Author Archive

A Cool Typography Film About Our 5 Senses

January 6, 2010

Typophile Film Festival 5 Opening Titles from Brent Barson on Vimeo.

Check out this cool typography film created by BYU design students and faculty, for the 5th Typophile Film Festival. It’s a visual typographic feast about the five senses, and how they contribute to and enhance our creativity.

Coolest part? There are no CG effects.

I love it when words comes alive!

Via Scene 360


Web Design for All the Senses

December 26, 2009

My friend, Nathan Shedroff, provides many foundations and definitions for the discipline of experience design in his book experience design 1:

“Most technological experiences—including digital and, especially, online experiences—have paled in comparison to real-world experiences and have been relatively unsuccessful as a result. What these solutions require is for developers to understand what makes good experiences first, and then to translate these principles, as well as possible, into the desired media without the technology dictating the form of the experience.”

It is amusing to me that the experience design community often self-identifies as being Web or digitally focused, but as Nathan points out, design for the Web is drastically behind other media in creating a truly experiential interaction.

Of course, much of that has to do with the nature of digital media. The technology and interface opportunities do not lend themselves to obvious and easy implementation of multi-sensorial experiences. However, that is ultimately a challenge and not a true barrier. As Nathan alludes, the real reason the Web and other digital networks and interactions are such a hollow, flat experience is we are not being innovative and creative enough. Happily, this is something that we can easily take control of and change.

Experience design requires that we design for all five senses. It is safe to say that over 99% of what is happening on the Web relates only to our sense of sight. On the surface, this might seem a logical and obvious state of affairs. In reality, it is a reflection of some mental laziness and of not thinking outside the computer screen. Let’s look at each of the other four senses and explore how we can integrate design for those senses into our Web experiences:


Our sense of hearing is the only other primary sense regularly stimulated within the Web experience. This happens in three basic ways:

Business need

Hearing is essential to some businesses and products, and they have innovated on the Web to create opportunities for people to hear what they have to offer. Certainly, the meteoric rise of the original Napster, and more recent success of Apple’s iTunes and related products and peripherals, is a testament to auditory content on the Web.

Without the ability to listen on the Web in the first place, we would not have reached the point where people will not just buy downloadable music on the Web but even purchase it without having heard it first. It was the free and easy availability of real music and online content that enabled this industry to spark, sizzle, and finally burn. The iPod is the hottest consumer electronics product because of the evolution from early music availability into major pent-up market need. Markets find a way.

The music industry is one example of the business model and auditory nature of the product driving the integration of stimulating this human sense onto the Web.

Multimedia integration

ESPN, once the leading television sports channel, has become a Disney-owned multimedia superpower with significant content and reach across many cable channels, an international radio network, a major print publication, and one of the larger and more substantial news-related Web sites in the world. represents the fulcrum for integrating and leveraging the corporation’s entire media empire.

Over the last two years ESPN has quietly moved into making the Web a true extension of its traditional media base—television—by staying at the front edge of online video technology. One component of that is sound. Because of their business goals and the need to maximize the effectiveness of other media, has a deep integration of auditory opportunities on their site, ranging from radio feeds to television segment re-broadcasts to clips from sporting events and more.

Design sensibility

Some Web experiences prominently integrate sound for the purpose of defining the sensibility and aesthetic of the site owner, for the enjoyment of those interacting with the site, or both.

One of my favorite examples of this in practice is a little Web design company in the Washington, D.C., area: I first stumbled upon this site some five years ago, and it still represents to me what the best use of sound on the Web is all about: subtle, effective, integrated into the visual design and integrated into the vibe, identity, and brand of the company itself.

Another common way to integrate sound is through content sampling or sharing. Digital Web Magazine’s own D. Keith Robinson does this on his site Asterisk with Song of the Week. Keith has integrated a self-contained media player onto his site and regularly writes a review of different songs he’s listening to, making those songs available on the site. Particularly for a blog or other form of personal publishing, expression, and communication, this sort of content sharing and sensorial integration is natural, and weaves a tighter relationship between the site owner and the visitors they share the most in common with. As with, Keith’s success is the product of strong and logical execution as much as simply making auditory content available.

I am not saying that integrating sound into your Web design is easy—on the contrary. One of the reasons we see so few examples of sound design on the Web is the large volume of spectacular failures we were saturated with during the Internet boom. Sites forced auditory content at us that was poorly conceived and executed, typically by people delighted with the powerful tools at their disposal, but without the design sensibility or capability to use them properly.

As the Web has become more refined, the reverse has become true. Sound is not being properly integrated to create better sensorial experiences. By thinking about the reasons sound has been aggressively integrated into Web experiences, and examining these and other examples of it being done successfully, we can rather easily bring the stimulation of this important sense into our own strategy and design.


There is so much the Web design industry can learn from the movie industry. Ever heard of Smell-O-Vision? Understanding the power of multi-sensorial experiences, the movie industry experimented—more than 40 years ago now—with integrating olfactory experiences into movie viewing. Unfortunately, the technology was not equal to the idea, and the experience was poor.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and a new and improved Smell-O-Vision. While the technology is still in the experimental stage—far from mainstream—it reflects an understanding of the untapped business potential available through an integration of the sense of smell. For some companies, this is a no-brainer. The fragrance industry would greatly benefit from this technology. Flowers and food are other products that lend themselves to aggressively exploring and making the most of this technology. But good experiences go much farther than business need. There are plenty of pleasant, mainstream, inoffensive smells that I would enjoy “sharing” with visitors to my own site—just very slightly, very lightly, the most brief and subtle of gentle whiffs, to evoke a smile or thoughtful tilt of the head.

This updated Smell-O-Vision holds great promise because of the deep understanding we now have of olfactory science. Organizations like the Sense of Smell Institute will be of increasing interest to business and, by extension, to Web and experience design.

Smells can be broken down into just a handful of component parts, and appropriate replication of smell through a digital device is a very real possibility. We’ll see what happens with Smell-O-Vision, but it is only a matter of time now before some technology enables us to easily indulge in integrating olfactory stimulation into our digital experiences.

Even now, there are other ways we can integrate the sense of smell into our design and development. Smell is particularly important in design, since it’s the sense most directly tied into our memory. Let’s look at the last two senses to better understand how we can integrate smell into our design today.


How can we design for touch on the Web? It seems impossible. But that barrier was imposed on us by old paradigms, and is no longer right or valid.

First, we need to remember that every single person interacting with our Web experiences is stimulating their sense of touch. They are typing on a keyboard, or moving and clicking a mouse, or using a stylus, or pushing buttons or… something. Touch already is a part of the experience, but it is one that is controlled by hardware manufacturers and not something that we consider within our provenance or sphere of control. But it can be within our control if we want it to be.

Second, we need to get our heads (not to mention our asses) out from behind our digital interfaces. Designing an experience is holistic. It is not limited to pictures or sounds or pixels or hardware. We need to assert ourselves into the environments of the people interacting with our Web experiences. The interaction does not need to end with the Web or interface, even if it is centered there.

This exercise is a little bit easier for me, because before I moved over to the creative and design side of the business I was a marketing strategist. One of my responsibilities was to innovate how we could best communicate to customers and the market. What media channels could we take advantage of? How could we best leverage those channels to have the biggest possible impact? Designers and developers should be thinking the same way.

Specific applications will depend on the company, product, or site goal we each have to deal with, but in any case it’s oh, so logical. For companies that rely on touch and feel for sales—the fashion industry for instance—it is essential to get materials in the hands of customers.

A common tactic is to drive people to the Web through traditional marketing, such as running a television commercial that also attempts to get people onto the site. But this can just as easily run in reverse. Instead of the traditional marketing channel being the driver, the Web can become the driver.

Direct mail is a great example. Why not send people a small piece of fabric that can attach to their mouse, monitor, or keyboard, specifically to influence their Web experience? This way, not only can they interact with and touch the product while on your site, they can do so when using other sites. And this area is ripe to be taken advantage of!

Sit back from your monitor a little bit. Stop clicking. Look around. What in your environment, while you are interacting with your computer, is designed to stimulate your sense of touch? I’m guessing that very few of us have anything like that available. Yet, if available, every single time I gently rubbed a piece of trademark Burberry or branded cashmere, the company or product that introduced that tactile interaction into my overall Web experience would benefit from it. I might be on the CNN site being bombarded by expensive ads from big companies, but I’ll be gently rubbing that little piece of fabric and warmly appreciating the company that was thoughtful enough to put it there, rather than the advertisers.

It is just basic experience design—think beyond the specific media and create a better overall experience.


This is the toughest of the five senses to design for. In approach, it is rather similar to touch or smell. Yet, unlike other senses, taste is not a continuous part of our everyday life. We access taste only at specific times—at meals or other ritualistic personal behaviors such as coffee drinking—and it is almost always a matter of our own control.

Sights and sounds and smell and even touches are more often than not imposed upon us from the outside. They are not invited in; we are presented with them and left to interpret, categorize, and respond to them in the way we best see fit. As such, the challenge of designing for taste requires subtle modifications to basic behavior, as well as basic ideation and implementation.

Chewing gum and mints are two examples of products that began to break the limited paradigm of taste. People will use these products all day long, stimulating their sense of taste in an ongoing way. In fact, this entire product category is ultimately ripe for buy-outs from and subordination by major brands that have nothing to do with the core products (Harley-Davidson gum, anyone?) but that is beyond the bounds of this article and publication.

People love to eat, and they enjoy having their sense of taste stimulated. I give a lot of presentations and seminars, and most of the time I make sure to hand out to the entire audience some sort of a small taste treat during the course of my talk. The effect of doing this is remarkable. People smile. Their body language changes. Their energy level changes. By providing just these little, inexpensive treats, it creates an entirely different moment and interaction. That is powerful!

Since very few non-food-related companies currently have any sort of a taste associated with them, the best way to design for taste is to design for the end user. What sort of things do people like? When and why do they like them? What connections can we draw between our company/products/selves and those particular tastes or items? How can we get those to the people?

These aren’t your typical development questions, and certainly not appropriate for all situations, but this is the way we need to be thinking. We are designing experiences, not just Web sites. Taste is an important part of experience. We need to think about that, even if we are only supposed to be thinking about boxes and buttons and pixels.

Ours to design

It certainly isn’t rocket science. It is just a matter of opening our minds up a little bit and taking a new look at our definitions and boundaries. After that, the only limitations are imposed by our creativity.

Technological and financial barriers are factors, not impediments. And the benefits of creating better experiences are virtually limitless. Just think to yourself: What are the things I am most passionate about or moved by? Most often, the answers lie in areas not currently being addressed within design solutions, yet well within our individual grasp to provide. The world is ours to design, and there is no reason to wait.

The Smell Report

December 26, 2009

The human sense of smell

Although the human sense of smell is feeble compared to that of many animals, it is still very acute. We can recognise thousands of different smells, and we are able to detect odours even in infinitesimal quantities.

Our smelling function is carried out by two small odour-detecting patches – made up of about five or six million yellowish cells – high up in the nasal passages.

For comparison, a rabbit has 100 million of these olfactory receptors, and a dog 220 million. Humans are nonetheless capable of detecting certain substances in dilutions of less than one part in several billion parts of air. We may not be able to match the olfactory feats of bloodhounds, but we can, for example, ‘track’ a trail of invisible human footprints across clean blotting paper.

The human nose is in fact the main organ of taste as well as smell. The so-called taste-buds on our tongues can only distinguish four qualities – sweet, sour, bitter and salt -all other ‘tastes’ are detected by the olfactory receptors high up in our nasal passages.


Our smelling ability increases to reach a plateau at about the age of eight, and declines in old age. Some researchers claim that our smell-sensitivity begins to deteriorate long before old age, perhaps even from the early 20s. One experiment claims to indicate a decline in sensitivity to specific odours from the age of 15! But other scientists report that smelling ability depends on the person’s state of mental and physical health, with some very healthy 80-year-olds having the same olfactory prowess as young adults. Women consistently out-perform men on all tests of smelling ability (see Sex differences).

Schizophrenics, depressives, migraine sufferers and very-low-weight anorexics often experience olfactory deficits or dysfunctions. One group of researchers claims that certain psychiatric disorders are so closely linked to specific olfactory deficits that smell-tests should be part of diagnostic procedures. Zinc supplements have been shown to be successful in treating some smell and taste disorders.

Although smoking does not always affect scores on smell-tests, it is widely believed to reduce sensitivity.

A recent study at the University of Pennsylvania suggests that, contrary to popular belief, blind people do not necessarily have a keener sense of smell than sighted people. In their experiments on blind and sighted people, the top performers on most tests were (sighted) employees of the Philadelphia Water Department who had been trained to serve on the Department’s water quality evaluation panel. The researchers conclude that training is the factor most likely to enhance performance on smell tests. (University of Pennsylvania researchers are probably fairly clued-up on this subject – they designed the University of Pennsylvania Smell Identification Test (UPSIT) which is the standard test used in almost all experiments.)

The importance of ‘training’ in the development of smell-sensitivity is confirmed by many other studies. Indeed, this factor can sometimes be a problem for researchers, as subjects in repetitive experiments become increasingly skilled at detecting the odours involved.

Smell-sensitivity researchers have to be very careful about the odours they use in experiments, because a smell is not always a smell. Many odorous substances activate not only the olfactory system but also the ‘somatosensory’ system -the nerve endings in our noses which are sensitive to temperature, pain etc. This is why ‘anosmics’ – patients who have completely lost their sense of smell – can still detect menthol, phenylethyl alcohol and many other substances. In a study testing anosmics’ ability to perceive odorous substances, it was found that many so-called odours are in fact affecting the pain- and temperature-sensitive nerve-endings, rather than the olfactory receptors. Out of 47 ‘odorous’ substances, anosmics could detect 45. (Only two substances could not be detected by the anosmic patients: these were decanoic acid and vanillin, which affect only the olfactory receptors, and can thus safely be classified as ‘pure’ odours.) Some unpleasant ‘smells’ do more than just annoy or disgust us, they actually cause us pain.


Although smell-identification ability increases during childhood, even newborn infants are highly sensitive to some important smells: recent research shows that newborn babies locate their mothers’ nipples by smell. In experiments, one breast of each participating mother was washed immediately after the birth. The newborn baby was then placed between the breasts. Of 30 infants, 22 spontaneously selected the unwashed breast.

Other experiments have also shown that babies are responsive to very faint differences in body odour, but it is believed that infants are highly sensitive only to specific smells, rather than a wide range of odours.

In terms of odour preference, however, one significant study showed that 3-year-olds have essentially the same likes and dislikes as adults. Experiments conducted in the early 70s and replicated in 1994 revealed that children do not develop sensitivity to certain odours until they reach puberty. In these studies, 9-year-olds showed a pronounced insensitivity to two musk odours, although their ability to detect other odours was the same as that of postpubescents and adults.

Your Sense of Smell

December 26, 2009

What are smells?
What makes the smell of something, like, say, rotten eggs? While what’s making the smell may be invisible to the naked eye, it doesn’t mean there’s nothing there! The smell is just made of things too small to see. You know they’re there because you can smell them.

Odors are tiny molecules of chemicals from things like food, or flowers or poop that float through the air. Many odors aren’t single scents or single kinds of molecules but a whole mixture of them.

How do we smell smells?
Through your nose. It’s a mucus-covered, twisty cavern that’s built to smell as well as warm, moisten, and filter the air you breath. When you breath through your nose, air enters both of your nostrils. Hairs, hanging from the walls of each opening, act as filters trapping dirt, dust, pollen — all sorts of things — even bugs!

As the air moves further back inside your nose, the locale gets warmer and slimier. There’s wet mucus everywhere! And if you look carefully, you discover the mucus is actually moving. Incredibly, small hair-like structures called cilia are sweeping or undulating back and forth, moving the mucus (and anything trapped in it) further and further back. At the same time, the air moving back is warmed by blood vessels just beneath the surface, filled with warm, pulsing blood.

As the air spirals around, bouncing off ridges and valleys, the passageway opens up to a big cavern — your nasal cavity. Rivulets of mucus stream back and down into our throat. You swallow a lot of it!

The odor chemicals that you inhaled, on the other hand, begin to float upward, not downward. They hit a ceiling area in your nasal cavity. About the size of a postage stamp, it’s covered with millions upon millions of microscopic nerve cells that can detect smell. Odor molecules sink through a thick, mustard-colored mucus until they reach the sensitive hair-like tops of the nerve cells and get trapped. Differently shaped nerve cells recognize different smells because each smell molecule fits into a nerve cell like a lock and key. Then, these cells send signals along your olfactory nerve to the smell center in your brain. It senses the odor or collection of odors. Does it smell bad or good? Now that all depends on you and your sense of smell.

What’s the connection between smell and taste?
Most of your sense of taste is really about your sense of smell. Do you think that the spaghetti and meatballs you’re eating taste delicious? Much of the reason is because you like their smell. In fact, you’re doing a lot of sniffing. Not only are you smelling before you take a bite, but while you are chewing, odor molecules from the ground-up food inside your mouth float upwards taking that remarkable smell journey.


  • If your sniffer is in peak performance you can tell the difference between 4000-10,000 smells. Now that’s heavy-duty sniffing!
  • WARNING: As you grow older, your sense of smell gets worse. Children are likely to have much more subtle senses of smell than parents or grandparents.
  • MAYBE YOU WANT TO BE BLOODHOUND? They smell at least 1000 times better than humans.
  • MAYBE YOU WANT TO BE A MALE MOTH? Just a dozen odor molecules from a lady moth a block away can drive a male moth crazy!
  • BE GLAD YOU’RE NOT A DOLPHIN OR WHALE — Instead of two nostrils in the middle of your face, you’d have one blowhole on the top of your head!

Sense of Sight

December 26, 2009

Imagine this: it’s early morning. No sounds. No smells. But open your eyes and, as long as there is light, there is always something to see. From the moment you wake up in the morning, until the moment you go to sleep, your eyes are taking in information and relaying it to your brain to interpret! Of all the senses, sight is the richest and most complex.

Look Closely
Sit a friend or family member down and look into one of their eyes. The first thing you’ll notice is that the eye sits in a hollow space in the skull and is protected by an eyelid and a bony eyebrow. As you gaze deeply into the eye, you look through the transparent, curved cornea to the donut-shaped ring called the iris, sitting in the center of the white of the eye. The iris is the part that can vary from blue, to brown to hazel and determine eye color. It’s also the part whose muscles cause the pupil, the dark circle in the center, to enlarge or contract.

It’s through the pupil that light rays enter the eyeball. The size of the pupil changes depending upon the light available. Just behind the pupil is the lens. It’s the transparent part of the eye which bends those rays of light and focuses the image on the back surface of the eyeball. How? With the help of muscles that actually change the shape of the lens!

Looking at something close up? The lens will become thicker. Admiring something that’s far away? Muscles will squeeze the lens, making it thinner so that you can see the image clearly. Remarkable, don’t you think?

Once the light travels through the lens, it must still travel through lots of clear jelly, called the vitreous humor, which makes up most of the eye. But, finally, the light makes it to the back surface, or retina, of the eye.

130 Million Light-Sensitive Cells
The retina, about the size of a postage stamp, is filled with two different kinds of light-sensitive cells — 130 million of them! Rods register shapes and respond to low levels of light. Cones, on the other hand, register color and only work in bright light (which is why colors become harder to see as it gets darker). Then, through optic nerves, these light-sensitive cells send information to the brain.

What about the images that are being communicated to the brain?
Remarkably, the images shining onto the retina and also being communicated to the brain are upside down! It’s the brain’s job, not the eye’s, to translate those upside-down images and interpret the information it receives into visual meaning that you can understand.

Why do people sometimes need glasses?
Sometimes the lenses in peoples’ eyes don’t properly focus light on the back of the retina. If an eyeball is too short, the image will fall behind the retina. People are then called far-sighted, because their eyes can focus on things far away but not close up. If, on the other hand, an eye is too long, people see things nearby but not far off and are called near-sighted. Either way, glasses or contact lenses can generally enable them to see much better!


  • You may think humans have good eyesight but imagine being an owl. An owl can see a mouse moving over 150 feet away with light no brighter than a candle!
  • A cat’s eyes glow in the dark because of special silvery “mirrors” that reflect light, making it much easier for them to see in the dark.
  • So-called “color-blindness,” in which colors such as green and red are hard to distinguish, affects about 1 in 30 people — and many times more men than women!