Why Graphic Design Should Engage More Than Just the Sense of Sight

Five cross-sensory pieces caught our attention in a new show at the Cooper Hewitt.

“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.

Synesthetic Calculus, David Genco

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. 




Kate McLean’s Sensory Maps

The English artist Kate McLean’s maps are visually stunning, peppered with colorful dots and morphing concentric lines. They could almost be galaxies. In actuality, they are Smell Maps, plotting data from various cities that visualizes the distinctive smells from different neighborhoods. McLean generates this data by conducting “smell walks” throughout the cities she maps, asking participants to record odors and their location, intensity, description, and associations. Smells like “canal,” “leafy fresh rain,” and “laundry” are each given a color and are indicated by dots on the maps. The distorted concentric rings depict the smell’s intensity and range as they’re carried by wind, diluted by range, and mixed with neighboring smells. By plotting her experiential data, Kate makes smell visual and geographical, and makes a case for what information designer Giorgia Lupi calls “soft data.” “Using humans as sensors is a method that aggregates personal insight,”McLean says in the catalog. “It is about the acceptance of the subjective as worthy and useful data.”

Samuel Gridley Howe’s Boston Line

If McLean’s maps translate smell for the eye, a rare historical project in the show eliminates the need for sight entirely. In 1935 Samuel Gridley Howe, a 19th century physician, abolitionist, and advocate of education for the blind, created an embossed typeface specifically for the visually impaired. Unlike Braille, its close contemporary, Howe’s Boston Line system was based on the Roman alphabets. Each character was designed to be distinct enough from the others that it could be identified quickly by touch. The bowl of the “p,” for example, is curved, while the bowl of the “d” is diamond-shaped. There are no ascenders or descenders, and no lowercase and uppercase characters.

ELIA Frames

Howe’s system never took off the way that Braille did, likely because the tactile reading of Roman letterforms is slow and clunky. But recently a new system called ELIA Frames has picked up the mantle, with symbols that are that are based on the Roman alphabet but also designed to be read quickly and to be scaleable at different font sizes. The idea behind ELIA, which has been tested on nearly 200,000 participants, is that it builds on the knowledge that many visually impaired people already have, particularly if they were sighted at one point. Though both Boston Line and ELIA are designed to be read by touch, they also have a strong visual quality to them, and would be easier for people of all abilities to learn.

Snarkitecture’s Topographies

A wallpaper by Snarkitecture looks to be tactile, but is an optical illusion. The designer pair took reams of cotton paper and tore each by hand, layering to evoke the stacked lines of topographic maps. They then flattened the three-dimensional process into a two-dimensional image, rendered in such high fidelity that the fibers of the paper are visible. It entices you to touch.

Wang & Söderström’s animations

The colorful objects in the hyperreal illustrations and animations of Wang & Söderström, meanwhile, are constructed entirely with 3D software. The artificiality is apparent, but the textures still evoke the familiar, and beg to be touched and tasted. 

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