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Tania Barney

Estimated reading time: 5 min

At RMJM, the quest to make better buildings never stops. Our architects are constantly required to come up with new ideas, embrace innovation and push boundaries to meet the ever-changing needs of our clients. This month, we’ve spoken to Tania Barney, Director at Sensory Intelligence Consulting, who discusses the importance of ‘Design for the Senses’ and of moving beyond the aesthetic.

Humans are sensory beings, living in a rich and multi-layered sensory world. We constantly take action in response to the incoming stream of information we receive through our senses. In turn, each action that we take, produces yet more sensory information. And so the cycle continues. It’s not unreasonable to think of the brain as being one big sensory processing machine.

The physical environment impacts across all of the senses. Therefore, it makes sense when designing to consider all the senses and not only the visual aesthetics. Before we begin to think about the implications for design, it is important to know a little more about how the senses work. At school we are taught that there are five senses, but there are in fact seven sensory systems to help us understand the environment around us and our place in it. The five familiar sensory systems are:

  • Auditory
  • Tactile
  • Gustatory (taste and texture)
  • Olfactory (smell)
  • Visual

Obviously, how the interior and exterior of any building looks is a key design consideration. However, looking beyond the aesthetics, the visual sense is also about colours, contrasts, brightness and pattern. In addition, we also receive sensory information from two ‘hidden’ senses, namely the movement senses:

  • The vestibular system
  • The proprioceptive system

These movement senses act like our bodies GPS system, telling us where we are in space and which direction we are moving in. They also play a key role in managing our attention and alertness, important factors for productivity in work environments. It is estimated that we receive somewhere between 11–40 million bits of sensory information each second. Obviously, this is far too much for the conscious mind to deal with, and is mostly processed subconsciously in the lower part of the brain. This lower part of our brain acts like a big filter, sorting out what is important and what can be ignored. Everybody is different in this regard, it’s part of what makes us unique. Some people like and need more sensory information, while others prefer less and may be bothered by too much sensory information.

While we have seven senses, we don’t process the information from each of these in silos. To make sense of our environment there is constant interaction between the senses – information from one sense can impact the way we perceive another. For example our sense of taste can be ‘tricked’ by our visual sense. Food served on white round plates is perceived to be sweeter and more intensely flavoured. High frequency sounds also enhance the sweetness of food.

Jinsop Lee’s TED Talk ‘Design for all 5 senses’ asks us if good design should also feel great, smell great and sound great? My answer is YES! When it comes to design, we need to consider the purpose of the space and how the sensory environment can contribute to fulfilling that purpose. We are most productive, engaged and creative when a variety of our senses are stimulated through the physical surroundings.

Consider your next design project. What kind of space do you want to create? Do you want to foster calmness and reflection? Or spark imagination and creativity? It is important to think about the overall sensory experience of the users. However, this does not imply that having high input for each of the senses is the most desirable. For some people this would simply be overload and create an unpleasant experience. We know there are general principles about the impact of different sensory inputs. For example:

  • Classical baroque music is generally calming, while loud jazz music is more alerting
  • Blue promotes mental clarity, control and creative thinking
  • Natural light can help improve mood and productivity
  • Plants and other biophilic elements improve wellbeing and cognitive function
  • Soft textures provide a sense of comfort and home
  • Movement encourages us to be optimally alert, and regular movement breaks support health and wellbeing (internal ramps and staircases can help to facilitate this)

Good design looks great, it pleases us and can create a sense of awe. Moving beyond the aesthetic, if we create spaces that appeal to all of our senses, we can create truly harmonious and human friendly spaces. Places that are not only good to look at, but great to be in and experience.

This was a guest blog by Tania Barney, Director of Sensory Intelligence™ Consulting, UK Branch. Next month she will be talking about designing for productivity.