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DESIGN TRENDS: Around the senses

05.12.2015 City

Living organisms are aware of the existence of the world and the presence of objects thanks to their efficiently working sensory receptors. Senses enable them to respond to stimuli coming from the outside and  transfer the stimuli to the brain. The brain, on the other hand, is responsible for inducing a reaction appropriate to a particular stimulus. This way, through the sense of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch, living organisms create their very own vision of the environment they live in, but also the vision of themselves. Hence, senses intermediate between an object and a vision of this object created in the brain. The way we imagine our environment depends on how sensitive our senses are and whether they function properly. What’s curious is that each one of us interprets the world differently; moreover, in the course of our lives, we can continuously change the way we perceive the world.

According to historian Constance Classen, the hierarchy of senses is different in each culture. She says that cultures perceived as primitive – contrary to the culture of the West, where approx. 90% of information about the environment is brought by the sense of sight – value the sense of hearing which helps them make sense of speech. Smell and taste are also very crucial in these cultures as they provide individuals with real knowledge of their environment. In our culture, however, these two senses are of secondary importance and are mainly associated with experiencing pleasure.

Recently, designers have started drawing on the repertory of receptors and exploring the potential of experiencing the world through senses. Julie De Mol’s project Raw + Scent is comprised of three objects. Two of them are supposed to release their natural scent while the third one is supposed to absorb them. The designer focuses on the scent that directly influences the comfort we experience in the world around us. By using nature and its resources, Julie De Mol makes it possible for the audience to come back to their sensory roots.

Senses bring us a lot of negative experiences as well. But these aren’t pleasant for most of us and that’s why designers tend to omit this topic. The reality of the market is another factor which makes them do this: for a product to sell, it has to stir up positive sensations and associations. However, in order to understand reactions of the human body it is necessary to consider both negative and positive stimuli. That’s why it’s worth looking at Ling Tan’s intriguing Reality Mediators project which centers on devices that cause discomfort to the body.

The designer has created a set of unpleasant sensations such as an irksome sound, irritating vibration, intense heat or an electric shock to find out how bodily reactions to specific negative stimuli change, and also to spark a discussion on wearable technologies. The term ‘wearable technologies’ describes devices which gather and analyze messages sent from the body and, in response, give signals to the wearer on how they can enhance the quality and comfort of their lives by improving certain behaviors. The project revolves around sensors that are hooked up to the body and detect brainwave activity, muscle movements and GPS location. The designer was the first who wore sensors on herself for a longer period of time in order to see how her bodily reactions would change. The moment the devices were activated they were able to disrupt the wearer’s everyday activities such as writing, holding objects etc. Having run the tests on herself, Ling Tan said that the wearer would have to moderate their behavior in such a way so that they wouldn’t experience unpleasant sensations. According to the designer, the question arises who has greater control of the body –  is it the devices or the human being? With a view to highlighting the critical dimension of her project, Ling Tan has created the visual design and packaging of the devices to signal its readiness to be introduced to the market.

The rapidly-developing technology has had a very positive influence on the development of projects focused on senses. Technology is  a medium allowing individuals to step outside biological constraints and be limited in their activities only by the imagination. Be Another Lab is a scientific collective whose new project offers a new way of perceiving reality. By means of VR (Virtual Reality) technology, a group of individuals has created a program which allows a person to “feel” like someone of the opposite sex. It is the project which, first of all, stimulates the sense of sight, though it engages other senses as well such as the sense of touch or movement. A user has the possibility to “enter someone else’s skin” thanks to the first-person perspective. What influence can such a simulation have on people? Experts from Be Another Lab are still in the process of conducting research the results of which are bound to come to light very soon.

Senses have been present in realistic projects and speculative ideas alike. Designers have been reflecting on the possibility of enhancing the sensitivity of senses or stimulating several senses at the same time. They have been wondering about the possibilities of transcending the boundaries of our sensory experiences. Is it possible that we acquire senses known only within the animal kingdom such as echolocation or the ability to recognize electronic or magnetic fields? In their Speculative Sensing concept, Next Nature Network has been exploring the potential of senses in the real as well as fictional world. The creation of the scenarios of the future may actually inspire the development of science and stimulate a more efficient use of human sensory receptors. Will innovative solutions help us experience reality in a completely new way? Will we succeed in creating sensations which have not been experienced yet? Will we open the so-far-unknown fields of science? Undoubtedly: the sensory future looks promising.

Text: Justyna Strociak
Photo: courtesy of designers

Justyna Strociak - She has graduated from Industrial Design at the School of Form in Poznań. In August 2014, together with Magda Gąsiorowska, she became a finalist of Make Me! – a competition for young designers. Several months later, along with her four friends and at the invitation of Lidewij Edelkoort, a trendforecaster and observer, she went on a few days’ stay to the Trend Union’s department in Paris where she broadened her knowledge of current trends and ways to analyze them. In March 2015, together with Ewelina Rytel, Magda Gasiorowska i Aleksandra Kalinowska, she finished a Trendbook with design inspirations for 2016. The work on the book was supervised by Zuzanna Skalska.


As a designer I feel a constant need to observe events connected with the sphere of design. Thanks to it, I have a better understanding of people’s needs and I am able to more appropriately plan final versions of my projects. The knowledge of our everyday reality enables us to discover the so far unknown situations requiring innovative solutions, especially important in the world of business. Besides, information about trends may be of valuable significance for those who want to be more conscious of changes occurring all around us.

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