The taste buds are sensory structures that are located on the tongue. These are responsible for detecting the five basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami (savory). When we eat or drink something, molecules from the food or drink dissolve and come into contact with the taste buds. The taste buds send signals to the brain that are interpreted as a sensation of taste. Each taste bud contains a number of specialized cells called gustatory cells, and these are sensitive to different tastes. The brain uses the combinations of tastes from these cells to determine the overall flavor of a food or drink. The interaction of the sense receptors is similar to that of smell, and smell is very often used in combination with the sense of taste to affect flavor. In fact, aroma is often confused with taste while eating.
In order to explore the sense of taste we must place items in our mouths, and for this reason, taste is likely the least important for architecture. However, it is not completely unimportant, and we can use taste to accentuate the other sense elements in a design. The one program that has taste as the main sense is the restaurant. A well-designed restaurant will be designed around the food, and with this use all the other senses support taste. However, this is likely the only program where is this case.
We taste for the enjoyment of food, but we also use this sense to understand the composition of the item being eaten. This is similar to the way we use smell, where the sense experience itself defines the item in focus. This is helpful to develop a knowledge and understanding of what is unhealthy or fatal for us to eat; we develop memories of flavors and we associate feelings and descriptions of each of these. In addition, there are certain flavors that we have come upon or developed a negative connotation with naturally–these flavors taste bad without any previous experience.
We use taste when we put items in our mouths, and there are a limited number of ways to understand this experience. However, there are a myriad flavors, given the combination of the five taste types. Although we think of food and drink first when looking at taste, we can also taste things without ingesting them. This is a questionable way to analyze objects and is not encouraged unless you have knowledge of the item’s composition.
Unlike other senses such as vision, hearing, and smell, taste cannot be experienced over distance. In this way, it is similar to touch. Therefore, we need to be near items to taste them. This can be accommodated by placing the food, drink, or other at the location to be experienced and coordinate how the other senses interact or not at the location. When we use multiple senses, smell is a natural pairing with taste, but so is touch, especially because we must be near an object to use both of these senses.
Like all of the other senses, taste can provide variation in experience. It does this by varying the salt, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami profiles to create many flavors. By defining and separating these taste types, we can draw direct relationships with other sense characteristics, such as color per taste type, where salt could be blue and umami could be purple. But, how do we make these associations? Again, it is likely that any sort of correspondence would be via repetition of exposure or cultural preferences, and in this way it is very important for the designer to understand the cultural context for the design implementation.
Most likely, we should not use taste in all design cases, but it can be used as a surprise or moment of delight. And, it can be used in specific programs as given above or with other senses. When using taste, we will always have at least one other sense, which is touch, because we must touch to taste. However, other senses that pair well are smell and vision. But, what about hearing? How can we use hearing in relation to taste? This can create some very novel and creative designs, and we should not discount this.
There are times we should not use taste. First, not everything should be tasted, and what is should be well-defined. Furthermore, certain programs and events should not incorporate the sense. Solemn places, such as funerary services, would not be a good location for taste, but where the grieving gather afterwards could be an excellent place. The use of the senses reinforces culture, and taste is arguably the most important in terms of culture. Ownership of foods, drink, and cooking methods helps build cultural identity. In this way, the designer should think about the group, but also how to bridge between cultures through food, and therefore taste. Defining the similar or complementary tastes between cultures can bring them together, as food is the most basic and necessary element for human survival.
Taste should be used sparingly and with specific intent, unless the design purpose is a gathering or restaurant. As mentioned above, taste is aligned with smell and touch, and without these the experience of flavor is much diminished. Therefore, it can be a quick and natural step to include these when designing a sensory experience with taste. For spaces that are for a social gathering or a restaurant, the strategy should be for the designer to use all senses to support the edible or potable program.
People are not likely to put a random object in their mouths, especially anything that is not food or drink, so the designer must create a space of trust, where the visitor is willing to consume the item intended. Once the environment is trustworthy, we must ensure the food or drink aligns with the purpose. After meeting this, we must consider how much will be consumed by the individual. Is the objective to fill the stomach, like a feast? Or, is the taste experience secondary to another meaning or sensory stimulus?
The best approach to using taste is to define whether taste is primary, secondary, or tertiary, and then select what is tasted. If the item to be consumed is meant as a secondary or tertiary sense, then what does the taste support? If the taste is a primary stimulus, then what senses support that tasted? Of course, taste uses smell and touch for its full experience, but how do we use vision and hearing in relation to taste? Can a sound or graphic describe taste beyond representation of the taste types, such as salt, sweet, bitter, etc. or the literal imagery or sound of what is being consumed? How does hearing affect taste? It normally does not, but how could it?
The use of other senses with taste should be complementary, but it can also contrast for dissonant or harsh combinations. Design might not be used to make things better–maybe design can be used to make things worse. If this is the case, it needs to be very clear why something is not comfortable, especially when design is meant to help make things better for people. Using poor flavors and taste experiences, we can sway people, but continued exposure to this method will drive the user away, creating an undesirable installation.
The traditional parts of taste are salt, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. The combination of these creates specific flavors. These flavors are paired with the scent of the item consumed and the sense of touch within the mouth that helps define them. Unlike with other senses, it is difficult to limit the flavor of an object, then build up. Instead, items will provide some defined flavor but can vary with the amount of elements that create the saltiness, sweetness, sourness, bitterness, and umami flavor. However, the intrinsic flavor no matter how small is native to the object eaten, so the designer must either choose the food or drink to work with the tableau, or vice versa, choose the tableau to work with the food or drink.
Because of the combinations of the types of taste there are nearly countless tastes, and it is can be subjective to select a taste to match a sensory design experience. Is it possible to be objective? Maybe we can measure the extent of each of the five types, then we can measure on a numeric scale how the use of those align with the design intent. This is still relatively qualitative, but it is backing the experiential quality with a value, and this can be helpful for the designer and user. However, we must remember that the experience is subjective and will vary from person to person.
When providing a taste experience, many will provide a palate cleanser. This is good when trying to provide the shock of the new or separate the experience from all others. This is a good way to deaden the sense, then build it up, but with a force relevant to the food or drink consumed. Otherwise, like many restaurants, you can add flavors concurrently or over time to create a new and evolving sensation. Figuratively, we can use taste to add to other sense inputs to create an experience. This flavor can contrast to the other senses, but it is probably better to have the various senses align and be comparable.
Using taste for design can be considered a gimmick, if done poorly. However, the designer should incorporate taste carefully to create an experience beyond the normative visual project. We might use the other senses more often, but taste, like smell, can pull memory and understanding forth with barely any effort. In this way, it is a powerful sense.
In order to use the sense of taste in design, we must not only define what the design intent is and the taste to experience, but we must also decide the vehicle the taste will be provided. Is this natural food? Or, is it some kind of infusion? Is there any kind of additional processing that is useful or necessary? What are the requirements within the program? Would it be better to use the smell of the item, rather than the taste? Or, use taste rather than rely on smell? Again, what is the focus? Is taste the primary experience, or is it a secondary or less? Does this sense support the others or do the others support it?
The best way to improve the use of taste in design is to actually use the sense. Currently, design focuses on the visual and possibly the aural. The other senses are typically ignored, and taste is very much the case. Of course, part of the problem is the need for proximity and there is quite a bit of intimacy in the taste experience. So, the use of taste will be limited and will not be in every project. Subtlety with taste is likely not an issue, so the typical mode of working by having zero sense experience and building up is not necessary. In fact, if one doesn’t want to consume that with taste, that person does not have to do so. This makes it very easy to go all out with flavors.
It is not quite possible to only have taste, because consuming needs at least touch but likely smell in order to occur. However, if we design specifically around taste, the user must need to know where, what, and how to taste in order to make the experience. In this case, we almost definitely require smell to facilitate, because smell is able to broadcast, and the use of this sense can pull the user to the taste experience. This needs to be designed to ensure the user can orient relative to the smell to create a bearing for the experience. But, what happens when we get to the taste use? What is the intention? It would be wise to have the taste match with the context, and this allows us to ask what the taste of nothing is, because without the other senses, the user may perceive nothing as the environment. Can we rely on the low and subtle flavors because there is no additional stimulation from the other senses? Do we go the other way and use strong tastes to create pops of experience in a seeming void?
If design did not include taste, current design would not be affected in most cases, because design does not often account for taste in the development of experiential interaction. We need to incorporate taste more often, but we should not go to the extreme of always including it. So, the use of the sense is never expected.
Are there alternative uses for taste? Can meaning and information be associated with the sense? Yes, but the information conveyed may be cryptic, beyond the meaning of the flavor. Furthermore, are there items that we can taste that are not consumed as food? We have gum, which is chewed, tasted, but not ingested. Are there other things? What do we gain by eating or drinking exotic, non-toxic substances that are not meant as food, but have taste, nonetheless? This could succeed as an art installation, but what information can be given through the use of such a strategy? What could we learn from eating things like treated earth or treated wood products? Could the consumption of bamboo complement a concrete room? A wood room? Could eating kelp give us the sense of the sea? With a legend or a key, we could define a code that allows us to share a message through the ingestion of food or drink. Sharing this code might be part of the design process.
In order to use taste to create a different design for an existing structure, we can simply provide kiosks or machines with food products, but it could be an exciting challenge to introduce the use of other aromatic foods and other taste experiences at strategic points in the existing building. Is there a taste to accompany us as we ride the escalator or elevator? Are there foods that can calm us in tense situations, such as an electrical storm? What can be eaten while heading down a hallway and while waiting?