Dec 03, 2019

Design for the Senses: Part 1

Design for the senses.

Why workplaces that engage all our senses are good for employees and brands.

Today more than 50% of the world population lives in cities. 87% of those people spend most of the day indoors. More than showing a mere migration to urban environments, these statistics underscore that how we work and the spaces we work in – the places we spend most of our time – are a far cry from the way our brains and bodies are naturally wired to experience the natural world. It’s also a significant challenge to workplace designers and companies creating new environments where employees must thrive professionally as well as physically and emotionally.

Consider this: most children under the age of 10 will nearly always choose the savannah when asked to identify the most attractive landscape from a series of portraits. It doesn’t matter which culture they come from, and it’s not due to the colors, either. It’s our common home. A place we instinctively recognize as safe and secure. This choice is also evidence that no matter how much our technology advances; no matter how far we try to distance ourselves, we are – and forever will be – linked to our human past. We can’t outrun our genetics, but that doesn’t mean prior workplace design hasn’t unconsciously tried to do so.

It’s not only the number of hours employees spend indoors. It’s how those spaces have been designed that ultimately creates the environmental disconnect – the fluorescent lighting and utilitarian carpeting surrounded by drab, soul-crushing interiors devoid of color and nature. Amenities and perks offered by the trend setting tech firms of Silicon Valley don’t solve the problem either. Nap rooms, swinging chairs, and stocked mini-cafes are great, but to generate true fulfillment, wellbeing, and happiness within the workplace, companies must provide spaces designed for the five senses and our hard-wired capacity to experience the world. To create spaces that bring out the best in people, designers must adopt a human-centered approach – in this case returning to what makes us human in the first place: our five senses and how they connect us to our environments.

Multi-sensory design might be a popular term today, but its origins are a few hundred thousand years old. The principles are straightforward: engage the different ways we hear, see, taste, smell, and touch during the day and you’ll engage the mind and spirit in the process. It’s emotional grammar for designers that results in both cognitive and emotional well-being.

Much like teachers use different modalities to accommodate different learning styles by providing input to all five senses, designers of workplaces should consider the following senses as indispensable tools in their proverbial belts.


Consider how color, natural light, and visual displays that connect to nature can influence mood, behavior, and the overall atmosphere. Like the portrait of the savannah, access to views and varying scales of enclosure can also cue physical and psychological safety.


Sound influences how we experience any space. Think spas on one end of the spectrum and gyms on the other. Subtly incorporating the sounds of nature or eliminating the barriers between people and nature can stimulate more relaxation and creativity.


Smell may trigger memory more than any other sense. Walk past movie popcorn and experience a wave of nostalgia. Hold a baby’s blanket up to your nose and be prepared to take an instant trip through time. Coffee has worked its wake up magic for years, and while smell is a powerful sense it's often overlooked in workplace design.


On the surface, taste might seem tricky to design into environments, which might explain for taste often being an afterthought in the process. But consider the food and beverages offered to employees. Taste can also be considered more abstractly – what kind of lighting do you use in the cafeteria and dining spaces? Or, can the sense of smell – incorporating whiffs of cinnamon, coffee or chocolate into gathering spaces – be used to engage taste and connection?


Touch might link us to our natural environment more than any other sense, making the thoughtful consideration of texture critical to the design process. Materials send strong signals to our subconscious. Wood, rounded surfaces and softer textiles can slow our heartbeat and warm our temperature, while metal, rough edges and stone surfaces more often communicate determination and cool emotion. Likewise, how we heat and cool the environment directly impacts how employees feel.

Stimulating the senses through design is no longer a nicety. It’s a necessity that comes with tangible business benefits: greater cognition, increased productivity, and more happiness and comfort in the workplace that ultimately leads to engagement. However, putting the theory into practice takes a mindful, human-centered approach that brings empathy directly into the design process. The result is more than a space – it’s ultimately how customers experience your brand and employees experience life.

To learn more thoughts on Design for the Senses, check out the Blog Part 2