Sight, Scent, Sound, Taste, Touch: Using the Five Senses to Make Your Letter Pop
When you think of letters, you might only think of using your eyes—but there are so many ways to bring all five senses into your letter-writing. You can use many design elements to activate those senses, and to delight the reader.
Letter-writing is more than a visual art. Many of you know me through Instagram, and experience my art primarily through your sight. But there’s so many other ways to experience letter writing. The way the paper might smell, the way it feels, even the way it sounds when we open it. There’s so much more we can bring in with teach of these elements, making it a richer experience—both for us, and for the recipient.
Here are a few tips to incorporate the five senses into your letters, and make your letters much more interesting!
Sight is the sense we think of most often when we write a letter. However, there’s more to a letter than just words and a page. There are ways to play with how the letter looks, to make it look more interesting.
You don’t have to come up with ideas on your own though—I love saving images that inspire me on Instagram and Pinterest, and incorporate those thins into my own letters. You don’t have to create out of a vacuum, instead, you can look around the world and think, “How could I incorporate this into my letter?”
Even now, as I’m writing, there’s a beautiful picture of the Scottish Coastline hanging above my desk. I love seeing the different colors of the water and the cliffs—and I can let those influence the design choices I make with my letter. I could do a watercolor painting copying that scene, or have markers that match the colors of the painting, or bring those colors into the design scheme of the letter. I could make the back of the card this beautiful grey of the rocks, with some blue and white on the flap design. As I do this, I’m taking the things I see in the world, the things that inspire me, and bring that into my letter.
You can also integrate things you’ve found online. There’s an old letter from the 18th century that I love, which has a painting of a small town in France, with a bridge write above where the address is written. I think of it as the bridge from the writer to the receiver. You could do a design that looks just like that—or paint an image on the envelope that will remind you of a place that inspires you. Maybe it’s your hometown, or a place both you and your recipient have traveled to, or even a place where you both want to visit!
You can also play with the sense of sight by playing with expectations. For example, what does a normal envelope look like? It has a certain size of font, and a certain color. Decide to play with that! I often write names really big, and then the address a little smaller. Or maybe I have a large script on the front, but inside is a smaller script within the letter.
Also think about playing with the colors, and mixing up the color palate. Maybe have a very bright, bold envelope, and then a monochromatic color scheme on the inside—or the other way around! Maybe the outside is black and white and blocky-looking, but the inside is full of colors and lines that are more mannered. Playing with these visual elements make creating the letter fun, and more interesting for your reader. After all, even the nicest card from the store isn’t as rich an experience as one you created yourself.
Always think of visuals in this sense—how can I show I’m putting time into this? When you’re writing a letter, you’re spending time with the person who is reading it. These little visual elements show that you put in even more time than writing the letter. Even if you just doodle on the back of the envelope to make it look interesting, it makes your reader think, “Wow, this person took 20 minutes to do this line-doodle on the back,” and it shows that you care.
I could share for hours and hours on how things look, talking about all the design elements—but my main advice is to play. Think about ways that you can create something interesting, something that will delight them. Bring in elements of surprise, or juxtapositions, that they will think interesting. Then, when they recall your letter, the first thing they will remember is the way it looked, and how that made them feel.
Smell is a sense we don’t think of often, but it’s a powerful one. In my conversation with Campo Beauty, we discussed creating a space around us when we’re writing, even bringing in essential oils and a diffuser so that we experience a certain smell.
You can also think of scenting the mail itself—either scenting the letter, envelope, both, or even a piece of tissue that goes inside the envelope. You could include some pressed flowers as well, which still have a certain smell.
Lately, I’ve been missing Santa Barbara. I live in Seattle currently—it’s grey, it’s cold, I haven’t seen the sun for several days, and even though it’s still very beautiful, I miss Southern California. I miss the canyons and beaches. If my sister was to write me and wanted to remind me of Santa Barbara, she could bring in some things that remind me of those smells. I think of eucalyptus, she could put a little of that oil on the envelope, and when I smelt it, it would bring me back to Santa Barbara.
Scent is one of those things that brings us back the most memories. When you write a letter using scent, you can help people recall certain things you’ve done together. But you’re also creating a new memory. Creating a signature scent is a great way to make some consistency in your letters. I think of perfumes people in my family have worn, and when I have such strong memories of them when I smell that perfume. They all smelled wonderful, but they were all different. So you could think of creating your own signature scent that will stay with people. When they end up smelling your letters years later, it will remind them of you, even before they read the words.
When I smell horses, that shouldn’t be a very nice smell, but I have such good memories of horses that I all of a sudden feel this sense of ease and joy. You could think of that too—obviously not putting in anything that smells like a horse—but if there’s a place you lived that put a strong grassy smell, you could put a few blades of grass in the letter, to help remind the person of certain experience.
Taste a sense we don’t talk about much in letter writing, because you’re likely not sending them something to eat. You can do this, like my grandmother who always sent a piece of bubble gum in every card she sent to me. But there’s other ways to bring in taste, through incorporating it with smell.
If there’s a taste you want to bring in, like pumpkin pie around the holidays, then include some scents of cinnamon and cloves. Put your letter in a bag with some cinnamon sticks and cloves for a few days, and it will have this wonderful scent to it. This will remind people of a certain taste, even though technically you’re reaching that through scent.
You can also create a taste experience that your recipient is active in. You could draw a little coffee cup or glass of wine on the outside of the letter, and say, “Don’t open this until you’ve filled your cup!” If you use a larger outer envelope, you could include a tea bag inside of it as well, so they have a gift ready for them. While I love this idea of creating a bigger experience around reading the letter, I’m hesitant to do so unless someone is very close to me. I don’t want to tell people what to do! But if I’m writing a letter to my best friend, I could give her very specific instructions on what to do before she opens the letter, so that she’s in the state I want her to be when she’s reading.
For both taste and scent, you want to think of the experience you’re trying to create for your reader. Is there something you want them to remember? Is there a certain place you want to remind them of? Incorporate reminders through scent and taste. Maybe you want to remind them of a feeling—maybe Christmas. Think about spruce oil, or spices, or other things that will bring out that feeling.
Touch is something we do often consider in letter writing, though it’s more about the quality of the paper. I like to think of touch in the sense of, “How does it feel to experience this letter?”
A wonderful way to play with touch is to vary the textures, and make them more interesting. I’ll often use a thick outer envelope, and then a thinner inner envelope, and then a very thin paper. The practical point of this is to protect that lovely, delicate paper, like the airmail paper I carry in my store—but it also makes opening the letter a more interesting experience.
You could also think about other textures to bring in. I mentioned blades of grass, but you could also put a leaf inside. Those are different textures; something they’ll feel. Washi tape often has a chrome finish and is very smooth, so you could seal the outside with that smooth sense, and have more rough, organic textures on the inside. Ribbons and strings are another fun tactile experience—and have the added ceremony of being cut with scissors by your reader. Wax seals have a tactile sense as well. I tend to use flexible waxes, and ones I sell have this wonderful tension and then give when someone opens your letters.
You may not think of sound when you write a letter—after all, words on a paper are silent, unless you’re in a magical wizard world. But you can still incorporate sound into your letters.
I’ve shared before about onion skin paper having this wonderful crinkling sound—so you can always incorporate the unique sounds of different papers. But you can also bring in other elements that remind people of certain sounds.
Is there a band or song you both really enjoy? You could write some of the lyrics of that song on the outside of the letter. That will activate their sense of sound, as they remember the song in their mind. You could describe certain sounds from the place you’re writing, and describe what it sounds like in an interesting way—tell them of the content buzz of the busy street below you, or that the chirps of birds keep punctuating your work.
You can also incorporate sound into them opening the letter itself. For example, the sound of paper tearing can be interesting—so you could wrap your letter in a thin paper that has a tab for them to pull open. You could also have a structured experience around the letter—just like with taste, having a list of things for them to do before they open the letter. Maybe it’s for them to draw a bath, or pop some popcorn, or put on a certain album, or turn on a certain song before they open the letter. You could ask them walk out to their garden, or a nearby park where they could hear the birds and the leaves. You could create them a playlist on an app like Spotify, printing out a little copy of the scan code, and including it in the letter. With creating an experience for them, again, you want to make sure it’s someone you’re close with. Especially with something like a bath, which can be a very intimate experience! That’s likely for a romantic letter—unless perhaps you and your friend are really into bubble baths, and talk about it a lot!
These are just a few ideas on how to think creatively when you’re writing a letter. There’s more to it than just the sense of sight!
When I sit down to write a letter, I always start with asking myself, “What experience am I trying to creation? What’s my intention in writing this letter?” Once there, I can start going through each of the senses. “What do I want this to look like? What do I want this to sound like? What do I want them to smell, should there be a taste I’m trying to evoke? How does the letter feel? What types of emotions should they be feeling?” All of a sudden, you’ll start getting different ideas of things you could bring into design.
For the reader, this makes your letter a much richer experience. There’s nothing that will be as beautiful as something that you create for them. Even if you buy lovely stationery for your writing, you can still include those little extra details, even with just using a unique pen and wax seals.
I hope this sparked your creativity, and gave you inspiration in how to include the five senses in your letters. Did this give you any new ideas? Share them with me below, and let’s inspire each other!
Signing off, with great thanks to you all,