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Hospitality Design Experts Weigh in on How Sensory Design Impacts Hotels

Nov. 15, 2018

Sensory design is making a big impact in hospitality design; here’s how several industry professionals are leveraging it.

When a person walks into a space, among the first senses to register and make an impression is sight. In fact, scientists have discovered that more than half the brain is devoted to processing visual images, and 80 percent of learning is based on visual input, according to an IIDA Perspective article.

It’s no wonder, then, that so much emphasis is placed on how things look in the world of design. However, as many hospitality designers have learned (and designers in other markets have followed suit in recent years), sensory design, an approach that focuses on addressing all five senses in a space, can have a significant impact not only on end users’ perceptions, but also their wellbeing.

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interiors+sources recently spoke with a panel of experts on the subject of sensory design to find out how this approach to hospitality design is being utilized today, and how it relates to the overarching wellness trend as well. Below, Emily Marshall, IIDA, interior design discipline leader at HBG Design; Kellie Sirna, co-founder and principal at Studio 11 Design; Anna Bjurstam, wellness pioneer, Six Senses Spas and Wellness, and Andrew Best, vice president of architecture planning and technical services at Six Senses, offer their perspectives on how to effectively engage all five senses when designing for hotels.


i+s: Designing spaces that engage the senses isn’t a new concept; but how is it being applied or utilized differently than in the past?

Emily Marshall: We apply cohesive sensory experiences by starting with a strong design concept that is consistent throughout the entire experience. Our team then works to translate that concept into the clever, bespoke details that evoke experiences fluidly throughout a resort or hotel. Hotel spaces meld into one another while still maintaining elements of surprise. Whether we are designing a new guestroom or an F&B amenity, our approach to design is much like articulating the sub-plots or events that make up the larger story. Our designers connect these story elements and create cohesion and depth in the overall design.

Kellie Sirna: While engaging the senses isn’t a new concept, what is new are the myriad ways to create impactful moments. In a very digitized world, finding visceral ways to capture attention and engage the senses feels especially important for the human experience. As designers, we’ve noticed an emerging trend towards creating ways for guests to feel connected to the social fabric of a destination. By connecting our design with the property’s locale, we are engaging this pathway.

Perle on Maple, Credit: Jenifer Baker

Anna Bjurstam & Andrew Best: What has now emerged is design engaging the senses for health. More research has come out that shows how designing for health greatly enhances the experience, not only sensorial but also for one’s owns health. For example:

Sight – we now know that each cell in our body is driven by our circadian rhythm (last year’s Nobel prize winner), and we can now work with circadian rhythm lighting in two ways: a) with natural light and how we design with views and allow light to come in; and b) artificial lighting (avoiding “light pollution”), working with companies such as Lighting Science Group [to determine] when to take in, for example, blue light and when not to, in order to enhance focus as well as sleep at different times during the day.

Scent – we know how important and special scent can be but it’s also about clean air. Incorporating healthy indoor air quality is of vital importance, and designers can reduce VOCs by selecting low-emitting furniture and materials, installing plants, recommending natural cleaning supplies, and suggesting healthy aromatherapy treatments.

Taste – we love tasty food! And now we can use superfoods and other food to enhance our brain, to make us sleep better, to help us naturally wake up better and so forth.

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Touch – biophilic design is of great importance in our design. Biophilic design is organized in three categories, including nature in the space, nature analogues and nature of the space. We work with them strategically in all design as research has proven biophilic design to reduce stress, enhance cognitive performance and enhance mood and positive emotions.

Sound – we want to minimize noise and do this through insulating noise making equipment, including solid core, sweeps and gaskets in our doors; using absorbing sub-floor material; and trying to blend in the sounds of nature and allowing that flow into the design in various ways.

Sixth sense – we use Feng Shui as well as sacred geometry when designing our space and we do experience a difference when we do this, and our guests certainly do as well. We further try to look at opportunities to include active design as well as mindful design to enhance both the wellness and sensorial experience.


i+s: What are some of the drivers behind this trend in hospitality design, specifically? (Experiential design? Wellness? Other?)

KS: As hospitality designers, we believe now more than ever that travelers are seeking unique experiences, a sense of community and a desire to disconnect. There is a trend towards minimalism without sacrificing comfort and wellness travel. Experiential moments are king. Perhaps most importantly, we feel there is a collective societal feeling that we all want to be able to create without boundaries. 

EM: Today’s guests also expect their hospitality spaces to accommodate the same level of convenience and amenities they find at home. If health and wellness fit into their daily lifestyle, they don’t want to take a hiatus, even when traveling. That idea is driving entertainment and hospitality design to become more and more specialized, from the spaces that focus on connections to nature, to wellness features in new hotel rooms.

AB & AB: In today’s world of increasing work and stress, people can find it difficult to take a step back, relax and focus on what really matters in life. […] We want to encourage people to escape, unwind and re-connect with themselves, their loved ones and the world around them. Designing spaces that appeal to all of one's senses is at the core of making this happen.

We believe one of the main drivers is experiential design. Every single guest touchpoint influences the way they feel about our brand. We need to shape those moments and spaces, so our guests walk away remembering the experience we have provided. The other main driver could be biophilic design, an innovative way of designing that reconnects guests with nature and therefore with all their senses.

|Analog at Hutton Hotel, Credit: Tim Williams

i+s: What role does technology play in helping designers engage all of the senses? Any recent examples of products or technologies in use?

EM: Many wellness rooms are incorporating latest technologies including personalized lighting, chromotherapy, increased acoustic treatments and air filtration/purification systems that help reduce allergens, toxins, smokes and microbes.

Design is integrating whole building techniques, including specifying the type of window glazing to control circadian rhythms and daytime light intensity. Circadian light controls are allowing the guest to simulate lighting techniques in the guestroom to control light settings that can even help minimize jetlag. Light mirrors control temperature light and the brightness of the light to simulate natural sun. Dawn simulator alarm clocks gently awaken the guest with gradually increasing levels of light and sound.

And, some hotels are putting the money where it needs to be: a good night’s sleep, the ultimate factor in health and wellness, including a great mattress and a room complete with 100-percent blackout shades so you won’t have any light leakage. Another tech perk available in rooms that we have seen is a motion-controlled nightlight that comes on as soon as you put your feet down, so you can see where you’re going to the bathroom.

Aromatherapy technology has been integrated in homes and now guestrooms as well. Guests can be greeted with the soothing smells of rosemary or lavender essential oils, to name a few, to mimic a homey feel preferred by today’s travelers.

AB & AB: We use the Timeshifter app (pictured) to help our guests relieve jetlag, and we’ve worked with Professor Steven Lockley from Harvard to make the guest experience be as jetlag-friendly as possible. Then we feature Lighting Science Group night bulbs [in our guestrooms] to help people sleep, and SleepScore Lab sleep assessment technology to measure and inform our guests about their sleep. We work with scent technology, visual technology and of course various apps to help our guests to communicate and be in contact with us in a more time-efficient way. We are definitely making the most out of technology and will continue to do so, while at the same time using it mindfully and allowing our guests to also disconnect from technology as much as possible, as it is a fine balance.

i+s: How can designers leverage these concepts to better engage the senses in the spaces they create? Is there anything they should avoid doing?

EM: I tell our younger designers not to overthink it. The design concept should drive design decisions organically. When using design to engage the senses, the basic principles of biophilia are a good place to start and simple to begin incorporating into spaces. Again, it’s that connection to the outdoors and incorporation of natural light, the use of textures and colors inspired by nature; these are principles that create spaces that guests are drawn to and want to spend time in. Then, designers can layer in other elements of lighting, technology, etc. based on their project budgets. Most important is a strong design concept that is consistently applied throughout the guest experience – this is the greatest determinant of whether a guest feels comfortable, relaxed and tranquil in a space. A strong concept is the starting point for a memorable design experience. 

KS: As humans, we’re drawn to spaces that evoke that feeling of limitless possibility. Designers can leverage this concept by encouraging out-of-the-box thinking. We love to encourage seeking inspiration from outside the interior design world — keeping up with trends in other realms (fashion, technology, food, etc.) can help foster a broader mindset. Working with repurposed materials requires a level of creativity that can often lead to design that feels surprising, purposeful and exceptional.

[Design News | How to Create Productive Outdoor Spaces]

About the Author

Robert Nieminen | Chief Content Director

Robert Nieminen is the Chief Content Director of Architectural Products, BUILDINGS and i+s, sister publications of Smart Buildings Technology. He is an award-winning writer with more than 20 years of experience reporting on the architecture and design industry.

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