A Synesthetic Approach to Creative Design Thinking – The Phenomenological Perspective on Multi-Sensory Spatial Experience

Presented by: Dr. Jain Kwon

Issue Interior design students often struggle while transforming abstract inspirations to tangible forms and space. Research has suggested that narrative methods may help students use their imagination in such a process, while raising a concern that using the methods may also interfere students' visual presentation of their ideas (Danko, Meneely, & Portillo, 2006). Responding to the concern, this study proposes a framework that involves multi-sensory design thinking and multimodal narrative methods. Based on Merleau-Ponty’s notion of perception (1945), this study explores how a synesthetic approach can inspire students while promoting holistic, multi-sensory design thinking. Synesthesia is “the production of a sense impression relating to one sense or part of the body by stimulation of another sense or part of the body” (Oxford Dictionary, n.d.). Inspired by the concept of synesthesia, this paper presents a design method that can help students successfully visualize the attributes of abstract and non-visual objects. Method This study is part of the pedagogical explorations conducted in a conceptual design studio for five consecutive years; the framework of which is based on the fundamentals of phenomenology, lived experience and the first-person perspective: 1. Understanding the meaning of one’s spatial experience 2. Interpreting and visualizing others’ narratives 3. Developing and visualizing abstract concepts 4. Representing one’s experience in spatial composition Based on the framework, the course projects consist of a warm-up activity and four sequential projects. Warm-Up: As an introductory practice, students discuss about their understanding of ‘spatial experience’. The instructor provides visual references, the photos and the videos of several pavilions at the Venice Architecture Biennale to help students learn that different sensory stimuli may affect the intensity and the meanings of individuals’ spatial experience. Project 1. Video Narrative: What is spatial experience? The purpose of this project is to help the entry-level students establish the meaning of ‘spatial experience’ from the first-person perspective. A video is a great medium of a multimodal narrative that includes verbal and visual. Students are instructed to integrate the implications of body, time, space, and movement into the contents. Project 2. Pop-up Book: Visualizing Interpretation After watching a short film, Design Q & A, students make a pop-up book to visualize their interpretations of Charles Eames’ responses to a series of questions on the concept of design. Designing the contents and the format of the book, students learn how to incorporate implied forms and incidental space in design (Figure 1). Project 3. Conceptual Composition: Evolving Form and Space Students develop their own concept based on the given topic and design a three dimensional composition within a cubic foot space, reflecting sense of ‘time’, the fourth dimension. The configuration must be presentable without a designated bottom (Figure 2), which helps free students’ thinking from ‘gravity-driven’ approach. Project 4. Experiential Space: Representing Sensory Experience through Design This cross-disciplinary project, a comprehension of the previously taught contents, is conducted over a three-week period, week 9-11 of the semester. Students design experiential space using music as an abstract inspiration (Figure 3). Students from the School of Music participate in conceptual development. Outcomes This study stresses that spatial experience is a comprehensive whole, in which human senses serve as the channels for communication between the space and the occupants. The findings from the post-project surveys have shown that students consider the learning experience as a positive challenge and the cross-disciplinary collaboration as a creative adventure. The instructional details and project outcomes will be presented at the conference.


  • Danko, S., Meneely, J., & Portillo, M. (2006). Humanizing design through narrative inquiry. Journal Of Interior Design, 31(2), 10-28.
  • Merleau-Ponty, M. (2012). Phenomenology of perception, D. A. Landes, trans. Abingdon, Oxon; New York: Routledge [Originally 1945].
  • Ludden, G. S., & Schifferstein, H. J. (2007). Effects of Visual-Auditory Incongruity on Product Expression and Surprise. International Journal Of Design, 1(3), 29-39.
  • Synesthesia. (n.d.). Oxford online dictionary. Retrieved from http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/english/synaesthesia.
  • Van Manen, M. (1997). Researching lived experience: Human science for an action sensitive pedagogy (2nd edition). London, Ontario: The Althouse Press.
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