaurant with the subtle scent of pear, and found that diners were significantly more likely to order a fruit-based dessert. New research is being conducted on sight’s impact on taste as well. Preliminary evidence shows that design materials of certain textures and shades can stimulate subliminal oral sensations.
Crafting a multi-sensory experience instantly elevates any space but also requires the designer to be a master-orchestrator. The stimulation of each sense must be carefully coordinated, as activation of too many at once creates an overwhelming experience for the patron. Designers should ask themselves--what is the overall message to be imparted? At what specific moment do we want customers to feel a particular emotion and where in the space? To learn more about the answers to these queries, and how multi-sensory design can uplift your next project, be sure to check out Ultrafabrics’ CEU, “Designing for the Senses.”
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