14 Oct 2016

Designing for Smell

Recently I completed reading 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know about People by Susan M. Weinschenk. As a designer I’ve always felt that understanding human psychology is a more important skill than “creativity.” I’ve looked at psychology books in the past, but my aversion to reading long, technical books kept me away from them. 100 Things is a great compilation about how the human brain works, paired with takeaways that are useful in the design process.

One topic that peaked my interest was how smells can evoke emotions and memories. I’ve always been intrigued by the power of scents and their lasting impact on our memories. One memorable scent from my childhood was the smell of my high school lobby. I can’t describe it, but smelling any scent close to it immediately draws my mind back to my early days as a freshman in high school.

Why are scents so powerful? 100 Things describes the psychological response that occurs when you encounter scents. The thalamus is the part of the brain between the cerebral cortex and the midbrain. You can think of the thalamus as a traffic director — senses send their data to the thalamus and get routed to the appropriate location in the brain. Visual information from your retina, for example, goes to the thalamus and then gets sent to the primary visual cortex. Smell, however, is an exception. When you smell something, the sensory data from the olfactory system (your sense of smell) bypasses the thalamus and goes straight to your amygdala, where emotional information is processed. The amygdala is directly next to the memory centers of the brain, thus explaining the strong emotional responses.

Brands and retailers frequently take advantage of the power of smell. Many stores have signature scents that are part of their branding experience. Disney World employs a variety of scents throughout its theme parks and resorts.

Apple takes into consideration the aroma of the materials used in their packaging. In fact, iPhone and Mac accessory maker Twelve South recently produced a “New Mac Smell” candle designed to mimic the smell of unboxing a new Mac. It may sound like a crazy idea, but the initial stock of the product sold out in just two hours.

Barring the invention of a Smell-O-Vision system for the web, scents probably won’t play an impact in designing apps or web sites anytime soon. But they’re a powerful influence that shouldn’t be understated.