September 17, 2012
When designers favor only one sense, they fail to serve the full human experience.
Every time I open my bag, the scent of lavender fills the air. It brings back, in vivid detail, the many sense memories I collected on an olive farm in the Umbrian hills: from the clear blue sky with thunderheads gathering in the distance, to the spectacular blood-orange and indigo-blue sunsets; from the tawny stone facade of the house, with its rustic tiles on the roof and cool rust-colored tiles underfoot, to the cooling breezes wafting through the rooms on even the hottest day; and from the garden shaded by ancient cypresses and other generous trees, to the sunflowers in bloom, to the lavender bushes edging the shimmering azure pool. More than that, each of my visual and olfactory memories came with its own aural imprint: the cicadas’ staccato buzzing in the trees, the bees humming around the blossoms, and the birds singing on the fence.
I was hoping to share these multisensory memories with an interior designer, a leader in her field, as we lunched together recently. But as I rhapsodized about the lavender scent it exudes, I made the mistake of pulling out the little plaid bag itself. Admittedly, it’s not a sleek, well-designed object, but an unpretentious little sack that contains all my summer memories. My designer friend did not stop to smell the lavender. Instead, she began describing the designs of memorable sachets that she had encountered.
This seemingly benign exchange made me think of an issue that crops up, time and again, in conversations with designers. If design is truly a humanist activity, which I believe it must be, then why is the profession, and every one of its specialties, so fixated on only one aspect of our complex species?
Dwelling on the visual has turned design into an image-driven, superficial practice that provides sleek buildings, rooms, and objects of consumption. But we’re not as one-dimensional as that. Our species also collects information through touch, smell, taste, and hearing. It behooves us to create a constructive design discourse about the needs of the whole human being.
Let’s all ask ourselves how we can make our cities, buildings, interiors, and objects serve the multisensory creatures that we are. And let’s begin by smelling the lavender, even if it comes in a homemade bag.