“Body-numbing visuals saturate design culture,” reads a line from the catalog of a new exhibition, The Senses: Design Beyond Vision, now up at the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum. In graphic design especially, the sense of sight reigns supreme, often relegating the other four senses to an afterthought. Think of high-production, polished images flattened to an Instagram feed, or the framed posters beneath sheets of glass on gallery walls. These things are for looking, not touching.
Curiously, though, some may describe those white cube environments and glossy social graphics as “cold,” conflating a tactile sensation with the sense of sight. Images can make you feel warm or chilled, they can make your mouth water, or convey a certain odor (something that’s notoriously difficult to describe verbally.) “Synesthesia—the experience of one sense evoking another—is more common than we realize,” writes Bruce Mau in an essay for the catalog that calls for designers to develop a more multi-sensory method of working. Even if vision holds highest ground in graphic design, bringing in other senses can enrich the experience and enliven the form.
The Senses exhibition as a whole also takes Mau’s pro-multi-sensory design stance, and even makes the good point that incorporating other sensory dimensions into design makes the work all the more accessible to a diverse strata of users. Among the show’s wide range of designs that “extend the realm of the senses,” the most compelling examples were the ones that crossed the senses in unexpected ways. Here are a few of our favorites.