There’s a reason why you can’t stop thinking about last week’s concert, or why you get chills when reminiscing about the sporting event you were lucky enough to attend years ago. They were uniquely overwhelming experiences -- from the smell or the venue, to the taste of the food, to the collective sounds of the crowd. We are drawn to experiences that provide such multi-sensory stimulation and exhilaration, and it’s a truth that plays into every facet of our lives.
There’s no denying it: through taste, touch, smell, sight and sound our five senses are a direct line into how we make sense of the world and ourselves. You might see it in your daily routine, like feeling that sense of serenity when petting your dog after a strenuous day at the office. Or perhaps it’s that palpable rush of nostalgia, like a vivid childhood memory triggered by the smell of sunblock. Our senses are powerful forces, and when more than one sense is stimulated at a time, there are wildly creative -- and lucrative -- applications.
Jinsop Lee, an industrial designer, gave a TED talk in February 2013 about the power of sensory design, and since then, the video has been viewed more than 1 million times. In the talk, he says that the most intense experiences in a person’s life tend to combine the five senses. Lee uses a motorcycle ride as an example. The sound of a revving engine, the blur of a landscape passing by, the taste and smell of fresh air mingling with exhaust fumes and the feeling of the machine’s vibrations can all create a memorable sensory overload. The best experiences then, according to Lee, are the ones that maximize all senses.
Many industries have already capitalized on the pleasing aspects of including several sensory experiences into product designs. Take smart phones, for example. In a highly competitive market where both software and hardware are becoming exponentially better, smart phone makers have to differentiate themselves not only through function but also through aesthetics. Some smart phones are designed with a pleasant heaviness, smooth metals and sharp visual displays, all of which elicit a feeling of preciousness and luxury. Others use sturdy, comfortable plastics on their smart phones, which creates a feeling of reassurance for customers who lead active lifestyles. These physical attributes provide the foundation for how a user perceives the device. The product shouldn’t be thought of as a simple piece of technology, but rather a meticulously sculpted object that holds the power to better connect you to the world. Its potential to enhance and alter one’s life is implied in the intricacies of the design.
Gadi Amit is the principal designer and owner at San Francisco-based New Deal Design, the studio known for the FitBit, Sproutling and Whistle activity trackers and the Lytro camera. The studio takes a tactile approach to its designs, preferring to make its products soft, fun and interactive. To Amit, sensory design creates one of the most visceral ways of experiencing the world because it provides information. “This is part of enjoying any experience in life, and designers should take it into account,” Amit said. “If you’re feeling very satisfied with a product, it accumulates into delight. That’s a magic word in design. We cause people to have a sense of joy knowing that we’ve surpassed their expectations.”
Outside the tech world, pioneers in the food industry have chosen to embrace this multisensory design theory, taking the experience of dining to an avant-garde level. The “Dinners in the Dark” program at Camaje in New York requires that guests wear blindfolds and eat from a secret menu. “We were inspired by the concept in Europe of restaurants where people dine in blackout rooms led by blind waiters,” said Abigail Hitchock, owner and chef at Camaje. “We knew that at our small bistro we couldn't make a blackened room. So at our events we give people meditation masks and have interesting tactile and aural experiences layered between the multi-course meals.” With their sight removed from the equation, the restaurant’s patrons are forced to rely more on their other senses -- especially touch, smell and taste -- to provide them with information. Far from being an uncomfortable experience, patrons can have fun by isolating senses that usually work together during a meal.
Beyond restaurants and wearable technology, an industry that stands to benefit from playing into a consumer’s senses is the automotive industry. Lincoln has already explored the power of this approach. The company’s new 2015 MKC vehicle, for example, was built by artisans who made a conscious effort to incorporate the senses into their design. As senior exterior designer Dillon Blanski describes, the exterior of the car has to be the first thing that draws a consumer into the experience. “The sense of sight plays a big part in the exterior design. On the MKC, special attention was paid to the execution of the surface to create beautiful highlights -- especially the athletic shoulders and hood.” Further enhancing these exterior elements, when the vehicle senses an approaching driver, it welcomes them with signature lighting that illuminates key features and displays a welcome mat beneath the driver and passenger doors.
Beyond the exterior, Lincoln designers structured the interior of the MKC with a series of deliberate features that play into the driver’s senses. Soo Kang, Lincoln’s interior design chief, wanted the vehicle to be “substantial,” with an organic flow of lines and quality materials that would provide a sense of spaciousness in the cockpit. “When I looked at the design,” said Kang, “it was more of an emotional surrounding we had to create. It had to be warm and inviting –like an embrace -- but at the same time, you have to feel comfortable driving that vehicle.” Part of the car’s soothing ambiance comes from its Active Noise Control technology, which reduces unwanted sounds in the cabin, while enhancing the noises drivers want to hear.
The sight and sounds of the car are not the only principles that dictated its design. There was also a direct intention to merge the most technologically advanced driving systems with natural elements in the design materials, to enable passengers to feel they are in a more human environment, versus traveling inside of a computer. “The feel of buttery-soft leather, the porous grain of wood, cool-to-touch metal accents are timeless materials that add a natural richness,” said Antonio Molinari of Lincoln’s interior design team. “Simply the smell of leather alone makes the driver feel like he or she is surrounded by luxury. This is important because it reinforces confidence in their purchase, creating a more satisfied experience. So in essence the interior can become a relaxing escape from everyday stresses.”
Through the senses, designers and developers are creating more fulfilling life experiences, whether they be a better morning commute or a drastically different dining experience. But beyond the automotive, restaurant and technology industries are countless untapped areas for change. As Jinsop Lee explains, these changes can be implemented for well-known, everyday products, and make each one more enjoyable. By creating products with deliberate multisensory design, both businesses and consumers can benefit from creating a more enjoyable, enhanced way of life.
Opinions and ideas expressed are not necessarily those of The Lincoln Motor Company