A data visualization about the subjectivity of scent.

Olfactory Taxonomy is an investigation into polarizing scents. We wanted to observe people's reactions to eight basic scents: Vetiver, Peppermint, Vanilla, Clove, Lavender, Fennel, Egyptian Musk, and Black Pepper. In the world of perfume design, these are known as ‘base notes.’

Through these scents, we balanced a desire for variety, accessibility, affordability, and an element of surprise. We placed each scent in a black box, hidden by a layer of felt, so they could be smelled but not seen.

In our visualization, we mapped each participant’s reaction to each scent from 1 - 10, one being very negative and 10 being very positive on the x axis. Then, on the y axis, we mapped the strength of that feeling from 1 - 10, 1 being very weak and 10 being very strong. We also asked participants to try to name the scent and to share a memory about the scent and added these in a hover tooltip on each point in the visualization.

In the end, we were surprised to find that some smells we thought would be universally adored were actually quite polarizing. We also noticed that participants had a difficult time identifying unnamed scents, even if they could tell the scent 'smelled familiar.’ However, the most interesting finding was that memories evoked by scents often correlated to common cultural experiences.

Thank you very much to all of our thirty dedicated participants!