Forming Meaning Through Our Most Personal Sense: Explorations on Global Accessibility Awareness Day

“Body as home, but only if it is understood that place, and community, and culture burrow deep into our bones”

–Eli Clare, Exile and Pride

The senses move us through space

Deaf mythology tells the story of planet Eyeth. Here, visual-based communication is celebrated, doorbells ring through light, and hearing people are a minority. While Earth may present as an audio-oriented world in name, sight experiences are often privileged as the primary mode of meaning making. The story of Eyeth exists as a cultural celebration of Deafness and as an invitation to take this moment to consider the world around us and the barriers which were, at some point in history, designed. [1] Loudspeaker announcements in an airport, a phone call, a doorbell, a smoke detector—how might these tools for communicating essential information be designed with more users in mind?

Designers create built environments, products, and interactions that influence our engagement with the world around us—from the technology and clothing we use to the buildings, systems, and cities with which we engage. Historically, design often takes an ocularcentric approach, favoring a visual aesthetic experience, ignoring opportunities to connect through other modes. When design embraces our desires to engage through touch, sound, and smell, greater opportunities develop that activate inherent curiosity and support broader diversity. [2] By considering multisensory interactions, designers harness the potential to expand beyond limitations inherent to visual-based design. Inevitably, this can lead to more impactful and compelling innovation.

Understanding the personal

The Social Research Centre’s 2009 The Smell Report describes that the “perception of smell consists not only of the sensation of the odours themselves but of the experiences and emotions associated with these sensations.” [3] Our interpretations of sensory interaction is deeply personal. What does home smell like? What does happiness smell like? Each of us has experiences linking our senses with emotion and memory.

We also know that sensory abilities change over the course of a lifetime. Learn more about how we think about the evolving way we engage with our senses through Microsoft’s persona spectrum. [4]

Various objects arranged on a white table, several colored films, a leaf, a small twig- a dark-skinned hand touches a blue square

For Global Accessibility Awareness Day, Cooper Hewitt is partnering with Tealeaves and Microsoft to consider these questions, in collaboration with artists from LAND Gallery and YAI ARTS.

LAND Gallery, founded in 2005 by the League Education and Treatment Center (LETC), is a day habilitation program for adult artists with developmental disabilities. LAND nurtures the talent of participating artists, while integrating individuals into the community as professionals. LETC is a 501(c)(3) non-profit and internationally recognized agency for evaluation, treatment, and education of children and adults with disabilities. YAI ARTS is an arts program that provides the opportunity for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities to advance their creative voices and become working artists. During a workshop at the museum, participants will explore topics of memory, scent, and design.

Fostering connection

The need to connect is an inherently human experience. Understanding forms through the combination of sensory input coupled with our personal interpretation—allowing us to navigate and build connections. We then employ language to communicate about our direct experiences to orient and relate with others.

In 2011, McCann Worldgroup conducted a quantitative study of 7000 16–30 year olds. Their findings revealed that 53% of individuals would rather give up their sense of smell than their smartphones. At their core, both of these tools are essential in helping us form meaning and build connections. A gas leak, spoiled milk—we connect imperative information through our smell experiences. A trendy perfume, pine during the holidays—we also form social connections around our cultures, environments, and habits through smell. While we recognize the role of technology in generating information and social connections, this statistic presents a moment to consider the power of smell in our daily lives.

  A person stands in front of a colorful circular artwork. On her left reads 53% OF 16-22 YEAR OLDS WOULD RATHER GIVE UP THEIR SENSE OF SMELL THAN THEIR SMART PHONES.

At the museum, we also consider how connections are formed. The stories we tell link objects to one another, the questions we ask ignite discussion, and the interactions we design all aim to create opportunities for building connections. On Global Accessibility Awareness Day, we are also considering how visitors might engage in our galleries through scent. We are creating an interaction card that pairs a scent with an object from Cooper Hewitt with the goal of fostering a deeper connection between visitors and the museum and its works on display.

Landscape No. 1 is an RGB (red, green, blue) wallpaper designed and printed by Carnovsky. Installed to create an immersive environment, the imagery on the paper changes based on the color of light that the piece is viewed in. By creating a customized scent evocative of the subjects in the wallcovering, the object is activated through more than just close-looking. Now, visitors can imagine themselves within the landscape or wooded forest—a transporting experience that impacts their interaction with the wallpaper. Asking visitors to engage with work at the museum in multisensory modes, we leverage the power of scent and memory to create more meaningful object-based experiences and deeper connections.

Two people read an oversized colorful brochure with the title "INCLUSIVE DESIGN" while standing in the Cooper Hewitt garden


[1] H-Dirksen L. Bauman, Jennifer L. Nelson, and Heidi M. Rose. Signing the Body Poetic: Essays on American Sign Language Literature. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

[2] Ellen Lupton and Andrea Lipps, “Why Sensory Design” (April 3, 2018),

[3] Kate Fox, “The Smell Report: An Overview of Facts and Findings” (Social Issues Research Centre, 2009),

[4] Margaret Price, Principle Design Strategist speaks on the role of aroma at Microsoft. “Making Sense of Scents”, Medium, (March 21, 2019)


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