Architectural Smellscape: Designing for the Olfactory Occupant Journey

Rediscovering the Environmental Smellscape

Have you ever thought of “smellscapes” for design? And have you ever considered that you could compose smells for the olfactory sense to promote certain responses through memory? Well, the olfactory sense is an important part of the way we experience our surroundings. An article featuring Sissel Tolaas, who is a chemist specializing in olfactory information, teaches very interesting points about how smell impacts us. In fact, Tolaas explains the following:

“…the perfumes, soaps and pumped-out bakery scents that camouflage the aromas of the bodies and streets do humanity a disservice. […] When we eradicate smells […] we strip cities of their sense of place, and people of a valuable tool for communicating and navigating.” (1)

Smell offers a type of wayfinding that not only becomes part of our experience of a space, but also serves to prompt or guide behavior within that space. A smell can act as a boundary which signals what lies ahead, or what has just been experienced. Often, it is smell that can evoke a powerful memory – to emotionally reconnect us with our past experiences. Yet, the vocabulary to describe different smells is not very diverse, thus making olfactory information a bit invisible and intangible. (1)

Designing an Olfactory Journey

When designing an environment, have you considered what the olfactory journey will be like for your occupants? So much attention is given to the visual sense during design, but little is often spent on the sense of smell. Just imagine how your design could improve by making design decisions that factor for the olfactory sense. Your architecture could tap into occupants at deeper levels by using smell to evoke emotion.

Of course, different smells have different meanings to different occupants. Yet, there may be some universal responses to certain smells as well. The key is to uncover your design’s intent. And then, ask yourself: What emotions, behaviors, and memories do you want your occupants to experience? And how can different smells from architectural materials, nature, or other occupants do to strengthen these outcomes?

Personalizing Space through Smell

What if a particular smell brings back a strong memory for you? Thus, smelling this scent could help you re-experience the past through the visualization of that memory. As a designer of environments, you should consider how the smell of your environments will be remembered. Paradoxically, it is this invisible olfactory sense that can leave the longest lasting and most emotional impression upon your occupant.

So, if you could pick a particular smell to act as the trigger that will help occupants to remember their experience in your environment…What would that particular smell be? Would it be a combination of scents working together to create a “smellscape”? Or would there be one particular scent that would immediately make your occupant remember their experience?

As you design, be sure to use olfactory stimuli to make your architectural environments better. By strategically incorporating the sense of smell into your occupants’ experiences, you will make your architecture reach new poetic heights — because you will be pulling from multi-sensory methods to connect with occupants through your design. And this will yield more profound architectural experiences that enhance not only memory formation, but also learning and emotional response.


(1) Lasky, Julie. How smell shapes our perception of the world around us. Ideas.Ted.Com [Accessed from:] October 14, 2015.

‍Image Credit: © tai111 | Fotolia




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