4 Guys, 3 Smelly Cups

Last week I was mostly in Denmark exhibiting at a new technology event called NEXT. This was for my personal work so I was a little out of the loop with The Smell of Success progress but it was great to get back on Friday and see what the other guys had been up to in my absence. There had been a lot of talk of pushing what Smell of Success could be - exploring how the inclusion of odours can enrich interactive systems and what specific effects they can have on us. This was all sounding pretty exciting so I wanted to get involved with some further idea development.

Previously, we’ve been playing around with a few different techniques for idea generation surrounding the basis of having a starting point on a sheet of paper - either a concept, insight or question - and then passing this around between the four of us to each further develop, refine or expand upon the starting point. This has had mixed success but I thought I would try out a new idea generation technique I had picked up from a workshop I attended in Denmark where I was in a group alongside Ted Howes - Former Global Lead on Sustainability at IDEO - the kind of person you want to pinch idea generation techniques from! There where a few formal rules to the process but I forgot to note them down so in summary it was, get some post-its, start churning out ideas, be quantitative, share your ideas and insights (but do this quickly) and then collate the ideas into coherent groups. This seemed to work really well as it allowed us to collectively work on various tangents of which one in particular started to sound really interesting, that of synaesthesia. We started asking questions like, can you smell colours, what do smells sound like, are bad smells heavier than pleasant ones.

I thought it would be fun to do an experiment surrounding this so I put together three mystery smells made from stuff in the Mint Digital kitchen. Starting with 3 cups each containing rooibos tea, a smell which I figured would not be too familiar, I then added to one cup a spoonful of strawberry jam; the next cup, a dollop of HP sauce; and the final cup, a mix of orange juice and washing up liquid (warning was provided that they should be smelt and not tasted). The guys where unaware what was in each cup so I asked them to consider the mysterious, and unique smell through a series of questions:

  • what is the colour of the smell?

  • what is the shape of the smell?

  • what kind of personality does the smell evoke?

  • what memory does this conjure up?

  • what are the ingredients of the smell?

Strawberry Jam and Rooibos Tea

Though not a wholly indistinguishable smell, the spice of the rooibos effectively disguised the fruity, sweet, identifiable strawberry. Ben and Genis both related to it a reddish colour, explaining assumptions that there was berryish smell to it. Chris however chose a light green as, for him, the smell recalled notions of summer time, flowers and iced lollies. This was an early insight into how smells are easily interpreted in different ways, perhaps even more so when the smell is unfamiliar.

The shape Ben chose was numerous circles grouped together which was really interesting as he assumed that there was some raspberry ingredient in the mix however did not consciously make the connection between the shape he created in his minds eye and the fact this shape very closely resembled a raspberry. This may help to explain how easy it is for a smell to trigger a memory or thought – perhaps faster than you can consciously comprehend. This notion of memory triggering was furthered by Genis who explained that the smell reminded him of a sweet from his childhood, memories of primary school and a particular person, a bit of a bully, who he had not seen for 15 years. An interestingly specific memory - Genis went onto explain that though he did not recognise the exact smell of strawberry, they were something he ate a lot of when he was young so that may be why his memory harked back to Primary School.

HP Sauce and Rooibos Tea

Imagining that this is not to most pleasant of flavours (did not try it) the smell of this had a real spice to it through combining both the musky spice of the rooibos with the fruity spice of HP sauce. The colours chosen for this smell were auburn, burgundy and maroon. It’s interesting that these colours are all very deep, rich colours, not dissimilar to the dark brown of HP sauce. Not sure what the conclusion is from this but either HP sauce uses colouring because we commonly relate the smell/taste to a particular shade of brown or perhaps it’s vice versa, our notions of the colour are derived from previous experiences of the smell/taste – that is what brown sauce should smell like.

The sauce highlighted a cultural divide in our group too. Genis was completely unfamiliar to the smell, it was not part of his Catalonian background and therefore quite literally foreign to him. He said that the smell had an ugly personality. Ben almost guessed the ingredient right as he said it reminded him of a friends father who used to smother everything he ate in HP sauce though Chris had no idea what the ingredients were and claimed it reminded him of Christmas time and wintery spices. Perhaps this could be a festive rebrand route for the sauce… In contrast to Genis though, Chris said the smell also had a spicy and masculine personality and possibly also wore a smoky jacket – very sophisticated! Interesting how different backgrounds can affect interpretations of smells though, can you create a completely unique smell that can be universally recognised? We got talking about how coca-cola is such a massive global brand but could people distinguish the smell without the logo?

Fresh Orange Juice, Washing Up Liquid and Rooibos Tea

A surprisingly not-disgusting smell (though one which was again not tasted) this had zesty notes which complimented the rooibos spice and the fresh (apple?) odour of the washing up liquid. It was also slightly bubbly when stirred and had a bit of a horrible murky brown colour. Chris said the the smell had a bit of a “fake natural” personality which perhaps was due to the real smell of orange mixed with the artificial smell of the washing up liquid. Both he and Ben related the smell to hygiene, cleanliness and medication however, conversely, it reminded Genis of adventure and going trekking with the shape being that of a kind of palm tree.

I think this smell threw the guys off a bit as it was pretty weird but again, the diverse responses were interesting. We discussed if interpretations of smells could be used more widely as personal identification – such as a password reminder being a specific smell which only you would understand based on how you respond to it.

Conclusion

I am not too certain what to make of this experiment. The concept was devised in about 20 seconds, lasted around 20 mins and has taken far longer to write up so perhaps a bit of pre-consideration of the outcome would have helped but here is what I think we have gained a better understanding of:

  • Your sense of smell of a very unique quality and open to very specific interpretation for each particular person. Perhaps it is that odour information has not gone through the same semantic enlightenment as visual information (whereby a smell could be designed in a specific way to trigger universal interpretation). If it is relevant I would like to call this research scentmantics because I love bad wordplay.

  • Our diverse interpretations of smell should also be something to embrace. Smells, unlike much other sensory stimuli will often trigger a memory of how you know the smell before you interpret what the smell actually is. This link between smell and memory is really cool territory however will require some hefty reading to make proper sense of beyond pseudo science speculation.

  • Quick and impulsive ideas are great and can lead you down unexpectedly intriguing paths so embrace them and go with the flow!

And that’s me done now! This was an unexpectedly long post so well done for making it this far, go have a cup of tea but give it a sniff before you drink it.

-Tim


Sep 6
11:03 am
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Foundry is a research team at Mint Digital.
Foundry is all about exploring physical objects which connect to the web though digital technology.

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