TOTAL EXPERIENCE explores designing for experience: its theory, its practice, and how designing for experiences affects us socially and in our personal lives.


  • Bob Jacobson
  • Paula Thornton
  • BOB JACOBSON is fascinated by the experience of experience. A planner and technologist, Bob has a Ph.D. in Urban Planning & Design from UCLA. He's been a policy researcher, technology CEO, science writer, and consultant. As a Fulbright Scholar, he studied cellular telephony's impacts on transborder communities in the Nordic Arctic Circle. Bob edited Information Design (MIT Press 2000) and is now writing a book on the theory and practice of creating edifying, transformative experiences.
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    CORANTE PAULA THORNTON says, "Understanding human behavior (economics), optimizing interactions (design) and facilitating conversations (markets), are the means to achieve strategic differentiation. This is the focus of our discipline. It is not a 'nice to have'‚ and is not, like documentation once was, an afterthought. It is the means by which to start a strategic discussion and the means by which to drive a tactical initiative. All design should be evidence-based."
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    « Design Lessons from IIT's Institute of Design | Main | The (ever more painful) Dow of Experience »

    October 16, 2006

    Studio 360: “Scratch and Sniff,” The Mystery of Smell

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    Posted by Bob Jacobson

    The first 40 minutes of this week's Studio 360, New York Public Radio's always fascinating show about design and experience, is entitled “Scratch and Sniff,”and features four short audio programs (in Real format) about the wonders of smell.

    Small Portrait“Scratch and Sniff” begins with a conversation between Studio 360 host Kurt Anderson and author Chandler Burr, the New York Times' first perfume critic (“Scent Strip”) and author of the bestselling The Emperor of Smell: A True Story of Perfume, Obsession, and the Last Mystery of the Senses. In Emperor, Burr profiles the biochemist Luca Turin, a compelling force -- and highly controversial -- in the $20-billion-a-year perfume business. Turin believes that smell is actually a result of molecular vibrations, not chemical reactions, and can be tuned like music. (An archive of Turin's now-closed blog, Perfume Notes, can be downloaded here in PDF format. Turin's monthly “Duftnote” is now published in English in NZZ Folio.) Burr advocates founding a “museum of smell” to celebrate smell as an evolutionary triumph and driver of creativity and commerce.

    The show's other smell-related audio articles include “Snow in a Bottle,” describing the work of Christopher Brosius, “a perfumer with a different approach: he bottles the smell of celery, a gin and tonic, thunderstorms, even snow”; “Scent of a Painting,” which looks at the love of painters for the smell of paint and canvas; and “Death in Venice,” in which writer Adam Haslett, author of the short story collection You Are Not a Stranger Here. admires Thomas Mann's Death in Venice for its stench. “Everything in the story, he says, is 'overripe.'”

    Profile Nose Smell, as poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman reminds us in her lyrical A Natural History of the Senses, is the most emotive of the senses, able to evoke memories of places, people, and events long after their sights and sounds have been forgotten. When two people experience a smell together, it can be the basis of a lifelong bond. Yet smell is the sense we have the most difficulty talking about. Because smell and taste are so intimately fused in the human sensorium, we commonly use taste words to talk about smells (“sweet,” “sour,” “like roses,” etc.). Ackerman also introduces us to the mysterious folks within International Flavors & Fragrances, IFF, a multibillion-dollar laboratory that invents smelly and tasty chemicals for inclusion in our foods, cosmetics, new cars, and virtually every perfume not made with 100% natural products. IFF's new Visionaire 47 TASTE is “a limited edition arts publication that pairs paintings, photographs, and conceptual images with specially-created flavors.” A best-smeller, for sure.

    Digital media do a poor job of capturing and representing smells. Smell-O-Rama, a recent technology for “attaching” scents to email, and other such strange inventions for conveying the experience of smell are notable more for thier oddity than for their effectiveness, although the search continues. One non-digital format that works is “scratch-and-sniff” paper, the once ubiquitous stinker-upper of fashion magazines, now largely banned because it stirred allergic reactions in too many readers.

    mid_logo.gif Black-DeathHow can we design compelling experiences to exploit people's sense of smell? Displays of perfumery and taste enhancers are common. A more expansive example is London's Museum in Docklands (sister museum to the popular Museum of London). As part of a historical walkthrough, reports Museum spokesperson John Joyce, modern chemical science has recreated the smells of tides, ships, warehouses, inns, trade goods (like spices, tobacco, and tea), even sailors and sewers, that characterized the Dockland's streets and quays during successive historic periods. Most challenging of all, according to a radio reviewer? Creating the odor of disease and death during the 17th-Century calamity, The Great Plague of London (recalling Monty Python's classic line, “Bring out your dead! Bring out yer dead!”). A laboratory commissioned to develop these aromas reportedly was all too successful: the display is a repellent success.

    Comments (1) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Experience Design & Technology | Integrative + Interdisciplinary Design | Theories of Experience


    1. Francoise Elecsier on November 27, 2011 11:03 AM writes...

    Great article, but it misses a lot of interest in the visual arts which is using fragrances since Marcel Duchamp in art. Ok the scents might be not so common in the visual arts, but the last 15 years there are several artists working with the combination smell versus seeing.

    Just to mention the most famous one, Peter De Cupere, who's also the inventor of the Olfactiano, the first scent piano. He has made more than 200 works and some really huge smell-installations that are represented in musea through Europe. It's strange that when they talk about olfactory art they always forget that art is not a niche, it's a mix of senses and most important it's the context of the artwork what makes it a piece of art these days!

    I think that this makes the different between what makes a 'scent' or 'perfume' being an artwork or not. You can compare it with the old paintings that where appreciated for there technical beauty how they were painted.

    I think that the most perfumeurs still are to busy with making nice smells and not with the context. A perfume is most of the time related to a commercial view of how they will promote it and not made related to a specific context. But there are exceptions like Christophe Laudamiel and Sissel Tolaas, which also make perfume as a concept related to a context. I can understand that there are perfumes through history that can be seen as an artwork when you would compare them like the first painters that where busy with the technical aspect of a painting to create a beautiful painting.

    These days an artwork needs also context, people already expect that the work is technical good in balance. So if the perfume wants to be respected by the art world (and I'm talking about the visual art, not the commercial perfume industry!), they should make cross overs like other arts do.

    Remember the photography and video art how they became respectful in art. It was because there were cross-overs. You always need an introduction. I'm not specialized in olfactory art, more interest in the visual aspect of art but I saw last week the the first scratch and sniff sculpture in the world on the Creativity World Forum in Belgium, a 9 m high non-existing flower, but looking so real and the experience with touching it and sniffing the scents was so immense great! I love it.

    I was pleased that i had a short conversation, - pity that it was very short, with the artist of the work Peter De Cupere who has given also a very interesting lecture in front of 1500 people and he got a standing ovation. The way he talked about olfactory art was a world that opened for me. He has such a wide view and he tried to convince me about the fact that a perfume can also be an artwork.

    I never have thought about that. I had experience some work of him before and always thought that the visual was the most important aspect of his work, but the way he talks about art, it doesn't go about just visual,but about all senses and for him the smell is the most important. Without the smell his work is not the same.

    Because of my conversation with him, but also of the smell experience I had, I'm looking on the internet to find more info about olfactory art, but the most of the articles I find just talk about technical stuff or about perfumes, but forget that it's not this that makes an artwork, it's the context that makes it these days.

    I'm looking forwards to see more art with smell and I hope that a website like yours will write more about it and makes the different!

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