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Don’t Overlook Your Nonvisual Senses

A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman

There’s a legitimate emphasis in graphic design on visual elements. The visual design of a poster or book cover is usually noticed first, but there is so much in the world that is not conveyed through sight. Designers have to consider how all five senses, working together, influence the final product.

First, tactility, texture, and volume communicate information about the quality and purpose of a given item. The sense of touch informs designers about what kind of paper to use and how a bottle should be shaped to fit into the user’s hand. Publications viewed on screens lack the texture or volume of real paper, which is one reason why many people still order physical newspapers and magazines.

No one seems to think about sound in graphic design. However, paper and other materials that designs are printed on make sounds. The sound of slick magazine pages, the scratchiness of coarse newsprint, and the thud of a hardcover book all contribute to the user’s experience of the design.

Finally, although no one is going to eat a poster or magazine (hopefully), or even smell it closely, designs often evoke tastes and smells. Recently, I have been reading Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses for AVT 311, and the hardcover edition features a painting of a woman smelling a rose. You can almost smell the scent of roses and feel the summer sun. Likewise, the graphics on a bottle have to complement the orange shampoo inside; photographs in a cookbook must make viewers crave chocolate mousse.

Most people won’t be able to identify which type of paper you used or how a particular shade of orange makes them think of citrus fruits. But don’t overlook your nonvisual senses. Subtle sensory choices can make or break a design.