Thirst is a physiological sense that is triggered by a decrease in the water levels of the body. When the body’s water levels drop, cells in the hypothalamus of the brain called osmoreceptors detect the change and send a signal to the brain to initiate the sensation of thirst. In response, we seek out water or other fluids to restore water balance in the body. In addition to osmoreceptors, taste receptors in our mouth detect when fluids are present and help us to perceive thirst and satisfaction of the sense.
Thirst is essential for us to know when to be hydrated. Over time our species has been able to move beyond only the need to drink and provide new options desired or helpful to drink. These include various nonalcoholic drinks, alcoholic drinks, health or vitamin drinks, and medicines. The use of thirst as a sense to convey information, sustenance, and be a vehicle for better health is superior to many other senses because we are able to ingest the substance to be sated or improved. Hunger is similar to thirst in many ways, but its physiological mechanics are different, and though smell affects taste, that sense is not very useful to satisfy the body, instead it is better to warn or report on the chemicals of the items that might be ingested.
Moving beyond the physical requirements forced on us by our environment, humans have had the luxury to explore the senses, including thirst, for pleasure and not just for requirement. This freedom allowed many new ways to utilize our body’s natural desires and interests, so we can now use thirst for entertainment and interest without worrying about survival. Although we do not have full control over the experience of thirst, we do have control over what we are willing and able to drink. Water is always great, but now we can drink tea, coffee, juice, alcohol, and other beverages. These new forms of drink provide hydration to some extent, but they also have new substances that please our body.
Again, we don’t have full control over when we have thirst, but we can predict its occurrence, and we can even provoke and prod the sense by using forms of encouragement, including others drinking and advertisements. Because nearly all forms of drink are socially acceptable, except alcohol, we can experience the sense of thirst in nearly any situation or location with various liquids. This makes thirst a great sense for the designer to encourage, and because there are so many allowable places for the drinking, the designer can pervade with the desired intent in nearly all locales. As such, thirst is a great sense to explore.
Thirst when experienced with its primary intent is not necessarily enjoyable and urges the individual to search and imbibe water. The sense in this way is extreme and necessary to sustain life. However, when we are able to have access to sufficient water, we can have lesser forms of thirst. These may seem strong, though they are not comparable to that for one who is truly parched. Instead, the sense of thirst is a motivator to try something that is enjoyable, not just necessary. Though some may think these other forms of thirst are necessary, they are really an opportunity for those making and arguably designing the liquids to provide some purpose or intent. This should be kept in mind when using the sense for a particular application.
Thirst is a very personal, individual sense that relates to the needs of the body. This sense of thirst is different than most other senses because it is not to explore and understand the environment, instead it is originally to ensure the individual lives and succeeds. In this way, really only the sense of hunger and time are similar. However, there are many other senses that are personal, such as most forms of touch, but they may not have the same urgency as the sense of thirst and hunger. Another sense that can be said to be like thirst and hunger is the sense of smell which augments the experience of drinking and eating, although smell utilizes chemicals that expand in a space. In any case, the designer should use the sense of smell in the exploration of thirst to have a rounder, fuller experience.
As mentioned, thirst can be said to be similar to hunger, touch, and smell, although it is very different than the senses of vision and hearing or sound. Vision can be said to be necessary, but other senses can be used in lieu of it, and it requires a degree of distance and is not a personal sense that can only be sensed by the individual. Furthermore, sound has the same characteristics as vision, although we can hear internal sounds and processes. In any case, we can use the sense of vision and sound to encourage thirst, such as seeing the desirable drink or others ingesting a beverage and hearing the sound of a canned drink being opened or the fizz of a carbonated beverage. In this way, vision and sound are great ways to entice the user in a design installation.
The designer can use the sense of thirst to convey a design intent through the use of beverages and liquids. First, we must understand what the design intent is. Next, we must determine what the use of drink is meant to convey. Is there some chemoreceptive feature of the drink, such as using alcohol? Is the drink meant to compliment the other aspects of the design, or is it meant to contrast with the project? Is there some taste or feature, such as color or viscosity, that is meant to augment the design? Next, we must determine how the beverage is presented. Will the design be improved by presenting the drink in a paper cup? Is fine stemware a better solution? Would it be better to place the liquid in a bowl to be ingested either with a spoon or by lifting the bowl to the mouth? Finally, we must define where the drink is located. Is the beverage in clear view, in the center of the space? Is it hidden within a detail of the design installation, and we are pushed to drink either out of curiosity or direction? The designer must be careful answering each of these questions to ensure the use of the sense of thirst is aligned with the intent of the project.
To provide a beverage to quench thirst, the designer should think about how the user takes the drink. Likely, the drink will be presented somewhere between the waistline and eye level. However, what if it is not? What does it mean for the visitor to need to bend over to take the drink or reach high overhead to acquire it? Next, how is the beverage imbibed? Is it taken through a straw? Do we use a cup, a glass, a mug, or another form of container? What if we use a bowl as mentioned above? What does it mean for each of these cases? Of course, drinking through a straw is informal, but what does the container mean?
Not only does the drink need to be presented in a defined container and conveyance, but how that container is presented is also important. Is it sitting on a tray to be ingested? Would it be better to have each drink specially made for the guest? Is the drink sitting in a strange position or location that makes the visitor wonder what the intention and purpose are? Perhaps, the drink containers are presented in their own holders. Would these containers be able to go home with the guests and why? Are they souvenirs or can the holder or container be used for some other purpose. Again, the designer must determine these things and ensure they match the intent of the design.
Thirst can be classified in a few types and each is useful for the designer in different ways. First, there is the sense of thirst to meet the need for hydration. This first type is important because it ensures the visitor is comfortable, without physical needs to be focused upon and instead, the wants can be addressed to attempt to achieve design success. Second, there is the sense of thirst to meet the desire for enjoyment. This second type uses the sense of taste to provide experience for the visitor which can lighten the mood and provide enjoyment. Third, there is the sense of thirst to meet the desire for influenced perspective, such as with alcohol. This third option is to allow the sense of chemoreception to alter the visitor’s state and provide a new experience internally, and externally through the actions of the guest. Finally, there is the sense of thirst to meet the desire for affecting the design. Arguably, each of the other types are leading toward this option in a design installation, however the designer must ensure this purpose is met to convey the design intent.
Engaging the sense of thirst is a strong design solution because it provides a personal experience that can be interpreted by the visitor, but it may also be able to be brought or translated home to provide a memory or echo of the experience at the design installation. Furthermore, the act of drinking makes the visitor the actor in the project, giving tasks to provide experiential variation. Finally, the use of the sense of thirst allows yet another way the designer can push the meaning of the design project. The use of thirst can also be paired with the senses of hunger, smell, and taste to create a gastronomic design experience.
In order to use the sense of thirst, the designer needs to provide an opportunity to drink. This can be a pause in the design project or can be an integral part of the scheme. After the choice of beverage, location, and purpose of the drink is determined, the next requirement is to make it or provide some method to have it made. Is it automatic from a machine? Is it prepared and served en masse? Is it prepared by a bar tender or similar?
In addition to the choices and preparation, the designer should determine if the use of the sense of thirst is complementary to the use of other senses. As mentioned earlier, the senses of taste, hunger, and smell go well with thirst, but what about some other senses? What does it mean to pair thirst with heat thermoception, pressure, or something more asynchronous as vibration, sound, or time? Are there analogs to the sense of thirst in these other senses? If not, how do we pair them? It is possible to create a very complex design with the combination the senses, especially the more sophisticated combinations.
It is possible to improve the use of the sense of thirst in a design by preparing the visitor with some form of stimulus. This can be any or several senses, besides thirst. Of course, the designer needs to lead the input toward a specific objective which culminates in the sense of thirst and quenched with some form of drink. Or, perhaps the intention is not to fulfill the need to drink, which could be cruel, but it could have some other purpose. Maybe this example would be in order to make the visitor sympathetic toward some condition of another or others. Only after the point in such a design is made would the designer allow the visitor to drink. This could be a very powerful move in a design which would not be forgotten by many who experience it.
If a design were only thirst, the design would be about agony and desire, without requite. There would only be the visitor’s mental state to drive the desire to drink from them, and no other sense would be available to take the mind off of the experience. This could be a metaphor for life, or it could be in order to change the condition of the visitor, likely not for the better. However, with conditioning, the visitor could be extremely strong mentally, able to focus and bury inward the need to drink, under the conditions and context. Although this would not be a happy experience, the visitor and designer could learn from such an experience.
If a design did not incorporate thirst, there would be little difference from typical or traditional design, which focuses on the sense of vision, and at times, other senses like hearing and forms of touch. So, the visitor would not be surprised to not experience such, unless told there would be an moment of thirst. In any case, such a precedent would mean that it is important that the designer choose carefully when to use the sense of thirst as to not make it a gimmick and trite. So, thirst would be experienced only once or at most occasionally in a design. Although we are exploring many senses, it is not necessary to use them all at once. Indeed, this is the case with the most used senses, such as vision and hearing, as well.
With the use of actuators and influence, can we use thirst as a proxy for something else which is important or vital, where the sense does not dissipate until the objective is met? Otherwise, the sense can be used as anticipatory or a warning. Although the sense is not necessarily a bad or painful experience, it is not one of joy and comfort, and it can be used as a motivator to push or pull the visitor into another or better state.
The designer can use the sense of thirst to create a different design in an existing structure by coding the meaning of thirst and refreshment and conveying the experience to the visitor as the space is traversed. Again, the use of influence and environmental input can make the sense of taste emerge and wane. So, the designer must define the location of the points of inflection of the sense of thirst and then provide the appropriate stimuli. Then, the motivation to move through the space must be pushed by the designer to ensure the entire experiential sequence is met.