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Mix Roundtable: How should our senses shape our spaces?

Design beyond the physical: we explore the role of sensory design in crafting purposeful places.

Feature in partnership with

Autex Acoustics

31/08/2023

5 min read

Mix roundtable sensory design senses

See the highlights

This article first appeared in Mix Interiors #227

Words and moderated by: Harry McKinley


Get personal: designers have the power to tap into memory and emotion

In considering all of our senses, design has the capacity to be not only functional and beautiful, but also transportive – evoking memory and emotion. As an opening exercise, our table were encouraged to interact with a variety of materials, including pieces by Autex Acoustics, and consider elements such as tactility, colour and even scent – through dried flowers and an introduced lavender fragrance. In doing so, a variety of associations were sparked, from recollections of loved ones to connections with particular places.

“What it proves is that there is so much story tied to our senses,” said Piercy & Co’s Cathrin Walcyzk. “For me, the scent evokes holidays and farms – positive associations, baked into my memory, that therefore engender a positive reaction to these items themselves.”

As Autex Acoustic’s Amy Marrocco detailed the inspiration behind a particular product colour choice (the Highlands of Scotland), a deeper narrative emerged for some of the designers.

“It’s an example of how these elements can be thought about to tell meaningful stories,” explained Perkins&Will’s Dan McNulty. “It opens the door to ask: how does this smell or colour relate to your brand? How does it connect to what you do as a business? What’s the story behind it?”

“And as it relates to what we do as interior designers,” continued Holloway Li’s Praveen Paranagamage, “this allows us to draw people through a story within spaces. As a predominantly hospitality designer, multi-sensory design works when it can create a series of experiences and we can entice someone to go from one place to another in a very deliberate way; engendering curiosity and using these associations with memory and emotion to create connections.”

Catering to our senses isn’t just about what’s there, but also what isn’t

“Our senses are so central to how we interact with a space that we also have to be conscious of sensory overload,” said Walcyzk. “On the positive side, we can introduce elements to shape an experience, but there are sensory elements that can also be negative and, as designers, we have to consider those too.”

It’s an issue increasingly confounding in the world of work, as offices shrink to cater for more flexible models and different environments, intended to cater to different needs, rub up against each other more intimately.

Here sound is a massive factor,” explained Modus’s Purvi Parikh. “In a previous office I found the noise of being in such close quarters energetic and dynamic. That sound travel can equally be problem if people need quiet or to focus, and yet spaces devoid of sound are not necessarily calmer, they’re often unpleasant to be in. So designers really need to consider solutions that find harmony and balance.”

For Martyna Skoczek, Oktra, some of the orthodoxy of workplace design needs revising: “We should not have banks of desks next to each other ever. That’s not working, in my opinion. Considering sensory design – in terms of elements like sound and light – means creating multiple controlled environments. That doesn’t have to mean walls and doors, but there can be other interventions that stop sound from travelling or control light levels, or even smell if we’re considering the types of necessities that a workplace requires – like kitchens or coffee stations.”

“Which is where truly considered spatial planning comes into play,” continued Sheppard Robson’s Mike Durrant, “planning that takes into account the needs of the user, but also how those needs vary throughout a day. Add to that issues of wellbeing and how light can impact on circadian rhythms, for example, or how temperature can affect mood and productivity. Perhaps customisation is also key, giving people control over the sound, light and temperature of a space, so it can really work for their needs.”

We often hear there’s no one solution that fits all,” said M Moser’s Frances Gain, “but maybe there is, and that’s having lots of solutions in one space.”

Sensory design can make spaces more inclusive

While there are commonalties in how our senses respond to stimuli, there are also clear differences – these differences thrown into even starker contrast when we consider the likes of neurodiversity. For our table this is where considering how spaces impact on all of our senses can align with creating more inclusive environments.

“All design is arguably based on human character, desires and behaviour,” detailed Gain, “but these aren’t the same for everyone. For those on the neurodiversity spectrum, some feel energised by noise and colour, others need respite from these. So we arguably need to have both. Everyone has different needs and in order to bring everyone into a particular space, you need to be able to understand who it is that it works for, not necessarily on an individual scale, but for a certain group of people. I just don’t think we live in a world now where we can ignore anyone. Is a space too dark or too bright? Are the colours too bold? Is it too hot or too cold? These can be triggers for a person, either because of brain wiring or physical disability, and we have to design with empathy and create a culture of belonging.”

As well as cultural belonging, perhaps there’s room also for culture of design as a whole to evolve, with Walcyzk noting the gender bias that often still exists in the creation of spaces (women experiencing sensory stimuli different to men), as well as the growing conversation around decolonizing design.

“And inclusivity means spaces really have to function for all,” continues Marrocco, citing Autex’s work in schools. “With those who have special educational needs, for example, sound quality is imperative and yet acoustics are often not properly considered in these settings. If kids cannot hear a teacher and a teacher cannot hear the children, poorly conceived design has deprived someone of an opportunity to learn. That has nothing to with how a space looks, but has everything to do with how well it serves its purpose.”

It’s not art, it’s design: spaces should be designed to be interacted with

“In hospitality, there can be very clear curation of the senses,” said Paranagamage, “where you go from a space that feels louder and more convivial to something that’s very soft and darker; which feels almost calming. In a very practical way, that’s a lot about using materiality and colour to control how different senses come together and how we experience a particular place; these places designed to be touched and interacted with.”

“Which is where architecture and interior design differ hugely,” continued McNulty. “Interior design is all about tactility and feeling part of a space. Architecture is founded on beauty, but interiors have to speak on a more human level.”

Wrapping up, our table acknowledged that designing for all of the senses, and indeed varieties of people, is a challenge. For Gain, it’s predicated on recognising that the senses are ‘five friends’ that can either get along or fight, designers aiming for the former; for McNulty the solution is to remain open and to keep pushing boundaries; while for Parikh the perfect space doesn’t yet exist and the true test of a successful design is found in its coherence.

Concluding, Walcyzk is buoyed by the growing emphasis on design beyond the superficial: “I think all of this can only ever be another tool in our toolkit, as we learn more about how to design better.”

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