Multi-sensory design

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{{#css:/skins/DDG/DDG1.css}} Designers who intentionally try to create specific experiences for people, such as delight, trust or the feeling of being cared for, are more likely to succeed if they are aware of the messages conveyed by the different sensory channels and of their contribution to the overall experience. Such a multisensory approach enriches the product experience, avoids unwanted conflicting messages, and results in products that are also comprehensible for users with sensory impairments.

Each sensory modality is sensitive to a different type of energy and is stimulated by different product properties. As a consequence, the modalities usually provide different pieces of product information, which may or may not overlap (Schifferstein & Spence, 2008).

For instance, a bus stop may look attractive and welcoming, but leave the waiting passenger standing in a cold breeze, next to a smelly trashcan, or with a lot of traffic noise. On the other hand, the colour, taste, and texture of ice cream, the look and feel of its- package, and the crispiness of the biscuit may all contribute to being completely immerged in savouring it. Therefore, the main challenge in Multi Sensory Design (MSD) projects is to come up with an integrated design, in which all sensory impressions support the expression of the product.

Hendrik Schifferstein initiated the development of the MSD approach at TU Delft. He developed the first MSD elective course for Master students in cooperation with Marieke Sonneveld and Geke Ludden in 2004. Since 2008 the MSD approach is also being used in projects for industrial companies.

Outline of the MSD approach

1. Selecting the target expression

MSD takes the expression of the object (e.g., eagerness, cheerfulness, innocence) as the design starting point (Sonneveld et al., 2008). In a business context, the target expression may be provided by the marketing department on the basis of consumer research. Alternatively, you may start out from the effect you want to achieve among future users (e.g., feeling safe, inspire), and determine which object and interaction qualities are needed to achieve the desired effect.

2. Conceptual exploration

After the target expression has been selected, you need to develop an understanding of this expression. You may start out by writing down the associations that come to mind when thinking about this expression. Making a collage can support this process. What does the expression make you think of?

3. Sensory exploration

Figure 1: Framework for the Multi Sensory Design approach

Subsequently, you collect samples that seem to evoke the target expression (figure 1) for different sensory modalities (e.g., pictures, materials, fragrances, fabrics, computer sounds, foods, plants). How does the target expression feel, sound, smell, and look? While exploring the world, you should be curious about the sensory properties of objects, especially the ones people hardly ever seem to pay attention to: In what ways can you pick up or manipulate an object? What sounds can it produce? How does it feel if you touch it in different ways? What does it smell like? Try to go beyond obvious choices: objects that look tough may actually feel quite elegant!

4. Sensory Analysis

In the next step you try to describe and understand the relationships between the perceived sensory properties and the product expression. Try to find out why certain samples seem related to a specific expression and try to determine the physical properties that evoke the target expression. During this process, you may discover that an expression can manifest itself in different ways: Elegance may be related to flowing, uninterrupted movements, but also to simple and straightforward solutions.

5. Mind map

The results of the previous stages serve as the starting point for a mind map. This mind map organises the information that was acquired in the previous stages, while trying to maintain the richness of the data.

The target expression is displayed in the centre of the map, where several outward branches connect it to the main concepts defining the core of the expression. On their turn, these main concepts may be linked to other concepts, which may be linked to other concepts or sensory dimensions. From the centre of the map to the periphery, the descriptors in the map will become less conceptual, more concrete, and more sensory. New concepts may be added to the map if links seem to be missing or if a set of concepts can be summarised under a new label. In the end, the mind map should indicate how a particular concept may be translated into a perceivable product aspect that makes the concept physically tangible.

If the final design involves a branded product, brand associations can be added to the mind map, in order to make clear how the design can contribute to the brand image. You may decide to modify or disregard some parts of the map in the design process, if these conflict with the brand image.

6. User-interaction scenario

By developing an interaction scenario, the time dimension is included in the design process. The scenario describes the actions users perform, the feedback they receive from the product, the instructions users receive, and so on. A scenario is usually set within a certain context, defining a typical user and an environment in which the interaction takes place. In the MSD approach, scenarios are used to identify all the sensory touch points during the encounter: Which senses are stimulated when you pick up the product, when you unwrap it, when you use it, or when you store it? What does this contribute to the overall expression?

7. Model making

Staying in touch with the physical counterparts of a specific product expression is a safeguard that enables you to develop an integrated user-product interaction that makes sense to prospective users and engages them. Actually sensing a specific property often differs from one’s expectations when trying to imagine it. In an MSD process, visual sketching and digital modelling should be left to a minimum, otherwise visual impressions and cognitive reasoning will tend to dominate your design choices. You should try to ‘sketch’ in all your senses, in order to assess the sensory aspects of your concepts. You can make collages and explorative, physical models for the different senses, and assess their appropriateness in the proposed user context.

8. Multisensory presentation

In order to communicate the benefits of a Multi Sensory Design, the final design needs to be presented in a multisensory way; a set of slides will not suffice! If final prototypes are not yet available, you can show drawings, you can let the audience feel foam models, you can let them feel and smell materials, and you can play sound files. A storyboard can show the involvement of the various senses in the different stages of human-product interaction.


The essential element of MSD is that perceptual knowledge obtained through explorations in all sensory modalities is explicitly incorporated in the design process (figure 1). The ultimate design challenge is to develop a product that provides users with an interesting, rich experience, and is nevertheless perceived as a coherent whole.


Figure 2: A cute socket set, developed through the MSD approach

Figure 2 shows the results of a student project in which the assignment was to design a ‘cute’ hand tool. The socket set was developed for the feminine do-it-yourself handywoman, who wants to be reassured that the tools will not harm her. The student wanted the tools to seduce the handywoman by their enthusiasm to do the job well, without showing any heavy-duty behavior in movements or sounds. The final socket set is characterised by a rounded, organic shape and soft, pastel colours. It is presented in a box that resembles a jewellery case. When opened, a sweet, comforting smell emerges.

References and Further Reading

  • Lindstrom, M. (2005). ‘Brand sense: build powerful brands through touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound.’ New York: Free Press.
  • Schifferstein, H.N.J., Desmet, P.M.A. (2008). ‘Tools facilitating multisensory product design’, The Design Journal, 11(2), 137-158.
  • Schifferstein, H.N.J., Spence, C. (2008). ‘Multisensory product experience.’ In Schifferstein, H.N.J. & Hekkert, P. (eds.) Product Experience (pp. 133-161). Amsterdam: Elsevier.
  • Sonneveld, M.H., Ludden, G.D.S., Schifferstein, H.N.J. (2008) ‘Multi Sensory Design in education’. In Desmet, P.M.A., Tzvetanova, S.A., Hekkert, P., Justice, L. (eds). Dare to desire. Proceedings from the 6th conference on Design and Emotion. School of Design, Hong Kong Polytechnic University, 6-9 October 2008, Hong Kong, China, pp 1-11.
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