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WHAT IS SENSORY DESIGN?

"We eat with our eyes first"

Humans connect with the world around them through their eyes first and foremost, which is why clients typically approach a designer asking for something that looks great. It's why chefs care about the presentation of their food, not just the taste. Yet harnessing all of the senses as designers can enable people to connect emotionally with spaces by building a fuller picture; a story and tapping into the subconscious, autonomous responses of past experiences.

A sensory approach to interior design combines elements of materials, colours, form, pattern, aromas, sounds and more to craft the experience and feel of each space. We know we explore a space through all of our senses, and yet what we often see is a focus on just a few of these senses, leaving the rest of the senses to default which can really detract from the experience you're trying to craft. We have to be mindful of creating balance and harmony across the senses for each situation and understand how we want people to feel in a space beyond its functional purpose.

What do we know about how the senses process space?

There is a phenomenon that as you lose a sense, the others increase to compensate. Imagine you were blindfolded in a space, quite quickly your other senses begin to heighten to compensate and help you to process the space you're in. What is happening in the brain here is the processing power of the visual cortex is now being used to process other sensory inputs and you start to tune into noises, flavours, textures and aromas more. It's the thinking behind concepts such as dining in the dark where restaurant-goers fore-go their sense of sight in order to have a “heightened” dining experience.

Perhaps conversely you've experienced leaving a coffee shop or restaurant with a headache, relieved to be out in fresh air again and eyes adjusting back to natural light and away from the background hum and clatter. For an estimated 20% of the population that are highly sensitive, it takes time for the brain and body to calm down again from such an experience where the senses have been overwhelmed, whereas for others it might be perceived as energetic and dynamic. The challenge for us designers is to find the solution of harmony without creating a sterile, unpleasant space in the process.

 

By working with a experienced interior designer these over-sights can be addressed, often as second nature to deliver both style and performance. In a chronically stressed and overwhelmed modern world, managing the sensory stimulants in a space is a significant step forward in creating healthier and inclusive environments designed for humans.

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Can we change how people feel in a space? 

Absolutely! Sensory input is giving us cues about how to behave and feel in a space all the time. Discussing with clients how they want guests to feel and behave as they enter, transition through and leave a space can very quickly inform design decisions to influence the experience guests have, that are overlooked by focusing on the visual and functional aspects alone. We'll also look at reducing any frictions and frustrations in a space.

What are some examples of sensory design?

As a note for those of you interested in further research, there are now claimed to be 21 human senses including special senses of direction and balance, but we'll look at a few examples.

Touch | Texture and Temperature

Our skin is our largest sensing organ, the barrier between us and the world. Textures of food is something we may be familiar with as we encounter smooth, creamy, crunchy, slimy. In interiors lots of hard finishes might make us feel its  somewhere to be only a short time to transit through, whereas soft surfaces may make us feel relaxed and welcome to settle in. If the surfaces are cool to touch such as polished stone, that tends to signal a bit of a hostility, where a wood finish will be warmer and grounding. Textiles have a complete range from quite rough jute weaves to soft satins or fluffy furs.

Vision | Colour

There is much scientific research on colour psychology, our responses to colour are inherent within us, linked back to nature and energetic rhythms. Additionally, most of us could reflect that how we feel when surrounded by pastel hued colours is quite different to how we feel surrounded by intense, vibrant hues, and that it is different again to a neutral palette of whites and greys. Interestingly, some studies have proven that blindfolded people can still perceive the colour of objects placed in their hands!

Vision | Pattern

Some patterns such as polka dots suggest a energising busyness; whilst a traditional floral pattern might signal a slower, relaxed pace; and a plain could signal restraint, intensity, confidence or a restful simplicity depending on other factors such as texture. A very consistent pattern versus a seemingly random, organic pattern sends us subtle cues about how to behave.

Scent

Closely connected to taste is smell which is why it can be so impactful in food & beverage environments like restaurants, bars, cafes and hotels. activating the olfactory system through scent, a sense of nostalgia, excitement or comfort can be sparked, helping to shape the atmosphere to reflect the intended mood for the space.

Sound

As discussed in the noisy cafe environment scenario earlier, a lack of consideration on acoustics can really impact how people feel when they leave. We want people to come into our spaces and feel energised, excited or perhaps relaxed and reassured. We know there are certain noises that can trigger anxiety, which is tiring to experience so we might try to eliminate, isolate, and dampen those for example with lots of soft, absorbing finishes. Finally we want to put in the ambience that we do want with a curated soundtrack for example.

Taste

This often subtlest sense is usually the mainstay of our clients, but we can certainly can enhance the focus on taste by reducing the other sensory inputs, or developing a scheme that builds on the narrative as we have done for many clients where we seek to transport them to an environment that matches the flavours and enhance that experience.

Designing for the senses really does have the power to shape society; how people feel and function. We can create environments that feel comfortable for just about everyone, that not only meet basic needs of eat, drink, rest but that also consider how we can restore, uplift and allow people to focus and connect, rather than sending them back out into the world feeling overwhelmed, distracted and disassociated. This is why our focus is on how we want people to feel 

Son Blanc Farmhouse, Menorca

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