“We can tell stories through smell. Smell communicates, just like image or sound does,” says scent designer Koi – Chalida Kunalai.
Chalida is the founder of NOSEstory, the studio that believes in the science and power of smell. It creates and supports various activities related to creativity and scent experiences. She will share with us the story of scent and her work as a “scent designer”.
What is scent design?
A: Scent design ranges from creating bespoke scents for products such as perfume, fabric softener, shampoo, moisturizer or even food, to space design such as exhibition and art gallery, or cross-disciplinary design such as designing scent for social or tourism works.
When did human start making use of scent?
A: We began using it over a thousand years ago. The word ‘perfume’ is derived from the Latin word, “per fumus,” meaning through smoke. In the past, people communicated with gods by lighting incense. If compared to our era, scent is like 5G technology. That was how they communicated with deities; they believed that when lighting incense, its smoke would always float up. So that’s how people began using scents: to worship gods. It was the same across every culture, from Greek, Roman, China to India. Only China used joss sticks.
Cleopatra was renowned for her use of scent. She wore perfume the day she went to meet with Marc Anthony. From what I’ve read, the story had it that she sailed to meet him and her ship smelt like flowers. They could smell the fragrance before the ship even reached the shore. Or the Empress Dowager Tz’u-His T’ai-hou, she was a lowly concubine at first but used scent to attract the emperor.
You can see that scent was a costume for the upper class. From using scent in religious activities, it then became an upper class affair. When warriors won a battle and returned to the throne hall, doves would be dipped in rosewater and released to fly around in the hall. That was an air refreshener used in affairs of the upper class. And then it began to spread to the general public.
Story : Koranit Rattanamahathana I Image : Surachet Soparattanadilok
How do products and services nowadays make use of scent?
A: When we have a product or space, it’s not like we can just put any scent onto it. Scent is a way to communicate; we use it in place of word, sound, music or image. So we must design the right smell just like when we design image and sound to communicate and create identity.
Scent is the personality of certain product or space. It will communicate a message with the users or visitors. Scent is also applicable with space design to create ambience. For example, it is used to invisibly delineate space with one scent for the living room, one for the bedroom and another one for the kitchen. The other thing we can do is using scent in the design and allocation of space. When visitors come in, they will know by the smell that this is a living room, a worship room or that this place is a hospital or a hotel.
As for products and services, designing the right scent can create a unique identity. A distinctive scent can remind customers of the brand as well as offer a good shopping experience by engaging all the senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell. It also helps create an in-store sensory experience that online shopping still can't offer.
Scent design can be applied in retail stores, restaurants, supermarkets, residences, theatres, amusement parks, entertainment venues, airplanes, etc. Nice, pleasant scent makes us happy and such smell can sneak into our memory without us being aware of it. Once we get that scent again, both the memory and feeling of that moment will come rushing out.
Is it true that changing scent can boost sales?
A: It isn’t magic. Scent can’t change a customer’s mind to buy something right away. It’s not that powerful but just a creation of space. That is, when a customer comes in, instead of spending 10 minutes in the store and left, if we create a soothing smell, they might stay longer to 15-20 minutes. The more time they spend there may be partly because of the soothing scent. And we may simultaneously use other methods to make them feel more comfortable to buy. For example, using the scent suitable with product display or setting up promotional campaigns because the scent has already drawn the customers to spend more time with us.”
How do you design scent for your clients’ products?
A: The first step is sitting down to talk in order to understand the “story” that the brand owner wants to communicate through scent. We’d talk until we reach the same understanding about the brief, what they want to communicate and with whom as well as the overall feeling. After that I’ll ask for 3 keywords such as beautiful, clean, nature. Then I’ll decode everything to design the scent that most matches their needs.
Does a scent design’s sense of smell differ from an average person and how?
A: Design-wise, when I smell something, I won’t think about what it is. For example, people might smell a certain scent and say that it’s strawberry or try to figure out what it is. But what I do is thinking how I feel when I smell it, what image I see in mind, what colour I feel, what kind of emotion it brings. I won’t try to figure out what that scent is, but try to find its character without identifying it.
That’s because instead of defining the scent, I choose to imagine with it. There is a palette of scent, just like colour. I think everyone can do it. Red + yellow = orange, yellow + blue = green. However, the ability to design a scent with its own character will help you do this job better. All I all, it takes practice.
What is the basic knowledge about scent?
A: Scent is classified into families, just like how perfume is divided by olfactory pyramids: top note, middle note and base note. Those are the different levels of scent. When buying a perfume, it’s recommended that you try it on your skin. The first thing you smell is the top note because it quickly and easily dissipates. Its light molecules reach our nose first. The heavier molecules are the middle and base notes which will come later. So when you try a perfume, the first smell will likely be light and clean. But if you leave it for 15 minutes, what you smell may be completely different. That’s the middle note or base note. That’s it in theory, but scent is a lively thing.
Are there any obstacles in designing scent?
A: One obstacle is a shortage of raw materials. Like cooking, we can’t do it without raw materials. Sometimes we want this particular scent but can’t find its ingredients. For example, I want a stinky smell such as the smell of Saen Saeb Canal but the raw materials on hand make for nice smell only. I can’t think of anything that will create the bad smell of canal water. And I can’t use the real canal water because it’s dirty and full of bacteria. So I sat down and thought about why our canal became polluted. It was because people dump food into it. It stinks of urine and garbage. The canal is also shallow. When boats come and go it stinks of mud. I had to figure out why the water was polluted in order to design the nearest smell. In such case, it’s very difficult to find raw materials.
The same scent, when used in different occasions, may create different emotions.
A: Take jasmine, for example. Its context varies across cultures. In Thailand, it reminds us of Mother Day. Thais getting the smell of jasmine will think of mother’s love and the love we have for our mothers. In India, however, they use jasmine to worship gods so it is linked to religion, faith and peace. As for Europe and America, jasmine is exotic. For them it’s a beautiful tropical flower that represents the fascinating East. Therefore, when designing scent, we must consider the context of each place. If I use it in Thailand, it might not seem modern since it’s a familiar smell for us. Using it in European products, however, the scent of jasmine will become expensive, beautiful, exotic and sophisticated. So besides knowing what feeling a scent brings, we must understand other cultures as well.
How do other countries make use of scent?
A: In other countries, Scent has been used as an expression of art. For example, when visiting an art museum, we used to just stand and look only. Now they will engage all the five senses such as smell, touch and taste. How to translate a painting into scent so that visitors will get a complete feel of it, not just what the eyes can see?
Smell is also used in training scenarios such as flight simulation for pilots. Besides learning how to fly a plane, they also need to learn what kind of smell will be detected in emergency situations. For example, if they get this smell, it means this copper wire has shorted out. The training device will try to simulate that smell. Or soldiers are trained before going into battle so that they will get an idea what a battlefield will smell like such as blood, gunpowder or rotten corpse.
Products and services can make use of ‘pleasant smell’. What about ‘unpleasant smell’? Is there any use for it?
A: Pleasant smell may give an identity to products and make them appealing, but I think smell can do more than that. People may have a prejudice that we only want to smell something nice. If it’s not nice, we won’t like it. That means half of all the smell that is left, which is unpleasant, will disappear from our life. We won’t get to learn anything from it because we think that it is unpleasant, we have been taught such smell is unpleasant.
But if we start from an understanding that smell can be both pleasant and unpleasant, one day we might find that what is pleasant for us is unpleasant for others or vice versa. Or a useless smell for us may be useful for others. That inspires me to experiment with scent in design work. For example, I used smell in helping visually impaired people to recognise danger. Normally we see things with our eyes. If there’s a fire, we’ll see smoke and run. But those who are visually impaired won’t see that. If we don’t teach them to recognise the smell of smoke and gas leak, they won’t run in time. They will only know when the fire has reached them.
Another thing that can be taught is spoiled milk. Since no parents will give their kids spoiled milk, the visually impaired children won’t be able to tell whether the milk is bad or not. So I tried to create the nearest smell to spoiled milk so they would know to avoid it. Because the world doesn’t only have pleasant smell, unpleasant can help us learn about it. Like in the case of visually impaired children, if they want to paint a picture, how do they know which colour to pick without someone telling them or the Braille letters on the box? How do we help the children who can’t see colour pick the right colour to express their mood?
What I did was designing scent because scent and colour connects. Blue is airy, clear and comfortable. Green is nature. I designed the scents that linked to each colour and let the children chose it by their feeling. When they smelt each colour pencil, they would know which colour it was. This one felt pure, it meant they picked the white colour. I did it as a workshop and the result was the visually impaired children could do their artworks better.
What does scent have to do with historical tourism?
A: I got to know a community historian in Yaowarat (Chinatown) called Uncle Somechai Kwangthongpanich and had a chance to work together with him. For a Bangkok map project, I tried to create a landmark scent for each area such as Saen Saeb Canal, Yaowarat and Sri Maha Mariamman Temple.
There’s one thing I discovered while working on the Yaowarat scent. This generation (pointing at herself) felt that Yaowarat must smell like Chinese medicine and dried goods from China, so I designed such scent for the Bangkok map. The later generations, however, couldn’t relate Yaowarat to that scent. Their Yaowarat was food streets and seafood because they went there in the evening, not during the day. That’s how I notice that, if we use scent in learning, we’ll see the transition of society, culture and way of life.
I talked with Uncle Somchai to explore how to mix history with scent which was a lot of fun. As I walked around, I found each area’s signature smell. There’s this alley called Salted Fish Alley which used to smell strongly of salted fish. Uncle Somchai told me that it used to be a pier where goods were delivered. Some alleys sold steamed stuff bun and they would smell of steamed food. Going near the Chao Krom Poe Dispensary Pharmacy and you’d smell Chinese medicine. That trip was called Scent walk where we learnt Thai, Chinese and Indian culture through smell. There were the different smell of Chinese, Thai and Indian spices. Once we smelt it, we’d talk about its story.
For those who don’t work directly in this field, how do we learn from scent design work?
A: We can tell stories through scent because smell is a way of communication, just as image or sound. Smell is very near to our heart. It’s part of our breathing and we breath in an out all the time. Sometimes we forget to notice it. If we take more notice of our surroundings on top of hearing, seeing and touching, we’ll learn a lot more. Smell is the molecules floating in the air. Try using your nose to notice your surroundings. Smell is all around us, depending on how much we are open to it.
The nearest thing is the way we dress. Smell is the invisible outfit. Sometimes we walk into an empty elevator but the smell lingers. We’d think that the person who was there before must be handsome or sexy, or they’re stepping out (laugh). We can design a scent for ourselves. I think Thai people have fun with using perfume. Everyone likely has 2-3 bottles of perfume at home. When we choose our outfit for the day, try choosing a scent as part of it.
Follow the stories of scent at NOSEstory : facebook.com/NOSEstory
Story : Koranit Rattanamahathana I Image : Surachet Soparattanadilok