Scent as Design

Design / by Eva Wisten /

This week, scientists, designers, and artists will gather in New York to discuss how our lives could be transformed by recognizing scent as design.

Credit: Jane Nisselson, Virtual Beauty | Design: birsel + seck

On March 26, Parsons the New School for Design and MoMA, in collaboration with IFF, Seed, and Coty, will present Headspace: On Scent as Design. A one-day symposium on the conception, impact, and potential applications of scent, the event will gather leading thinkers, designers, scientists, artists, established perfumers as well as “accidental perfumers”—architects, designers, and chefs—to acknowledge scent as a new territory for design. Seed sat down with organizers Paola Antonelli, Véronique Ferval, Jamer Hunt, Jane Nisselson, and Laetitia Wolff to discuss why we tend to overlook the importance of scent, our increasingly antiseptic, smell-free lives, and how our lives could change when we begin to tap into the rich olfactory dimension of design.

What inspired Headspace?

The idea that led us to organize Headspace is that scent is not only a medium for design, but also a design form in its own right.  Perfumers and scientists working on scent perform every time a design act. Sometimes it is good, sometimes mediocre. It can be very commercial, or more limited and idiosyncratic. Just like other forms of design, it is targeted to the goal at hand, whether the creation of a new clothing detergent with universal appeal or of a unique scent that will touch only a few dozen wrists. Just like other forms of design, it requires expertise and dedication, not to mention talent. We are therefore not advocating that any self-described designer should also feel free to tackle scent, but rather that designers should be aware of the spatial and perceptive potential of scent, and that perfumers should realize that they are engaged in design and take advantage of that knowledge.

Why is the smell experience of an object or an environment so often ignored or treated as less significant than the visual and, when it applies, aural, tactile or taste experience?

Scent happens both before and behind all other senses. Scents hit us directly through the limbic system; they are more pre-cognitive and emotional. For that reason, it’s harder for our mind to compute. Language doesn’t really seem up to the task of expressing all that scent means to us, or triggers within us. We ignore olfactive input because we have not been educated in a language with which to express any perceived gradations. Thus, we are still at the level of the “grunt,” limited to broad terms like good, bad, ugh, and sweet.

History has helped smell’s downfall, too. With the Enlightenment Era came a certain rationalization of our senses, where knowledge, culture, class, and intelligence were associated directly with our visual senses, whereas smell was associated with bodily fluids, dirt, and poverty. We seem to still be shaped by that dichotomy and we therefore miss out on one of our great cognitive gifts

An approach similar to the wine industry’s could motivate the public to acquire an education and a vocabulary to share their olfactive experiences. We have cultivated a sophisticated approach to flavor that makes us think we can really choose among twelve types of salt and twenty-five types of olive oils. There is no similar reciprocal relationship in the domain of smell that invites and rewards people to cultivate and pursue odor distinctions and experiences.

Social history has encouraged a discomfort with our beautifully functional nostrils. It is time to reclaim them!

How does our current lifestyle include and exclude olfactory experiences and where do you think we’re heading?

Scent emerges as an exciting realm for design exploration precisely at a time when the dematerialization of technology seem to be leading us further away from direct sensory experiences. Modernist architecture and design has attempted to banish all odors through new finishes, air control systems, and antiseptic surfaces, our digital future seems to hold no place for the vicissitudes of aromas, fragrances, and stink. At the same time, however, exciting new science is exploring the ways in which scent stimulates cognition, memory, and the production of experience.

It’s interesting to look at the ways in which we have engineered scent out of our lives, and when we do try to reinsert it, it is in gaudy, obnoxious, or un-subtle ways. There’s very little room between unscented—and hence, olfactorily sterile—environments and those that are over-perfumed. It seems as if there is too little imagination or creativity when it comes to thinking through ways in which we can enhance our olfactory environment without overwhelming it.

Smells tend to be used to hide, not reveal. But there’s a lot of potential for use of scent that’s functionalized to reveal, signaling things like danger, sustainability, quality in food. What would happen if it just smelled like oxygen, or water, or rain? Nearly invisible and yet somehow more redolent of scents we encounter in our everyday lives outside of engineered environments.


Could we describe scent itself as a form of design? Does the work process of a perfumer correlate to the work process of a designer?

Definitely. All of the categories and critical tools we normally apply to design can also be applied to scent, from the recognition of a balance between means and goals, to the different degrees of engagement with the rest of the world.

Few perfumers create only the scents they want or like, just as few designers have that liberty. Both have to struggle to recognize a client’s needs as privileged over their own, and to find inspiration within projects that might not initially interest them. Scent is really just another kind of material in a designer’s hand. You can make an analogy between perfumers and typographers: Both are nearly invisible as designers; both create highly refined and nuanced products that are virtually unnoticed by the entire population; and both affect the texture and experience of our everyday lives in countless ways, despite their lack of recognition.

Many of the scientists crafting the molecules are also designers and when scent is pure self-expression, it is a form of art.

What are the implications of people becoming more aware of their sense of smell, and living in environments that better cater to this sense?

Most things that we engage with in our modern lifestyles have little to do with their source materials, or they’ve been “cleaned up” (plastic, paper, etc.).  It would be great if designers understood that everything smells. The questions are; can we evolve utility for scent beyond decoration? Can scent help us function better in the way that good design does?

In one way, scent is already being used widely as a design element. Manufacturers seem to be reaching a tipping point of awareness that scent is important in creating a total “brand experience.” For example, casinos, hotels, private clubs, new automobiles are often designed with signature scents. Smell is a matter of training. The more you smell - the more you smell. Ramping up the smell of things is a good way to engage people more fully in the present.

Scent can play a more emotional, expressive, and even functional role in our everyday lives. Since our associations with scent are incredibly strong and cognitively bonded with memory, scents might open up new ways to learn and remember. Becoming more alive to scents will also add texture, depth, and richness to our everyday experiences, if we can find ways to incorporate them that move beyond air fresheners and analogs of natural scents.

What are some of the possibilities you can imagine if designers began to tap the dimension of scent in their work?

Scent researchers can craft new molecules with scents that have never occurred in nature before. It will be interesting to see what we will learn from our encounter with new, unprecedented smells, new molecules that could trigger new kinds of associations. How might they confuse us, alarm us, intrigue us, or captivate us? What new experiences or kinds of knowledge could emerge from those encounters?

Moreover, scent can be used to “tag” objects and places and accordingly build associations and habits. It can facilitate a higher sense of symbolism and personalization of design, as in a more direct and human connection to meaning, symbols, and personal histories.

Another potential olfactive genre is the “new” smell that occurs when we rip open something wrapped in plastic - that out of the box moment whether a new computer or a book. We seem to need that molecular burst to get our nose’s attention.

But these are just few ideas that cannot begin to describe the fan of possibilities. Once scent will be incorporated more effectively in the design process, and once designers and perfumers team up to design full-bodied experiences like the ones introduced by the Accidental Perfumers who participated in our experiment, then and only then will we start the journey.

Paola Antonelli is Senior Curator of the Department of Architecture & Design of The Museum of Modern Art; Véronique Ferval is IFF New York Creative Center Manager; Jamer Hunt is director of the MFA program in Transdisciplinary Design at Parsons the New School for Design; Jane Nisselson is founder of Virtual Beauty, and Laetitia Wolff is founding director of futureflair.

Originally published March 23, 2010

Tags cognition design innovation perception

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