Insights 10/04/2021

Brand Design in Covid’s altered sensory landscape

COVID-19 has affected our sensory experience of the world [PHOTOS: Michael Amadeus/Unsplash; British Sign Language]

In many unexpected ways, COVID-19 has affected our sensory experience of the world. Whether it’s disturbed sound on a virtual meeting, the discouragement of touching products in a supermarket or having our visual expressions concealed behind a mask, each of us is having to renavigate even the simplest of tasks. The pandemic is limiting our experience by compromising the use of our sensors and in doing so, creating a need for adaptation and a newfound empathy for the everyday challenges met by those with disabilities. The challenge back to design is how can we create multi sensorial products and experiences that will not only make for more inclusive interactions, but will also create more stimulating, memorable and richer experiences for everyone?

Our altered sensory landscape

For those of us working remotely, virtual meetings are fraught with frantic enquiries of “can you see me?” or “can you hear me?” In the shops we are being discouraged from touching products, challenging our second nature to pick something up to check its ingredients or giving an avocado a good squeeze to test its ripeness. As we begin to get accustomed to wearing masks, our expressive abilities are compromised leaving our eyes to do the heavy lifting – time to reacquaint ourselves with the smize or smiling with the eyes, courtesy of America’s Next Top Model host Tyra Banks. The most critical issue with masks however is they exclude the deaf and hard of hearing community. Thankfully, student Ashley Lawrence was quick to adapt a mask template with a clear panel to eliminate the lip reading barrier; the open source design template is freely available to all. Likewise, social distancing has proved tricky for all of us but consider the potential anxiety of those who are visually impaired. These new behaviours we are expected to suddenly adopt exemplify the importance of understanding a range of perspectives when we design.


Student Ashley Lawrence modelling her clear panel mask [Image via GOFUNDME]

The underrated senses

On the surface we often undervalue certain senses. For example, as sport slowly returns to our screens, there is one key thing missing – the fans! This absence of an authentic, audible atmosphere is somewhat unnerving as we miss the social cues that enhance our feelings of excitement and the sound of a roaring post-goal crowd to nudge our gaze from our smartphones. Similarly, as many of us have been working remotely, we didn’t anticipate we’d miss the ambient office white noise and in reaction to this design agency Kids Creative Agency launched, a stream of audible office ambience to experience in our home environment. As sited in Martin Lindstorm’s 2005 book ‘Brand Sense’, 80% of brand communication is designed for sight alone. This dominance of the visual is not only excluding the 2 million people in the UK who are living with sight loss but is an all-round missed opportunity to create sensorially holistic products. We live in a multi sensorial world and it’s only in the absence of a sense do we realise its impact. Therefore, as we embark on product innovation, we need to employ design thinking and show real consideration towards all five senses. This will not only equate to more inclusive interactions but will create richer experiences that are more stimulating and memorable.


I Miss The Office ‘Office Noise Generator’ [Screenshot I MISS THE OFFICE]

Phygital Finds New Relevance

The buzzword ‘phygital’ isn’t a new one but at a time where we’re being advised to look not touch, we will need to work harder to share our product stories across multiple touchpoints. Earlier this year Lush launched the ‘Lush Lens’. Here Lush lovers can scan all products (including the naked ones) and the app identifies the item and in turn offers up a wealth of information including a demo to show the alchemy of their products. This digital interaction mitigates the need for physical labelling or a floating QR code that would ultimately get ignored. The brand is also working on a Lush Personal Assistant. Rather than relying on the voice of Siri or Alexa, the app will relay product information in a branded tone of voice and copywriting style. Similarly, CocaCola is going touch-free on their Freestyle soda fountains where customers will soon be able to control the machine via their smartphone.


The Lush Lens App mitigates the need for physical labelling through AI and machine learning [Image via LUSH]

Innovating with 5D Design Thinking

Some of the most integral products that we interact with everyday had their inception in disability. We’re all glued to our smartphones and the intuitive ability to pinch and zoom is thanks not to Steve Jobs but to John Elias and Wayne Westerman, founders of gesture recognition company ‘Fingerworks’. The inspiration for this innovation was through trying find a solution to Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and the pain of repetitive stress brought on by handling a keyboard and mouse. Similarly, the electric toothbrush conceived in 1954 was initially created for patients with limited motor skills. These examples act to remind us that we should not be designing for disability but instead to ensure people are not disabled by their products or environment. As educator and disability advocate Sinéad Burke remarks, “what happens when we change who gets to be in the room”. As these hugely important inventions show, sensorial limitations can open up a wealth of new opportunities for everyone.