Halfway our workshop in Amsterdam during the What Design Can Do break out sessions, the conference photographer came down from the stairs, sniffing, to ask why he was suddenly confronted with the smell of his winter coat on a damp day. He had been taking pictures of another break out session, up the stairs, but felt forced to go look for what so suddenly and vividly transported him to this particularly personal and comforting feeling of being sheltered by his warm coat on a not particularly pleasant day. How did the musky smell of his coat that comes out only at a specific degree of humidity, he assured, arrive at the conference?
Well, that effect was designed by Susana Cámara Leret, research associate at the Strategic Creativity Readership at Design Academy Eindhoven. She and the entire readership team held a break out session on designing with smell and What Design Can Do for Research. Bernardo Fleming of IFF, creators of smells and fragrances, contributed to the event too. We didn’t smell the photographer’s coat by the way, that was his personal interpretation of some of the molecules we offered to conference participants in the workshop, others smelled different things, perhaps musky too, but related to entirely different stories.
The story of the photographer’s coat illustrates that the effect Susana is designing is visceral first and foremost. As the 20 participants experienced too, smells bring out associations and stories immediately, without thinking. Personal stories often, that relate to memories sometimes half forgotten. Not always pleasant memories such as the coat, but also more mixed feelings such as the story about half rotten food in the fridge and cooking with her grandmother, as one participant related. She was fond of her gran, and loved doing things together, but slightly dreaded the vegetables from the fridge whose freshness the old lady could not really judge anymore.
Such stories are powerful to individual people alright, but they can serve a wider goal too, as Susana found. She runs a project with several partners in the CRISP (Creative Industries Scientific Program), with a centre for treatment of young drug addicts among them. Storytelling is an important aspect of their treatment as stories from their personal pasts give their carers an entrance into how addictions were propagated by certain events and behaviours in the past. Bringing out these memories and stories is particular difficult at times, and that is where a smell kit with designed exercises such as the one we did with participants of WDCD, can be of great help. Susana is currently finalising her smell kit for the carers, the WDCD session being a late prototype before it goes live in the care centre.
However, the WDCD break out session was not left at experiencing the strong effect of the smells and how this can be put to good work by designers. Susana also gave insight into how to design with smells, by revealing the molecular structure behind the smells she confronted the participants with. Because particular molecules are present in more than one smell, they can give rise to quite different memories and stories. The same molecule is present in rotten chicken in the fridge, dried up faeces and freshly baked french fries, for instance. Another you will find in both cat urine and Heineken. Now, that doesn’t mean that Heineken smells like your neglected cat litter, nor the other way around, but it does mean that people can come up with negative and positive associations and memories by sniffing the same molecule. It all depends on how you came across that molecule before and what connections you made in your brain when sniffing it at first. 
Knowing these connections between smells that share the same molecules, you can start designing with the molecules, making smell webs with them for instance as Susana does. These webs record the different associations people have from smelling the same molecule, and help to discuss the different stories that arise from one smelling session together with the participants. This is another use that has been picked up by the care centre for young drug addicts, who run group sessions of sharing stories too. The sharing becomes easier when there is a shared reference, the smell, even if everyone interprets it differently. What Design Can Do with smell for storytelling and young addicts became very clear, after all the fumes had dissipated.
Published: 24-May-2013 12:06


News, Gmotiv
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    A web of smells and molecules

  • A smelly workshop at WDCD 2013

    Preparing the samples

  • A smelly workshop at WDCD 2013

    Smelling stories

  • A smelly workshop at WDCD 2013

    Writing stories