Sensory design

Exploring ideas of taste, touch and sound through design, is quite a daunting prospect, especially in relation to the creation of pictograms and reducing these complex forms into simple icons. This project explored developing a series of icons for sensory reactions.


An everyday event, ‘taste’ is created as a combination of more than five senses. Tasty formulas utilise the 5 elements including temperature, colour, texture, volume/weight, and form. These elements are applied to this design proposal.

I was drawn to a study by Greimel, Macht, Krumhuber and Ellgring (2006) where they explored facial reactions to taste and whether participants felt sadness or joy from these tastes (p. 261). Their results showed that there were different parts of the brain ignited by different tastes and facial reactions had distinct patterns amongst participants (p. 267). These insights I felt could provide the backbone of my design approach.

My process centred around depicting the tastes of items as lines and planes. For example, soft smooth lines for sweet, dotted lines for salty and spiky lines for spicy. Depicting sour was problematic as there was no automatic visual reference people associate with sour. Defining taste visually became challenging when asking people of what visual cues they associate with taste, beyond pure colour. I found people had very few assumptions when trying to visually define sweet and sour.


Researchers at the Faculty of Biosciences at the University of Copenhagen and the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology have mapped out how our faces react to a whole series of different flavours.

They were subsequently able to divide people’s reactions into 12 different facial expressions. For example, they reacted to the bitter tastes by frowning, turning up their noses, opening their eyes wide or screwing up their eyes. They reacted to sour tastes by frowning, pursing their lips, pointing their lips or turning the corner of their mouths downwards.



In trying to define each individual element, I found pinpointing an easy to recognise symbol extremely difficult to achieve. With the use of colour, I found this to help, yet sour continued to be a taste with no previously associated colour and thus, hard to align to a shade and texture.


The development of representing associations with flavours led to the final outcome of combining graphical elements for flavours sweet, sour, salty and spicy. This pictogram system combines these four flavours, where a  meal could be documented based on the amount of each particular flavour, giving users a sense of what they are about to eat.

This approach allows for a more expanded exploration of taste. Each element is not just expressing one taste, but how these interact together, such as dominant flavours within a meal. This system works to highlight numerous flavours through their associated tastes and allows users to visually see what elements are in their meal.

The pictograms work as a pie graph of taste, to show the main flavour within a meal or food item. Each flavour is represented by line, texture and colour. These individual associations need to be further developed to express instantaneous recognition with their specific taste and to directly represent the sensation of eating.


When beginning to understand how to approach touch as a series of pictograms, I began looking into the textural work of Kenya Hara as well as pictograms and diagrams of temperature. I thought the combination of texture and temperature would produce an interesting series of icons that could hope to express the feeling of touch.

Hara states, “To design is to “build” a structure with an image inside the mind of the recipient. In this case, the materials are not only external stimulation but also massive amounts of memories awakened by stimulation. Designing highlights subtle differences between recalled memories and reality” (2009).

These connections with memory through visualisation I was really intrigued by, especially how to represent sensory feelings through designed icons that express external stimulation and are recognised and understood by viewers.


My first insight came to me while at the beach, feeling the sensation of sand between my fingers. To express this feeling of touch I would need to show a hand and its relationship to a material. This material would then be variable to show instances of hot and cold, smooth and rough etc.

I continued on exploring particles of sand, showing smooth items as straight lines and rough items with zigzags. This was then integrated with a hand either moving through the item, or sitting on top, depending on the malleability of the material.

This was further explored to show extreme hot or cold situations with the hand changing colour to represent danger, for example burning or frostbite. These ideas then led to showing sharpness through both a zigzag pattern and the actual severing of figures, showing the outcome of interacting with the material. This technique was also used to show nuclear or electronic materials.

The series of icons developed along very textural lines and focused on a hand and its interaction with a variety of materials. This was explored with the repetition of line and the use of straight, wavy and pointy lines to signify smooth, soft and rough surfaces. The effect of the material on the hand itself was represented by colouring the hand.



I was drawn to abstract explorations of sound and music, especially the use of form and colour to express different musical genres.

Rebecca Cornwell sound visualization process offered insights into the process through documenting people’s experiences on the London underground (2011). The use of line and colour I felt could be used to express different sounds and musical experiences. Matt Booth’s (2013) visualization project of taking the sound spectrum of selected tracks at certain time codes was also a great influence, as was Jessica Hampton’s (2013) audio visual experiments, aligning particular shapes and colours to musical genres.

Learning that cymatics, the study of visible sound and vibration, can be traced back at least 1000 years to African tribes who used the taut skin of drums sprinkled with small grains to divine future events, I though this concept could successfully be used as a system across cultures and generations. According to Curt Sachs, (1940) the drum is one of oldest known musical instruments and the effects of sand on a vibrating drumhead have probably been known for millennia.



The final digital outcome of my experimentations with sound utilised the core form of a radar signal, yet incorporated a range of variables to visualise sound.

The block colour icons represent a single tone, or note, and their height denotes the volume of this tone, with a short extension as low volume and a high extension as high volume. The amount the shape expands beyond the central line represents how far it is away from silence.

The placement and form of the lines within this shape allow viewers a system of recognising different forms of sound, in particular of music. Straight vertical lines represent a harmonious sound, while zig zags highlight disharmony. The amount of these lines within each space reference the tempo of the music, with a form with four lines, representing a slow song, or nine lines, which reflect a fast tempo song.

These lines can also be used in conjunction with one another to highlight variations with  sound or music. For example a song may start of with harmonious tones and then progress into a harder, more fast tempo song. These forms allow for those representations to be expressed within this system.

Further development of these concepts is needed to allow viewers a more instant association with varied sounds. The length of the sound also need a device to signify whether the piece is short or long. Additionally, more experimentation into line, from wavy to straight, dotted or scribbled could produce a series of outcome which could add to the final outcome of designing a series of icons to represent sound.