Smell Sense Overview II


Smell should be used sparingly. A scent, even a pleasant one, can be overpowering with too much exposure. As always, start with none, then add smell lightly and build up. If the scent is persistent, it should be muted and low. If the scent is localized, then care should be taken to ensure the smell is strong enough to be experienced, but not too strong as to be sensed throughout a space. If care is taken, it is possible to have many scents in a space, and with practice, it is possible to combine multiple scents across a space to create a sort of chord. Again, smell is the sensing of a combination of chemicals, and it can be like magic, combining multiple scents, hence chemicals, to create a new form.

For smell, designers can play with the simple scent itself, but they are encouraged to explore meaning and memory in the chosen odors. Doing this will unlock more than an aesthetic experience, it will allow a psychological journey based on perceptions and understanding. This may require the designer to research the user’s history, but also the user’s culture. Are there smells that are pleasant to some but disagreeable for others? Of course, and knowing what these are will allow the designer to avoid a false step in the design process, as well as the exposition.

To showcase smell, we need to use a variety of techniques, but in each, the scent is not long lasting. The reason for this is that smells fade way or are composed of volatile chemicals that decay over time. As time progresses, a scent diminishes. So, useful materials for providing smell experience include perfumes, applicators, naturally occurring aromas, and manmade aromas, such as baked goods. However, these smells must be replaced or replenished throughout the length of the exposition.


Scent can be broken into chemical type, amount present, and extent experienced. Furthermore, the smells can be classified qualitatively by level of satisfaction, cultural meaning, and memory. There may be other ways to classify scents, but using all six of these provides hundreds of variations just with one scent.

Smell is a strong tool for design because it is so tightly wound with our psychology. It could very easily be the first scent as it is working with the raw chemicals, no interpretation or structure needs to be applied to allow it to convey information. Because of this, smell can hit like a sledgehammer and provide experience or recall of memories to change the state of mind of the user. Furthermore, we are able to create memories with specific scents through repetition of experience and associating information or meaning with these repeated trials.

The types of smells are determined by the combinations of the chemicals sensed by our many receptors. The more receptors we have the more smells that are possible, because we not only understand scent from the triggering of one receptor, but also with the combination of multiple receptors. We cannot say there are an infinite number of smells, but there are certainly millions of combinations. Each combination can hold its own understanding, so there is an entire language that can be conveyed just through smell. The question is: how many people are able to understand this language, and how does it change from person to person or location to location?

There are two methods of smell: passive acceptance, and active communication. We use the passive form to understand the world around us. So many things provide a scent, and our evolution and biology allow us to understand many of these, and our experience allows even more. However, active communication allows us to tell the world our stance. This can be a very basic form such as through pheromones, or they can be through the use of detergents and perfumes. How do you show someone you care? Do you clean up for them? Do you bring flowers or food? All of these have scents, and these scents mean something.

If used carefully, smell is a wonderful addition to the experience of the senses. To rely on only the visual is banal, and a quick hit of aroma can liven up a design. Or, a consistent, subtle perfume can put our minds at ease.

Next Steps:

  1. Creating
    1. What changes would you make to use Smell?
    2. How would you improve Smell in design?
    3. What would happen if a design was only Smell?
    4. What would happen if a design did not incorporate Smell?
    5. What are alternative uses for Smell?
    6. Can you invent other ways to use Smell?
    7. How would you adapt Smell to create a different design for an existing structure?
    8. How would you design with Smell?
    9. How would you test Smell?
    10. Can you formulate a theory for Smell?


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