Metaphors of sensory experience
In the last newsletter, I introduced the Sensory Sketching Workshop that Jordan and I led for CHI2022, where our frustration with the lack of vocabulary to describe senses other than sight or sound poses an obstacle to communicating our sensory experience.
I’ve leaned into N. J. Enfield’s theories, which have supported some ideas I have absorbed from my linguistics degree: that language is built for communicating what needs to be done, but not for describing and perceiving reality. I feel this acutely when I try to describe certain odors or taste, yet fall short - I remember tasting guava for the first time, as a 21-year-old in Thailand. The best description I could muster was “apple-y”, which alarmed and frustrated me at the time. My guava experience reinforces my theory that in the western world I grew up in, smell is mostly linked to internal experiences and memories, which are subjective and not very effective in persuading others to take an action, unlike tangible evidence. Although we often employ metaphors (a “delicate” or “balanced” scent) and similises ("this guava tastes like apples"), Sissel Tolaas has gone so far as to propose the adoption of the artificial smell vocabulary, an "alphabet for the nose" or NASALO. Other than the fact that adopting NASALO isn’t realistic or natural, I don’t believe we necessarily need more words to describe odors. Although Sissel Toolas has critiqued the use of metaphors for describing smells, there are many instances of indigenous languages using metaphors to describe colors, e.g. “it’s the color of the sea” or “the color of blood" (you can't deny their vivd imagery and tangibility!) Instead of creating a new vocabulary to express smells, we can repurpose words and leverage our own experience and cultural references to develop metaphors. Due to the intimacy and imagery created by metaphors, they seem to be highly adept at expressing the complexity of smells and the memories and emotional reactions they evoke. During the workshop, we often relied on metaphors to relate our experiences or ideas to the rest of the group.
“Metaphors of sensory experience…”
“...sometimes [we] need explanation. [Some sketches] are not obvious beyond the person giving the example.”
What would a wobbly smell scale look to you? Or one with texture/touch?
Our first activity was sketching a series of scales — in sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell — based on the metaphor of a line that gets wobblier as a number gets bigger. This metaphor, wobbliness, is multi-sensory and complex. So to keep the exercise focused, we honed in on a simple numeric concept: we asked participants to consider a numeric scale that increases in intensity from 1 to 6. What changes? What makes a 2 in smell different from a 3? The scale allowed the intricacy of the wobbliness metaphor to emerge in the sketches. Prompt from Observe, Collect, Draw, a wonderful book of data creativity and inspiration]
Here’s what one participant had to say:
And perhaps my favorite:
Many participants interpreted “taste” broadly as an eating experience, versus using the six tastes (salty, sour, bitter, fat, umami, and sweet), such as in the first example, where wobblier = meltier. “Wobbliness” was therefore open to interpretation: Perhaps it means becoming increasingly unstable - either through ‘meltiness’ in the first example, or the act of becoming physically wobbly due to the alcohol at the end of the scale. This exercise is an example of using ambiguity as a design resource.
For senses such as taste, smell, and touch, we were left to creatively and abstractly interpret the concept of wobbliness: What are traits of wobbliness and how can we express these in other ways? “Wobbliness” is already a visual metaphor, a motion/movement metaphor, but in everyday use we also consider wobbliness to be a metaphor for more abstract things, like stability (emotions, moods, etc.). The many faces that wobbliness can encompass made it an especially sucessful exercise in thinking about metaphors and data, as one of the participants pointed out:
The metaphorical context of data is very important (i.e. characterizing the data in Activity 1 as "increasingly wobbly" made representing it in different sensory modes a lot simpler, especially in such a limited time)
In each activity, we allowed only 1-2 minutes to ideate and develop our scales. Quick sketching brings up rapid, instinctual ideas - there’s really not much time to analyze or second guess yourself. The time limit therefore encourages free association and intuitive connection (at least to you!), especially when developing a wobbly scale of the more “challenging” senses — smell and touch. Jordan really nailed it when she wrote,
Intensity definitely comes to mind as an expressive relation to how pleasant or unpleasant the experience is for me (ex: "Skunk" means "worst possible", basically)
Nevertheless, we don’t know how to quickly represent and share our sensory ideas (beyond visual ones). Other than sketching with sound, we often relied on pictures to represent what we were describing (such as the drink scale above) or text like this “wobbly” smell.
- Vanilla + cedar
- Vanilla + cedar + sassafras
- Vanilla + cedar + sassafras + carnation
- Vanilla + cedar + sassafras + carnation + lemon
- Vanilla + cedar + sassafras + carnation + lemon + garlic
In the above scale, I took many liberties for “smells,” where I interpreted maximum wobbliness as a more complex, and discordant scent with an additive approach: I added lemon and then garlic to make the scent increasingly unharmonious (at least in my imagination) as if while smelling the combination, your experience might be mapped out like an oscillating line (which was the visualization approach that many took to drawing a wobbly line).
“I had a hard time not to think of the texture, for all of the senses!”
Did you try the sensory walk from our last newsletter? The purpose of the walk is to spend five minutes focusing on one sense at a time, in an attempt to isolate each of the senses. Of course, this is impossible — but we can learn a lot from trying. When I was focusing on sound, I was outside in my backyard and my dog was at my heels. Whenever she brushed up against me, or the wind-induced goosebumps on my arm or my hair flew into my eyes, touch grabbed my attention and any sound I was concentrating on fell into the background. Sure, this is normal, and to be expected - it’s the difference between a busy café background and a screaming baby. It’s the irregularity that grabs our attention, signaling something new and worth noticing in our environment.
If you haven’t already, I encourage you to experience it for yourself by taking a sensory walk. If you don’t have 25 minutes to spare + time for reflection, just break it up - try focusing on one sense for 3-5 minutes a day with 5 minutes of reflection! Did you also find that texture and touch dominate your multi-sensory walk? Why is texture or touch, in particular, so attention-grabbing?
If you’re feeling in a more creative mood, try this sketching exercise: a sound/face/scent/taste/texture that gets happier. You can record sounds, use physical objects you find around your house, or simply write down a theoretical scale. As always, I’d love to see what you do, so don’t be a stranger!
A newsletter about sensory sketching, and representing data with all our senses.