You may know Ellen Lupton because she curated your favorite exhibit at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. You may know Ellen Lupton because she was the director of your graduate design program at MICA. You may know Ellen Lupton because AIGA awarded her a medal for her contributions to the field of design. Or you may know Ellen Lupton because you are reading one of her design books right now.
What you may not know is that Ellen Lupton is interested in design as a tactile experience, and has been lecturing over the past year on the ways designers can engage the senses. I was delighted to talk with Ellen recently, and she had intriguing things to say about how design experiences can go far beyond the visual.
AIGA DC: Please tell us a little bit about your upcoming talk at TEDxMidAtlantic.
Ellen Lupton: I will talk about design for the senses. I’ll look past design as a visual medium to design as tactile, audio, olfactory, embodied—your whole physical experience. I’ll be sharing research for an exhibition I’m working on at Cooper Hewitt. We’re researching what designers are doing to engage the whole person and not just the eyeballs. We are looking at inclusive design that speaks to sensory disabilities or neurological differences. That’s part of our challenge and charge as designers: to create experiences for everybody. Thinking about the senses and creating things that aren’t only visual is super important to inclusive design.
AIGA DC: You mentioned there is research and interest around this. What are other people doing to explore this kind of design?
Ellen Lupton: All kinds of things. For example, designers are creating interactive, multisensory crosswalks that use sound and texture and light to help people safely cross the street. There’s a scent player for people with Alzheimer’s disease, which creates a different scent related to food at morning, noon and night. This helps stimulate appetite for people who have a hard time wanting to eat. This beautiful product uses sensory rhythms to help people enjoy life and be healthier.
AIGA DC: We’re talking about design as a physical, tactile experience. Do you feel like design gets pigeon-holed into things that are purely aesthetic or purely visual?
Ellen Lupton: Yes, we tend to think of design as a visual art, yet vision overlaps with the other senses. For example, color can enhance your sense of smell or taste. Designers use color to convey emotional and sensory ideas. Candy color, jewel color, earth color, the color of coffee, chocolate — all those references suggest a color world. Designers can use color to connect the dots to all our senses.
AIGA DC: Has there been a lot of positive reception to the idea of design as a physical experience?
Ellen Lupton: I’ve been giving talks about this the topic for the last year or so, and I’ve been trying to create experiences for people in the audience. Instead of showing a lot of data, I say, “Try it!” People seem really interested, and they really want to share their experiences. Everybody can connect to this subject, which opens up another area for designers to explore. Design for the senses is very warm; it’s very human.
AIGA DC: Do you feel designers need to connect with other people in a more human way?
Ellen Lupton: Increasingly, designers understand they need to connect with people. The old model defines the designer as someone who controls behavior — you create brands and rules and identity standards that dictate how people behave. That model has been called into question by the design thinking movement, which emphasizes empathy and a human-centered perspective. Designers are no longer just throwing things at users. We are in a feedback loop with them. That’s what’s in the air in the design world right now: more openness to human feedback. Digital design requires user testing, use cases, and analysis of what users want. But it’s really important to pull in tactility and physical materiality. I think digital design has opened up a huge user-oriented community in the design world, but that we can’t lose sight of the physical and those experiences that can’t be digitized. You can’t pixelate smell.
AIGA DC: Do you feel children have a special relationship with sensory experiences that maybe adults have forgotten?
Ellen Lupton: Yes, I think adults have become so reliant on literacy as our primary interface with the world. Literacy is very visual for sighted people. Kids are more open to tactility and shapes and molding and interacting with things in a more physical and embodied way. Kids are little makers.
AIGA DC: How do you explain to kids what design is?
Ellen Lupton: When you tell kids, “We’re going to do art,” they immediately think of drawing— and drawing uses lines. When I do graphic design with kids at Cooper Hewitt, I say, “We’re not going to make lines, we’re going to make shapes.” And right there, you have a different mindset. We work with Avery dots and stickers and we cut shapes out of paper instead of making lines. And suddenly, we’re in a building mode, we’re more constructive. We’re putting things together. Design is also about making things that are useful. When kids are doing “art,” they might think, “I’m drawing a house, and here’s a person.” But when you ask them to design, you ask questions like, “What do you think your room should look like?” or, “If you were going to make the best backpack, what features would it have?” Design becomes not about representing what is, but imagining — and imagining things that are useful. Design is art that people use.
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You can attend Ellen’s talk at TEDxMidAtlantic, which takes place in Washington, D.C., from Oct. 21-22. Be sure to check out more great design events during DC Design Week, Oct. 21-29.
Photo by Andrew Bossi, Flickr