5 Steps to Multi-Sensory Design

Having written Brand esSense, I was pleased earlier this year to find a book which shares many of the same concerns. Michael Haverkamp works at the Ford Engineering Centre in Cologne, Germany and is the author of Synesthetic Design, first published in German and now available in English (see below). The book is a great resource on sensory design, focusing on the interaction and reinforcement of design across multiple senses. The book itself is multi-sensory, coming with a CD of sounds, sonic landscapes and music referenced in the text, so you can listen as you read.

Synesthetic Design starts with the fundamentals of sensory perception and the role of the senses in design. He talks about how the role of acoustic design in particular has grown to bring a new perspective to practices that previously focused mostly on the visual identity of products, and makes the point that the perception and recognition of objects in the world depends on the connection between multiple senses, and that the design of product attributes is often not coordinated across different senses. He uses the term design to encompass the entire conception of products including technology, materials and construction and how these provide feedback to users. For example, a vacuum cleaner has a variety of features, and the visual appearance signals the volumetric capacity (small or large), mobility (high or low), flexibility of hose, accessibility of switches and controls. Similarly, turning one of the switches might give a sense of the robustness and quality of the machine’s performance, and the sound of the cleaner working will indicate the suction power and cleaning capacity, etc etc. His discussion is very similar to the ideas of Donald Norman about usability (read more here) and the concept of affordance (read more here).

Michael Haverkamp describes the aim of synthetic design as, “to coordinate all sensations stimulated by an object in a manner that results in a pleasant, harmonious overall appearance, while coinciding with the particular function(s) desired”. He makes a distinction between “genuine synaesthesia”, the specific way in which stimulation by one sense triggers stimulation in another sense (read more here or read Cytowic & Eagleman), with synthetic design which is “the conscious design of objects with respect to connections between the modalities”. That is, something is made in a way which emphasises cross-sensory relations (a slightly different idea to that of multi sensory design, which focuses on using more senses in whatever ways possible).

Conventional design processes optimise each sense separately, while synthetic design is focused on strategies of connection being identified before the relevant sensory touch points are selected. Thus a synthetic design process might have five stages (I am reinterpreting the author’s framework here, and leaving aside the issue of genuine synesthesia for now:

  1. conscious construction of required meaning and function (from initial sensory input)
  2. finding concrete associations and iconic couplings
  3. identification of relevant symbols and metaphors
  4. making analogies across the senses (the closest level to genuine synesthesia)
  5. selecting the relevant sensory touch points

As he says, “an optimum design for all senses requires the communication of product features via as many sensory channels as possible. The capabilities of each modality have to be assessed during the design process.” The more sensory channels that communicate and feedback on a specific function or job, the better the experience for the customer.Many of Michael Haverkamp’s examples come from his work in car design. For example, he discusses how the grip force, lever position, sound pressure and noise of a brake lever can all provide consistent feedback on the functional performance of a car.

Synesthetic Design includes a detailed description of sensory perception and the working of the senses. Michael Haverkamp distinguishes 10 distinct sensory modalities:

  1. Visual (seeing)
  2. Auditory (hearing)
  3. Olfactory (smelling)
  4. Gustatory (tasting)
  5. Vestibular (sense of balance and body movement)
  6. Tactile (touching)
  7. Thermoreceptive (feeling temperature)
  8. Proprioceptive (positioning and movement of the extremities)
  9. Introceptive (body condition and organ activity)
  10. Nocioceptive (feeling pain)

The author also discussed the informational content of the senses from the sensory organs until they are processed and filtered in the conscious brain (with a much reduced informational content) and the difference between senses that work at a distance and those that work close up.  You can read more on both of these topics in Brand esSense).

The book draws heavily on Gestalt principles of perception which argue that perception is very much focused on holistic experiences, with the brain interpreting objects in their totality before focusing on parts of any experience (top-down processing). He focuses on four key principles of Gestalt psychology:

  1. Homogeneity (or similarity) is the way in which similar objects are grouped
  2. Common fate is the way in which objects which behave consistently are grouped
  3. Proximity is the way in which objects close together are grouped
  4. The law of Pragnanz is the way in which our perception seeks order amid chaos (leading us to see patterns where none exist -read more here)

How to develop a synthetic design? Having found the meaning that you want to communicate (Step 1) there are three key strategies which will help you to develop connections between the senses.

The first and most basic is the recognition of familiar features and associative connections such as icons. These are the more objective and concrete associations with the initial sensory stimulation or desired meaning. An obvious example of such an iconic connection is the design of the Wienermobile of Oscar Mayer (see below).

Another example is an ultrasonic humidifier shaped as a penguin, which looks visibly cold (brrrr!).

The use of onomatopoeic sound signatures also falls into the area of iconic connection. Michael Haverkamp uses examples from car design, including the buzzing of an exhaust system, the rattling of a gearbox and the scraping of brakes. Another example are the words given to animal sounds, which almost always based on imitation such as cheeping, twittering, quacking and neighing (and this is the source of the kiki and bouba trick too, where the sound of the names ‘imitates’ the look of the shapes). A final example of icons are the use of pictograms to communicate emotional content in modern communication. 🙂

The second strategy goes deeper, looking at the meaning behind a stimulus and identifying symbolic connections (for more on semiotics read our series of articles here). For example, in the context of cars and driving, different colours have different meanings that can be leverages in design – red means danger, yellow means caution and green means a normal condition or “go”. These colours have many more meanings too – red is also associated with love, eroticism, blood and aggression, yellow with the Sun, energy, power and warmth. Symbolic connections can also be made through allegory which often personifies a meaning through its embodiment (in the picture below, the woman playing the lyre represents music).

Music is often rich in meaning too, and colour often plays a role (think of the many jazz standards which mention colour, and of course “the Blues”). Think of the symbolic power of national anthems and the curiously persistent associations with brand musical signatures (Cornetto’s use of “O Sole Mio” was still the most remembered jingle in the UK more than 10 years after Walls had stopped using it).

The third strategy is to find analogous relationships between the different sensory channels (as in “kiki and bouba”). Although the senses comprise many diverse sensation such as colour, form, surface, texture, weight, size, hardness, temperature, orientation and more, there are many ways in which these sensations couple together through the common patterns perceived by the brain. For example, the sensory analogies designed into the Alessi ‘big bubbles’ soap dish are immediately obvious to most: is it a piece of soap, a wave, a bubble or …?

All of these analogous connections make the functions of this object clear (which probably doesn’t even need the inscription of the word ‘soap’ on the middle of the dish). Such analogies are common place – for example the correlation of a blinking sound with blinking light in your car.

Think of the sensory characteristic of brightness, which correlates with the following other sensory characteristics:

Bright Dark
Touch vibration Smooth Rough
Pressure Hard Soft
Touch Sharp Dull
Power Light Heavy
Temperature Cold Warm
Pain Penetrating Muffled
Organ sensation Hunger Full feeling

Similarly high and low musical tones, are associated with thin/thick, sharp/pointed, quick/slow, high/deep, up/down, bright/dark and warm/cold. Even tastes are associated with different sensory properties – sweet tastes are round and circular, while sharp tastes are angular and fragmented. Do you agree?

These are useful approaches to creating more holistic design of products and experiences, providing a series of touch points with a cumulative effect which is far more than the sum of its parts, while avoiding any sensory ‘clashes’ which might create conflict and reduce the impact of the design. All design can benefit from ‘synthetic thinking’ from the most complicated machines such as cars to the simplest such as a logo.

Michael Haverkamp finishes Synesthetic Design with many examples of applying this thinking to design, music visualisation, film and the links between emotion and design. This is a rich book for anyone working in design or the sensory sciences who needs creative stimulus for their work, with an extensive reference section too for further reading. I really enjoyed reading Synesthetic Design, and will be using many of the examples in the book over the coming year.


Synesthetic Design: Handbook for a Multisensory Approach by Michael Haverkamp

Brand esSense: Using Sense, Symbol and Story to Design Brand Identity by Neil Gains

Wednesday is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia by Cytowic & Eagleman

The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human by V.S. Ramachandran

See What I’m Saying: The Extraordinary Powers of Our Five Senses by Lawrence Rosenblum

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