Why Graphic Design Should Engage More Than Just the Sense of Sight

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Five cross-sensory pieces caught our attention in a new show at the Cooper Hewitt.

“Body-numbing visuals saturate design culture,” reads a line from the catalog of a new exhibition, The Senses: Design Beyond Vision, now up at the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum. In graphic design especially, the sense of sight reigns supreme, often relegating the other four senses to an afterthought. Think of high-production, polished images flattened to an Instagram feed, or the framed posters beneath sheets of glass on gallery walls. These things are for looking, not touching.

Curiously, though, some may describe those white cube environments and glossy social graphics as “cold,” conflating a tactile sensation with the sense of sight. Images can make you feel warm or chilled, they can make your mouth water, or convey a certain odor (something that’s notoriously difficult to describe verbally.) “Synesthesia—the experience of one sense evoking another—is more common than we realize,” writes Bruce Mau in an essay for the catalog that calls for designers to develop a more multi-sensory method of working. Even if vision holds highest ground in graphic design, bringing in other senses can enrich the experience and enliven the form.

The Senses exhibition as a whole also takes Mau’s pro-multi-sensory design stance, and even makes the good point that incorporating other sensory dimensions into design makes the work all the more accessible to a diverse strata of users. Among the show’s wide range of designs that “extend the realm of the senses,” the most compelling examples were the ones that crossed the senses in unexpected ways. Here are a few of our favorites.





Kate McLean’s Sensory Maps

The English artist Kate McLean’s maps are visually stunning, peppered with colorful dots and morphing concentric lines. They could almost be galaxies. In actuality, they are Smell Maps, plotting data from various cities that visualizes the distinctive smells from different neighborhoods. McLean generates this data by conducting “smell walks” throughout the cities she maps, asking participants to record odors and their location, intensity, description, and associations. Smells like “canal,” “leafy fresh rain,” and “laundry” are each given a color and are indicated by dots on the maps. The distorted concentric rings depict the smell’s intensity and range as they’re carried by wind, diluted by range, and mixed with neighboring smells. By plotting her experiential data, Kate makes smell visual and geographical, and makes a case for what information designer Giorgia Lupi calls “soft data.” “Using humans as sensors is a method that aggregates personal insight,”McLean says in the catalog. “It is about the acceptance of the subjective as worthy and useful data.”

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