The colour of sweet: Using multi-sensory design to improve human experience | PDD

The colour of sweet: Using multi-sensory design to improve human experience


on June 17 2015

As someone who loves a good mash-up, I was keen to see (feel, hear, smell and taste) how Kitchen Theory’s collaborative gastronomic project fused the fields of gastronomy; food science, food culture, food history, multi-sensory flavour perception, and neurogastronomy into its first Multi-Sensory Gastronomy Seminar and networking event. The event brought together people interested in synaesthesia (“union of the senses”–a condition in which two or more of the senses are involuntarily and automatically joined together) and crossmodal interactions (how the brain integrates information across the different sensory modalities).

Dr. Charles Spence (Head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at the Department of Experimental Psychology, Oxford University) described the fascinating experiments they’ve got brewing at Oxford, including collaborations with Science Museum’s Craving’s exhibit, in which they’re testing how the shape of food packaging affects peoples’ taste expectations, whether people prefer 3 or 4 items arranged on a plate, and whether the orientation of food on plate affects perceptions of price and quality.

Image credit: Science Museum

Jozef Youssef, the chef, explained how Kitchen Theory came into being and how he’s applied principles of neurogastronomy to the design of his menus and ‘experimental dining’ events. I can attest to the tastiness of his Synaesthesia lunch experience (see photo of dessert). An interesting finding from his experiments is that when people are partaking of a 7-course meal, they enjoy and remember a dish more when they inhale a scent that’s related to the food before they taste it. Jozef tried this experiment with the soup course, which is usually somewhere in the middle range in terms of post-meal memorability and enjoyment (mains and desserts are often the winners).

Above and featured image credit: Heather McQuaid

Harking back to my days as a student of Cognitive Psychology, I’d guess that the stronger memory could be explained by dual-coding (more than one modality is activated, creating two activation pathways for the memory) and distinctive encoding (aka the Von Restorff effect based on the perceptual salience the scent+soup course which stands out from the other courses which did not have scents sprayed into the air beforehand). But, because he used scents, there could also be some kind of affective (emotional) memory activation. The olfactory bulb (which processes smell) is part of the limbic system in our brains which is also where we process emotions. And we know that smells can also trigger memories. A smell that triggers emotions and memories makes us more attentive to a situation (or a soup), which also makes it more likely we’ll remember it. As for whether we’ll enjoy it, as long as Jozef is not spraying something that triggers a highly negative memory, or serving an unpleasant tasting soup (which he wouldn’t do, not even in the name of science!), enjoyment should be as least as high as the other dishes, and even more so if happy memories are triggered or the reward centres in the brain are lighting up like a Christmas tree.

Last up was Daniel Ospina, an experience designer who’s worked in several acclaimed restaurants (including Fat Duck). Daniel showed examples of how multi-sensory design has been used to improve consumer experiences and posed some serious food for thought: how might we apply multi-sensory design to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems such as obesity, overpopulation, and water and food scarcity?

As someone who works with consumer, industrial, and medical companies, I can see the opportunities to apply multisensory design beyond the consumer experience. It could be used to enhance the human experience across all the touch points we have with people, products, and services. For example we could:

  • make ‘hospital’ food more enticing by arranging the food on plate in a certain way
  • appeal to more potential users of DIY tools by using a typeface that people see as more approachable
  • encourage healthier eating by introducing scents than make food taste sweeter (or saltier) without adding sugar and salt
  • reduce tension between different groups (e.g., communities and police) using calming colours, fabrics, and typefaces
  • help people remember and recall information by activating their sense of smell

I’m sure that there’s already a good amount of academic research into some (if not all) of those areas, but to apply that research to the design of products, services, and processes, requires the collaboration of many types of people (designers, architects, doctors, engineers, artists, chefs, CEOs of industry and social enterprises and charities). Kitchen Theory is one programme exploring such collaborations, and I’m looking forward taking part.

It would be great to know if there are similar projects, and also how others have used multi-sensory design to improve the human experience. Tweet @PDDinnovation or email with your thoughts.