The Shape of Smell: Exploring the Smell-X Installation


It’s the year 2127. Humans have been engineered without possessing a sense of smell. Everyone except for you. Enter.

Olivia Jezler invited guests to save the future of humanity in her conceptual, multisensorial installation, Smell-X during the Guerilla Science Sensorium at the Figment NYC festival at Governor’s Island in New York City on June 23-24, 2018.

Jezler, a scent innovation and fragrance specialist, explored the synesthetic relationship between scent, memory and shape. Attendees entered into a fictional sci-fi world where scent is only but an elusive memory of the past and who are rare individuals with the ability to perceive through their noses. Individuals were assigned an accord to smell and asked to create a shape out of clay afterwards.

Scenting Opportunities IRL

Multisensory installations are a hot spot for fragrance right now. It’s an opportunity for brands and retailers to invite consumers to experience scent IRL (in real life) as the digital retail space continues to create a competitive landscape for brick and mortar.

Creative and immersive installations like Jezler’s Smell-X offer an opportunity for consumers to understand their sense of smell in both an entertaining and educational way, while brands and retailers can piggy back off of these exhibits to incubate new ideas to bring customers in store.

Jezler gives P&F exclusive behind-the-scenes insight on understanding consumer preferences from a cross-modal sensory point of view.


Perfumer & Flavorist: What were the accords for the two scents?

Olivia Jezler: Perfumer trainee Ugo Charron of Dreamair designed the scents. I chose Ugo to be the creator because of the way he sees and describes scents – through shape. He has a way of showing me what he “sees” with his hands; for example where exactly the scent gets pointy and where he sees its hollowness. For this project I think it was an interesting challenge to essentially design the smell of shapes. 

Fragrance shape forms:

Spikey: A cold sharp vertical accord with lemon, aldehydes, Sichuan pepper with lemony undertones and pink pepper, cold spices and incense.

Round: An enveloping round and dense scent that is creamy, comfortable powdery musky with a slight laconic effect between coconut and vanilla and a hint of violet petals.

P&F: What were your goals for the installations?

Jezler: The goal of Smell-X was to use principles of speculative design to create a fictional world where people would be asked to think about the importance of smell and learn about crossmodal correspondences, through participation. Crossmodal correspondences refer to the interplay between all of our senses.

There were two layers to the storyline. The first and core learning is about these cross-modal correspondences. I used immersive storytelling techniques to distance participants from their daily lives to a place where they could intuitively have an “aha moment” and then hopefully bring these learnings back with them to their daily life. Participants were asked to smell one of two fragrances and then freely create a clay model. Once the model was created it was placed among the other models of prior participants who had smelled the same fragrance. Participants had two moments of revelation; Firstly, these abstract clay models shared strikingly similar characteristics and followed a pattern with the other models which had been made by participants who had smelled the same accord. Secondly, the clay models of one group were distinct from the other group.

The second layer was about anosmia awareness and the important role our sense of smell plays in our mental health. This layer of the story is one people will have encountered if they had asked more questions during the experience and/ or read the story on the website and Instagram. It is not necessary to know this part of the story when coming into the experience, but it is part of the overarching theme, “What if we were engineered to not have a sense of smell?” This is the use of design fiction in a narrative; helping us speculate, raise awareness of issues that might become a problem and design for these in the future.

This in particular refers to a much quoted piece that asked Millennials which sense they would live without, and most decided they would give up smell. However, we do not realize the power of our sense of smell in our deodorized world. It helps us feel connection, experience little joys in life (like our morning coffee, our favorite meal, the comforting scent of fresh linen) and helps us retain and relive our memories. We have no idea that without our sense of smell, our potential of becoming depressed increases dramatically.


P&F: What new insights did you learn from audience members?


There is a difference between designing a subconscious versus a conscious smell interaction. The Smell-X experience is based on my published research for CHI’16 “Scented Material: Changing Features of Physical Creations based on Odors.” In the study, scents were added to modeling material and people were not told there was a scent, although it still had an effect. For various reasons it would be challenging to recreate this kind of experiment in a festival setting, so I adapted it to something where people were asked to consciously smell an accord and then create. The problem was when I prototyped this with the direct scents of “vanilla” and “lemon” that were used in the previously published study, due to the fact that this was based on conscious smelling versus subconscious smelling, the outcome was different. In this conscious interaction, people smelled the scent, analyzed it, and then modeled the shapes of lemons or vanilla beans, flowers and ice cream cones. We had to design accords that would circumvent the conscious mind by creating round and spikey accords with no specifically identifiable ingredients.

"Once the use of smell becomes commonplace it will be a matter of fact that scent is one of the elements like lighting and music that needs design when creating an experience."

Time and creativity are relative. When given a creative activity some people could relate to it quickly, and would start while others needed more time. Children for example took the longest. We noticed that if people created quickly, they would create an intuitively driven shape that correlated with the expected outcome. However, if they had time left over, they would analyze it and add elements (or sometimes even start over) and turn their creations into something entirely different.

The script plays an important role in experience design. Given the narrative was in the future and in a world unlike our own, the script was crucial in immersing the participant in this fictitious world. Secondly, I saw how the right dialogue was crucial in guiding participants through the creative task. As this was the first time Smell-X was shown to the public, we had to adapt the scripts a few times. It was a challenge to create the right dialogue. We tested and iterated it with the first participants to get the instructions right, and in a way that people would create without overthinking to ensure it had the most effect and garnered the desired results. For example, if we instructed participants to create a representation of the smell, they would think too much or if parents told their kids to think about what the smell reminded them of, that was the end.

Self-evaluation is as low-tech form of data collection that can be used. When designing and gathering data for smell experiences, as it is such a hard to quantify sensation that would require high tech or high cost equipment to analyze the effects, smell experience designers have opted to not collect data. I however believe that there is value even in low-tech data gathering techniques. We used the kiki-bouba scale used in one of the initial smell and shape correlation studies at Charles Spence’s Lab at Oxford University. After participants created their shapes, we asked them to evaluate their shape on a scale from spikey to round (kiki-bouba). In doing so we could capture the age, sex and evaluation of their sculpture based on the smell participants were given as a stimuli.

Smell experiences are novel and exciting. I never would have imagined that we would have such long waits. People were willing to wait up to 40minutes to take part in the experience. We had to ask people to come back later as the long line was disrupting the experience next door. I therefore truly believe that smell experiences are a huge untapped opportunity for the industry and brands to generate awareness and excitement.

Smell is inclusive. The beauty about smell is that everyone can relate to it. Not only did this experience attract both the very young and old, we also welcomed a blind participant. She loved that she could participate and mentioned that if the activity had required her to draw, she would not have been able to take part. As this was a smell and modeling activity, she could be included (and created a perfect sculpture).


P&F: How are multi-sensory installations like yours impacting how we interact with scent?

Jezler: I believe it is a matter of how we frame them. If they are known to be multi-sensory or “smell experiences” the public expects something and it becomes a driving force to come experience it in person, as we cannot yet “share” the sensory elements of our experiences. In this case, people are looking out for the scent, which raises awareness of scent as a medium for storytelling and ultimately makes the public aware of their sense of smell in general.

On the other hand, and ultimately where I hope we will move towards are installations that are not about “smell” or “touch” but about compelling and interesting stories that become more immersive and real through the invisible use of smell, but in which case are not obvious to the public. Brands will have to think beyond the literal to develop sensorially relevant content that truly touches. Empathy development for example, I believe that smell will play a huge role. It will allow the public to understand other people’s realities and lives. Once the use of smell becomes commonplace it will be a matter of fact that scent is one of the elements like lighting and music that needs design when creating an experience. And, as a bonus, these experiences will be more memorable.

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