Designing for the Five Senses

You are your brain. Maybe you’ve heard that before. It’s not meant to minimize the connection between your mind and your body; that connection is, of course, a big reason I love design: to take care of the inside through the outside. But, if your body is a machine, your brain is the computer that makes it go. It’s where the “you inside you,” your thoughts, your feelings, your emotions, lives.

Meanwhile, senses are the ways your brain gets to experience the world. Smell, taste, touch, sight, and sound are the means through which your brain takes in information, and each has a dramatic impact on how that most important of organs operates, how you think and feel

When designing your home, you’re thinking about how it can best take care of the whole you, your mind, your body, and your emotional wellbeing. Focusing on each of the five senses can help orient your decision making towards that idea of wellness and give you more confidence that you’re taking care of not just your body, but your mind and soul. The following are just a few suggestions to get you rolling.

Touch

The first step in designing any interior, should always be deciding how you want a space to feel. From there, every design decision you make, however big or small, should work to support your end goal. In the case of touch, layering with the appropriate textures throughout a room will play a big role in achieving that desired feeling.


Physical touch is an important part of how we experience our home. Whether it’s the pile height of a rug, the softness of a couch, or even the texture of an interior wall, the way each part of a room feels against your skin is an important element of how that room makes you feel, and different rooms have different needs.

A home office or work space is a place where one is meant to be alert and focused. Rooms like these should feel crisp, uncluttered and light,; a place where your mind can work freely, invigorated but not distracted. Smooth surfaces and minimalist finishes can make a workspace feel more clean and professional, allowing you to effectively focus on the task at hand.

A living room or bedroom, meanwhile, should feel warm and inviting, and that’s where your more lush textures, the smooth feel of a velvet chair or the warm embrace of a thick yarn blanket, are the stars of the show. Nothing says “comfort” like soft, plush textures. 

Sight

Vision is our most direct sense, the primary means through which we experience the world. The eyes have the most direct connection to our brain of all the sensory organs, and as such, what we see is often the most important factor in determining the “feel” of a room. From a practical standpoint, what does this mean? Color, pattern, light, and the balance between the three.

Choosing a color palette for a room can be an overwhelming decision, with countless options to choose from and that constant nagging feeling that there’s always something better you haven’t yet considered. . There’s a great deal that goes into this particular decision, but for now consider that your choices, the color of the walls, the furniture, the patterns of every surface and the pops from each accessory or piece of art, all of these things create the first impression of a room, the first feelings you get upon entering, before any of the other senses have time to catch up and join the game.

So much of this is unconscious, too, instinctual responses from the brain that are difficult to control. That’s why it’s so important that the visual experience of a room suit its purpose. A room built for productivity should be bright, uplifting, and simple, but others might be meant to be stimulating, or soothing, or warm and cozy, or light and beachy. Going back to my original point, I can’t stress enough how important it is to think about how you want a room to make you feel, and then pick colors and textures that feel the same. Think about how the quality of light in a room can affect you, and apply those lessons to how you make use of windows and light fixtures. So long as you’re thinking about how you want the room to take proper care of you and its occupants, you can have confidence that you’re making the right decision.

Sound

Our sense of hearing can be a slightly more complicated idea with which to engage when talking about interior design. It’s easy to think about how home theatre or music studio should be built with auditory experience in mind, but what about your bathroom? Your bedroom? What does sound have to do with how a room makes you feel, how it takes care of you?

Considering sound is all about developing an awareness of your space and its quirks. There’s much about our homes that are beyond our control, and many of these things affect the quality of sound throughout our living spaces. Proximity to neighbors, the depth and construction of walls between rooms, even just the layout and space planning, all of these things, and more, can dramatically impact how you feel in your own space, and they’re almost entirely out of your control. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t design your way to a better experience.

Does a large room echo so much it makes conversation a burden? Sound absorbing furniture and decor can help. A plush rug or a hanging tapestry can do wonders, and even simply placing more pictures or paintings on a wall can help to reduce the room’s reverb.

Many of us simply learn to live with the unwanted noise or sounds of our homes instead of designing in accordance. This is one of those instances where being solution oriented, in a very practical way, can yield incredible rewards when it comes to your overall mental and emotional health. Bottom line, do what you have to do to make your house suit you.

Smell

Smell is the sense most closely associated with memory and emotion, and is thus a powerful tool when it comes to determining how a room makes you feel. In many ways, this makes design decisions oriented towards scent the most personally motivated and unique to the individual.

I believe that intentional aroma should be an element of every home. Not everybody will approach it in the same way, and that’s fine. Whatever it is you use, from incense to candles, plug-in air fresheners to pot pourri, hand held sprays to essential oil diffusers, you’re being mindful of the impact scent has on how you experience a space. Learn what you can about what scents make you feel good, and how. What scents make you feel relaxed? Focused? Wistful? Nostalgic? What memories do you have that are associated with household scents, like nights in front of a fireplace, or the smells of summer? Consider what your personal relationship is to scent and how you want to apply it to your home. It can provide you with an incredible tool to help tailor your space to suit your needs in any specific moment, and to enhance how others experience your home.

Taste

The connection between taste and interior design is a little less obvious. One’s relationship with food is a very personal matter. Everybody’s gotta eat, of course, but what that means, how much a person thinks about food, about cooking, about nutrition, is unique to each individual. As such, your experience of food should determine your spaces relationship with food.

What does that mean? Well, when you’re a frequent host the answers are a bit more simple. Cooking for and feeding others can be one of life’s great joys, and if it’s something in which you like to participate, you should make sure your space is set up for it, not just practically but holistically. How do you want your meals to feel? How do you want to guide the experience of your guests, as they eat at the dinner table? Being a good host means taking care that your home puts your guests into the right mindset, something over which you can take a measure of control by mindfully approaching the decisions listed above for the previous senses.

Suppose, though, that you’re not one to host dinner parties? Maybe you’re not much for cooking at all. That means that a dedicated dining area, kitchen cabinets filled with appliances and utensils, and everything else would simply be getting in the way of you making the best use of your space. Consider whether your own personal relationship to food is reflected in how your home is laid out. Do you have a dining room table you never use? Could that room be changed to help take better care of you, to give you something you need which your home is currently missing? My biggest piece of advice is to not be afraid of making decisions that others would avoid. Everyone’s needs are different, and with food especially so. Whatever it is you need, make sure your space is designed to help achieve it. It’s your home, and it should suit you.

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Live Well, and Be Well.

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