Designing experiences – Sensory ecology

In October and November 2021, I designed and led two workshops that allowed me to put principles developed in my PhD research into practice and test their validity and transferability. The outcome of these workshops will contribute further insights to the PhD. The first workshop took place on 26th and 27th of October in Pamplona, Spain, at the University of Navarra with students from the BA Service Design students. The second workshop took place online on 20th of October and on 3rd of November, a collaboration between students from the BA Interior Design at Politecnico di Milano and students from the BA (Hons) Design for Branded Spaces at London College of Communication, University of the Arts London.

I would like to thank the students at Navarra, PoliMI and LCC for their valued contribution and amazing designs. I would also like to thank Aitor Alicu and Alicia Fernandez Barranco at University of Navarra, as well as Alessandr Biemonti, Silvia Maria Gramegna and Lorenzo Fossi at Politecnico di Milana for their support and warm welcome.

In these workshops students were introduced to principles of sensory ecology exploring the correlation between sensing and emotions in the context of place attachment and wellbeing. The objective was to design experiences that enabled people to develop positive emotional connections towards their environment. The principles explored in these workshops are discussed in a paper published in 2020. The paper titled “Inhabiting the Public Interior. An Exploration into the Critical Role of Personalisation in Imparting Quality to Public Life” is discussed in a previous post titled ‘Inhabiting the Public Interior’.

Mallgrave, H. F. (2018) From Object to Experience. The New Culture of Architectural Design. London: Bloomsbury Visual Arts.
Caan, S. (2011) Rethinking Design and Interiors – Human Beings and the Built Environment. London: Laurence King.

Designing experiences – University of Navarra, BA Service Design.

The activity took place on the site of the University of Navarra Museum designed by architect Rafael Moneo. First, students were invited to re-consider the museum as a public interior and were provided with tools to document and map sensory phenomena (sight, touch, smell, hearing, kinaesthesia). They were then tasked to design interventions that would entice visitors on a journey through the interior and enrich their experience of Museum.

Students from the BA Service Design course working on the site of the Museum.
Students from the BA Service Design course working in their studio.
Students from the BA Service Design course working in their studio.

Designing experiences – Politecnico di Milano, BA Interior Design and London College of Communication, BA (Hons) Design for Branded Spaces.

The activity took place online using Miro as a platform for students to collaborate (a fantastic platform for individual and group work). First students learned about the primacy of sensing and the types of emotional qualities people may experience in the built environment. They were then tasked to design a temporary public space or pavilion where people could define personal and group territories while still maintaining positive sensory connections with the collective environment.

Online interactive studio space (Miro).
Sensory map – Sample work from the collaboration between BA Interior Design and BA Design for Branded Spaces students.
Sensory map – Sample work from the collaboration between BA Interior Design and BA Design for Branded Spaces students.

These activities draw on phenomenological and ecological theoretical principles. Here, phenomenology is presented as the study of experience from the first-person perspective to foreground the primacy of embodied perception. The ecological perspective explores the relationship between living organisms (people) and their environment (the build environment). Phenomenology and ecology bring the perceptual and the relational together to become phenomenological ecology, a principles coined by Mark Reigner (1993, p.181) and discussed by David Seamon (1993, p. 16) in the book ‘Dwelling, Seeing, and Designing. Toward a Phenomenological Ecology’.

References

Reigner, M. (1993) ‘Toward a Holistic Understanding of Place: Reading the Landscape through its Flora and Fauna’, in Seamon, D. (ed.) Dwelling, Seeing and Designing. Toward a Phenomenological Ecology. Albany, USA: State University of New York.

Seamon, D. (ed.) (1993) Dwelling, Seeing and Designing. Toward a Phenomenological Ecology. New York: State University of New York Press.

Sensory workshop ESDI-Roca Gallery Barcelona

Working with a group of interior design students from ESDi School of Design (University Jamon Lull, Barcelona) as part of an Erasmus+ exchange, we took over the ROCA gallery in Barcelona to carry out a sensory study of the site and a creative activity designed to help students reconnect with sensing through design research for interior design practice, making the activity both practice-led and practice based experience. Following on site investigations, students were invited to translate their experience into three-dimensional artefacts.

Read ESDi article about this event

SUMMARY OF ACTIVITY BRIEFING

Sensory flow and design explorations

In this workshop introduces a method to document embodied multisensory experiences in space. It is followed by an experimental design activity.

Documentation

You will be assigned a sensory system documentation template to document a pre-selected site outside the ESDI building. Bring your sketchbook and a range of pen.

Once on site, use the template provided to document your embodied experience of the sensory system you have been assigned and map/sketch your experiences in your sketchbook.

Interpretation

Team with three other people so that each of you represents a sensory system (visual, auditory, smell/taste, haptic). As a team, make a collective mind map of their sensory documentation, highlighting significant elements, scale, connections, hierarchies, qualities/emotions.

Translation

Working individually again, use the information on the mind map as the basis for the design of a multisensory space/structure. Experiment by making 3 different sketch models to explore how you can give 3D form and spatial expression to your group sensory documentation. The objective is to explore and experiment not to provide a definitive solution.

Presentations and discussion

In your group, present your models to each other. Each group selects 1 model to present to the class and discuss insights.

BA Interior Design students, Course Leader Alicia Fernández and Valerie Mace
Students translate their research into a three-dimensional artefact

Sensory design in the workplace

‘To live in an environment which has to be endured or ignored rather than enjoyed is to be diminished as a human being. The society which ignores this fact is at risk, for it is presuming too far upon human adaptability; drabness, confusion, and mediocrity make an imponderable but real contribution to the frustration and depression which produce stultified, sick, or apathetic citizens’. Sinclair Gauldie.

On Wednesday 7th October 2020, I was invited to speak at an online seminar organised by CIBSE Intelligent Buildings Group in conjunction with CIB Commission W098.

Transdisciplinary workplace research (TWR): Wellbeing

Health and wellbeing in the workplace has become an increasingly important issue in recent years as we realise the impact it can make on productivity and, indirectly, the costs to national health services. The Covid-19 pandemic has served to emphasise this fact even more.

TWR is a research community founded by Dr Rianne Appel-Meulenbroek at Eindhoven University that carries out research internationally on the factors that affect health and wellbeing using a transdisciplinary approach, introducing data from the fields of work psychology, medicine, design and planning for example. Speakers presented from the perspective of workplace psychology, health, and forthcoming research priorities.

This webinar addressed what the research needs are. The questions are what do we know but what do we not know? What do we need to know? How can research answer these questions?

Speakers:

4.00 Nicola Gillen, Director Occupier Business at Cushman &Wakefield.
What are the unanswered questions?
4.15 Nigel Oseland, Workplace Consultant.
Lessons from Studies and Research in Psychology
4.30 Piers MacNaughton , View and Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health.
How the office affects employee health and performance
4.45 Valerie Mace, University of the Arts.
What are the research priorities for sensory design of the workplace?
5.00 Panel Q/A
Moderator: Derek Clements-Croome, Chair of CIBSE IB Group and co-coordinator for CIB Commission W098 on Intelligent and Responsive Buildings and Board Member for TWR

KEY TOPICS DISCUSSED
What are the research priorities for sensory design of the workplace?

Wellbeing: the way individuals can feel about themselves in relation to their environment.

Sensory design: the practice of designing for all the senses, never forgetting that the human body is the primary means of perception, which is the phenomenological underpinning of experience, and that feelings and emotions are part of the perceptual process. Sensory design also considers that our experience of the world is always multi-sensory and that the senses interact with each other. The philosopher Gaston Bachelard poetically calls it ‘the polyphony of the senses.’

Ecology: the relationship between organissims and their environment. The ecological approach can consider the environment of the workplace as an ecosystem constitutive of physical space, behavioural space and emotional space brought into one.

Biophilia: the use of natural elements, real or figurative, in the design of spaces.

Phenomenological ecology: as ‘an interdisciplinary field that explores and describes the way that things, living forms, people, events, situations and worlds come together environmentally.’ David Seamon / Mark reigner

Culture and enculturation: the impact of culture on design practices and the way culture defines and even potentially constrains what we do and think.

Harry Francis Mallgrave argues that architecture as the practive and making of culture. Drawing on the meaning of the Latin etymology of the word culture, the growing, tending and cultivation of the land, Mallgrave defines culture in biological terms as ‘the built and social environments in which the human organism either flourishes or withers.’

Research priorities

  • To enhance qualitative awareness of environmental experience.
  • To the design of the workplace and people together into one sensori-emotional model, moving away from an ocurlarcentric paradigm to integrate multi-sensory stimuli.
  • To define contextual frameworks for the research, exploring opportunities beyond what we know and how we think about existing workplace design.                                     
  • To apply transdisciplinary principles by drawing on expertise form different disciplines.
  • To promote delibarate collaborations for organisations, architects, designers and stakeholders to work together to create cultures where the human organism can flourish.

Touch

On June 24 2020 I took part in the 24H Worldwide Design conversation organised by the Polimi Design Systems community of the Politecnico di Milano. The events was streamed live and 48 guests from across the world were invited to discuss a design related topic in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. I selected TOUCH as my topic of conversation.

PRESS RELEASE

Following the COVID19 pandemic, many design paradigms need to be rethought and re‐invented. The POLIMI Design System community of the Politecnico di Milano will launch, on June 24, 2020, a continuous 24‐hour live broadcast, through a schedule that follows the international time zones; this way it will travel around the world, keeping at each session the same moment of the day.

The international network of the POLIMI Design System will be involved, and through teachers, professionals and alumni will start a fast and dynamic discussion dedicated to the culture of the project, oriented towards reflection on design changes after lockdown. Through 30 minutes sessions, the 48 guestswill develop their talks around a term, a keyword they propose, and consider to be significant in defining the design and its changes.

Programme and list of participants

TOUCH (abstract)

The link between multi-sensory experiences and wellbeing is recognised and has been documented across a broad range of practices, including architecture, interior design, ethnography, anthropology and environmental psychology. Our perception of the world derives from sensory, embodied interactions yet, as vision dominates in Western culture, our relationship with touch is more ambiguous.  In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, touch, direct skin and body contact, has become problematic, especially in the public realm. Due to obvious health concerns, we have learnt to wash our hands, to protect our face and stringent restrictions have been put in place. People may feel cautious, even concerned, about touching surfaces and others. Touch, which enables us to intimately connect with the world and which until now we took for granted, is now perceived as a risk, impacting on spatial and social encounters. Although this could be perceived as negative, this situation may also provide opportunities to re-think relations between people and environment, to reconsider embodied experience in design by exploring ways for people to retain a sense of tactile connection with the built and social environments. In order to find answers, we need to understand which questions we should ask.

Although I don’t usually consider the senses in isolation, I chose to talk about touch, by which I mean specifically ‘skin and body contact through the act of touching’, because in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, touch is more likely to be perceived as a risk. Surfaces, especially in the public realm, can be perceived as posing significant risks to our physical health. At present, we’re being told not to touch.

Recording: Touch

Recording: all conversations