Stanford Graduate Program in Design: Thesis Work
Old familiar scents—your childhood home, a lover’s perfume or your grandmother’s cooking--can bring you right back into a moment, and with it, all those forgotten feelings. Inspired by the strong connections between scent and emotional memories, our team set out to design for smell.
How might we harness the power of scent-based memories to intentionally capture an experience and later revisit those feelings?
Scentient is a clothing accessory imbued with a specific scent. It can be worn in a variety of ways, and by breathing it often throughout a special occasion, one anchors their experience to the scent.
During our research into the mechanisms of scent memory, we found that the olfactory system has a direct link to our amygdala, the emotional memory center of the brain. As a result, olfactory remembrance is more visceral and less semantic than those triggered by other senses. We also found the three primary factors in the creation of an olfactory memory are emotional significance, uniqueness of scent and exposure time.
The experience must be significant. The stronger the emotions, the better.
The scent has to be distinct; it can't have prior associations.
It takes time, depending on the first two factors.
Nostalgia can't be created instantaneously.
Because our project was "technology" driven, so to speak, we needed to brainstorm both use cases and forms, or vehicles to deliver the scent. We used this ambiguity to our advantage, simultaneously brainstorming both. We would come up with a few use cases, develop a few forms for each, and then use those new forms to come up with new use cases and so on.
It quickly became clear that we not only needed to consider the form, but the act of smelling the scent, an action that in most scenarios is considered quite odd.
In the end, we decided to focus on music festivals, specifically events such as Burning Man, Coachella, Lightning In a Bottle where dust masks are a necessity. They’re fully immersive for multiple days, emotionally charged, and people know going in that it’ll be a time worth remembering.
After a quick round of prototyping at a Stanford University music festival, we set our sights on Coachella, putting together nearly 30 high-res prototypes and packaging together to understand how users experienced the product.We made three key discoveries from our Coachella prototypes.
First, the context of the scent. While the scent itself doesn't matter in the creation of an olfactory memory, there was a feeling that the particular scent chosen must need a reason.
Second, the need for a tribe. The huge scale of music festivals can be overwhelming and increases the need for people to connect with a smaller group. Scentient felt like a team uniform for a group of friends to identify with. Breathing through it gave them a shared purpose, something to rally around, like a secret only they were in on. And when one person took a hit, it triggered everyone else to do so, too, reinforcing the habit and scent.
Third, and most importantly, the need to capture the moment without removing yourself from it. While people were initially excited about the idea of capturing memories, once they got in the thick of things, they just started having fun with it. Scentient became a way to silently communicate to each other, "This is a great moment." And it did this without pulling you out of a moment the way a smartphone or camera can.
"I love having pictures, but I hate taking them. As soon as I'm looking at my phone or through my camera, I'm not experiencing the moment anymore. When I wore Scentient, I was able to stay in the moment, almost jumping in deeper, when I breathed through the material."
From these insights, we refined Scentient and its packaging around not only capturing memories, but feeling united as a tribe and staying present in the moment.
The buff is made from a soft but durable canvas blend with a stretch linen band that is comfortable and easy to breathe through. We also partnered with Juniper Ridge, a wilderness fragrence perfumer to distill a scent from local flora. Our final version for Burning Man was a mixture of pinon pine and juniper. With hints of cedar, tonic, and leather-- it's natural, distinct, and refreshing to breathe. The tin is a long-term case, not just packaging and contains a pre-scented buff, a recharge atomizer, and instructions for use.