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Colour + Multisensory Perception with Professor Charles Spence

VitrA Design Update
Autumn / Winter 2022 Theme – Colour and the Future

Professor Charles Spence interview


Colour + Multisensory Perception

We speak to multisensory expert Professor Charles Spence of the Crossmodal Research Lab at the University of Oxford about the incredible potential of design to engage all of our senses in the moment. Why does food seems to taste better in well-designed environments, can the colour of space really influence mood, and does sound enhance perception?











What sparked your interest in perception that interacts across different senses?


As an undergraduate, I had a friend who was a DJ who’d invite people round to his bedsit to watch movies on a TV hooked up to his broken hi-fi. The experience was weirdly disconnected – you were never quite sure which part of the room a voice would come from next, and the sound was strangely disjointed from the visuals. It took a while for your brain to catch up. It fascinated me, and went on to influence my first perception experiments, which were around sound and vision.


And why did you set up the Crossmodal Research Lab?


When I arrived at Oxford as a lecturer there was one professor in the department doing vision research and another chap in a separate lab doing sound. They hadn’t spoken to each other for decades, and I don’t think they realised they might be missing something. No one was looking at sensory interaction, so there was plenty for me to get stuck into.


I set up the Lab 25 years ago as part of the University’s experimental psychology department – though these days it’s more about cognitive neuroscience. From interfaces between hearing and vision, we expanded into the world of touch and from there to the ‘chemical’ senses of smell and taste. To give you an idea of our scope, I have recently been investigating the ways fairground rides engage multiple bodily senses.I am particularly interested in how a better understanding of the interaction between senses can lead to better design of multisensory products, interfaces, and environments. At the Lab, we investigate things like paint colours that might encourage productivity or feelings of wellbeing, how olfactory experience can enhance or alter perception, and experience design around food and drink.


Traditionally, design has tended to prioritise the eye, like many other disciplines. But things are changing and we’re seeing a lot more interest in multisensory perception. An example in architecture might be how thermal comfort – or people’s perception of how hot or cold they feel – can be affected by the colour of the lighting. Another example is how perceptions of safety in public space can be influenced by sound.


Children tend to be taught at primary school that there are five basic human senses but it seems there are rather a lot more?


Depending on who you ask, there are up to 33 different senses, or perhaps even more, all contributing to our perception. At the Lab, we have engaged with many of them at some point, shifting from a focus on the so-called ‘rational’ senses of sight and sound towards the more ‘emotional’ senses of smell touch and taste. Under those broad headlines, the senses can be broken down further. Touch, for instance, connects with movement and what are called the ‘silent senses’ – things like proprioception and the vestibular sense, which govern balance and awareness of our bodies in space. Then there are very specific sensations like pain. Some people classify pheromones as a separate sense from smell.


Could you tell me about a couple of the projects you’re working on?


I’ve been focusing on the home environment because my latest book Sensehacking is about applying soft science around the senses for happier, healthier living. One chapter goes through the home room by room, exploring the evolutionary drivers for things like why so many of us find a hot bath relaxing. One really interesting multisensory development in the bathroom is the potential for sound to help conserve water. For example, one recently-published study found that if you alert people to water usage through the noise made by a faucet, it significantly increases our awareness of how much we’re using – and may provide an effective sensory nudge to encourage people to use less. 


At the Lab, we’re currently investigating colour in the context of food and drink – questions like how colour preference in relation to food differs from general colour preference, and how context or the combinations of colour affects people’s associations in relation to taste, smell, or form. A lot of industry work on colour perception to date has focused on single-colour swatches – we’re trying to expand that towards a wider understanding of the meaning of colour in context.


We operate at the frontiers between science and design, so we’re working with people like typeface designers, architects, perfumiers and ceramicists. A good example is a collaboration on perception-enhancing ceramics with the potter Reiko Kaneko, the designer of some of the crockery for the Fat Duck restaurant in Bray. We did a scientific review some years ago to help the designer create plates that would enhance the flavours of different genres of food – say sweet, savoury or sour – through colour, texture and form. It turned out that roundness and pinkness were the key cues for sweetness.



People often say that food seems to taste better in well-designed environments. What’s your take on that?


I would tend to agree. But it’s partly about expectations, rather than experience alone. We’ve done experiments for restaurants that involve serving the same food to a group of people but with different cutlery. Those eating with heavier, better-quality cutlery rated what they were eating more highly. It seems that creating high expectations pays off.


It’s common for people to report that colour influences their mood – is there any science behind those observations?


Universal and cultural factors are both at play – and context is really important too. There’s a long history of people associating colours with mood but also a lot of marketing research on colour, both of which we reference. The research is, though, becoming more sophisticated. A recent scientific study, for instance, found that although yellow is pretty much universally considered to be a happy colour, exactly how happy it is relates closely to the amount of sun wherever the respondent lives in the world. So, in London yellow is happier than in Dubai, for example.


At the Lab, we’ve done quite a lot of work with companies like Dulux to research the impact of paint colour on mood, performance and wellbeing. While you get some effects on mood from varying paint colour, in the end what’s much more powerful is the quality or colour of light.


What about the influence of sound on perception?


We’ve conducted many studies on sound design and food, including how to make music that enhances or changes the taste of food. Ironically, quite a lot of our research now takes place online, which means we can easily reach thousands of people from all over the world. But we also run environment-based experiential events, like the Campo Viejo wine testing at the South Bank in London that engaged around 3,000 people. In a windowless cube we played ‘sweet’ or ‘sour’ music and changed the lighting colours while people sipped wine out of black tasting glasses. The variation in the ‘tasting notes’ we collected under four different environmental conditions was extraordinary.


If you had a single piece of advice for a designer looking to enhance a multisensory experience in the bathroom what would it be?


I would probably suggest thinking about sound – and how it can be integral to the sensory bathing experience – alongside colour, shape, texture and so on. After all, the sonic aspects of the environment are often the easiest to change.


A number of the German car manufacturers have been really interested in designing the ultimate multisensory experience in the car so that when you arrive home in your vehicle at the end of the day, say, you simply wouldn’t want to get out. The driver would just sit there because their senses were being so pleasantly stimulated. I would probably advise a similar ambition for the bathroom – but then I’m someone who really likes long baths!


To read Professor Charles Spence’s paper ‘Senses of Place: Architectural Design for the Multisensory Mind’ click here.

Sensehacking: How to Use the Power of Your Senses for Happier, Healthier Living was published by Penguin Books in 2021.