A mindful approach to sensory design


My top dining experience of 2016 was most definitely a visit to Dans le Noir? in London, a restaurant where diners eat in the dark. 

Served by visually impaired waiters, the menu is kept a surprise, so you have no idea what you’re eating or what’s coming next.  The experience is liberating from both social and sensory perspectives.  Without the input and distraction of sight, the role of all other senses is much enhanced – particularly awareness of sounds and texture.  By the end of the meal, I had cast aside the cutlery and was eating everything with my hands to get a more direct and experiential connection with the food.

Whilst we use our senses every day, we rarely stop to consider what each one is telling us.  Sensory cues influence decision-making on a daily basis, and play a huge role in shaping our everyday experiences.

In the FMCG world, brands have been creating and engineering multi-sensory product experiences for decades, optimised to satisfy and delight their consumers.  Most recently however, there has been an increased focus on packaging, with brands looking to optimise the ‘sensory pack experience’ to encourage purchase and drive loyalty.

We are seeing a big increase in the number of design briefs from clients looking to optimise the sensory experience of their packaging in order to more effectively communicate key brand values or product attributes.  This requires consideration of all key pack interactions throughout the shopper and user journey from a multi-sensory perspective.

One of the most challenging aspects of these types of brief is working out what the fundamental sensory design principles should be in the first place.  For example – if a client is looking to communicate “Pioneering” through pack design, how does this translate in terms of pack hand feel, or the sound the pack makes when you open it?  What is a pioneering texture?  Or a pioneering sound?

Whilst we want to understand the human angle, using consumers for this type of exploratory sensory work isn’t necessarily the best approach.  What we’re trying to understand is complex, intangible; with much of it happening at a sub-conscious level.  

Instead, we have been developing new and immersive methods, using the project team as subjects to understand and identify the key principles of the sensory experiences we are trying to create. By taking the brand value or desired attribute we are looking to communicate, and looking for parallel user experiences, we can help decode the role that the senses play in this experience.

So, if the key attribute we are trying to communicate is ”targeted”, we would look for other experiences which are targeted in some way, like acupuncture, sports massage, yoga or playing snooker! The project team would then immerse themselves in these parallel experiences, each carrying out several of them individually over the course of a few weeks.

The individual approach to immersion is important in order to really focus and decode the role of each sense during the experience, identifying the key moments in the experience that best deliver on the specific attribute. To do this, we use principles from Mindfulness: a meditation practice where one’s awareness is focussed on the present moment; acknowledging feelings, thoughts and physical sensations.  Whilst this could be seen as abstract and tangential, this exploration of parallel experiences opens up deeper thinking and allows us to isolate fundamental principles which can be used to inform sensory design. 

In a recent project for Beiersdorf, a global FMCG company, we used this approach to help inform key packaging design principles for one of their personal care ranges.  Combined with looking at cross-category packaging stimulus, we were able to identify fundamental principles to feed into the brief, including the types of sound, forms, materials, textures and interactions that would best communicate the key brand pillars.

We continue to experiment and push boundaries with our insight and design research work. 

We are looking for more brands to join us on this journey and trial new approaches to help create truly meaningful products and brand experiences for their customers.

For more information, contact Kate Dowler, Head of Research