Rediscovering Boston

Kate McLean (Graphic Design, 2004)  joins & Then as our inaugural writer for our Guest Blogger feature. If you are interested in being our next guest blogger please drop me a line at 

As an ex-pat and a NESADSU graphic design student in Boston from 2001 to 2004 I had a good handle on the city; I knew where the all the art stores were, I sketched in the parks and gardens, I ate at restaurants, was a regular visitor to any number of coffee and sandwich shops, and I embraced the city museum exhibition schedules. The staff in Paper Source on Boylston once asked if I was a scrapbooker because I spent so much time there.

I thought that I really understood “my new city”.

After a circuitous route through other European cities I returned to the UK and studied for an MFA in Graphic Design. At Edinburgh College of Art my interest in maps expanded as did my awareness of how we perceive our world through all of our senses. I researched deeper into the sense of smell and started to create Smell Maps. Every summer I returned to Boston to teach in the MA in Graphic Design program with Rita Daly at the place I call “home” – NESAD.


This summer I am back in Boston once again but this time as a researcher rather than a visiting lecturer. It was time to rediscover Boston through its smells. Smelling is a highly personalised experience and relates to the genetic make-up of individuals and since we can detect 10,000 odors smell perception varies greatly. A recent study has shown that ‘Sometimes, your sensitivity can even completely change the notes of a scent. Newcomb and his colleagues found that the violet compound smelled “fragrant” and “floral” to those with a heightened sense, whereas less sensitive individuals described it as unpleasantly “sour” and “acidic.”’

My smell walkers came from from NESAD MAGD alum (Nick DiStefano, Brittany Kearnan and Meghan Callagan), as well as a couple of food bloggers, a fitness blogger and social media guru and her husband and their 11 year old son. We were accompanied by Sarah Reynolds, working for US Public Radio’s show “The Story” with Dick Gordon.

dumpsterWe all rediscovered a city that we thought we knew pretty well. What follows are a selected set of the smell identification and descriptive notes taken from 9 smell walkers:

7:15 – Hamburgers – reminds me of BBQs and family cookouts and summer. Good feeling.

7:16 – Chlorine – nice, its the fountain @ the Greenway

7:17 – Sewage – fleeting smell. Not pleasant

7:18 – Garlic and calamari and oil and exhaust – home, Italian cooking

7:19 – Dough – yummy, comforting

7:20 – Sterile, cleanness, candy

7:24 – Wine, oil, fish – home, holidays

7:25 – Wood fire – hungry, it’s from a restaurant

7:30 – Cigar – Old Italian men enjoying a smoke

7:38 – Laundry – cozy, sweet, clean

7:45 – Salt water/Ocean – I’m staring at the harbour. Expected a more intense smell, must be high tide

7:47 – Salt water, seaweed – Sailing home

7:50 – BBQ – reminds me of my friends

7:55 – Cut grass – good, refreshed

8:00 – Greasy road – queasy, I don’t really like some stuff

8:04 – Plastic bags –

8:05 – Fried dough – summer amusement parks/carnivals

8:10 – Construction – like a new house

8:16 – Sewers and popcorn – smells like the city

8:25 – More grilled meat, touch of vinegar – lots of kitchens with doors open tonight

8:30 – Wax – at the Catholic Church. Surprised.

8:31 – Crayons – musty, stuffy

8:34 – Grass – Smells great, want to play…

The city I thought I knew had greater variety in small areas. The smell walkers said that it smelled far better than they thought it would, sweeter and with less expected “bad smells”.

What I do now, as a smell mapper, is to render the invisible visible through graphics and the creation of “scents” to communicate our temporal perception of a place. See for other city smell maps. Next summer I want to do further research in Boston and I love the idea that NESAD students and alum from all programs could be involved. Follow me @katemclean to find out more about how cities worldwide have very individual, and occasionally surprising smell portraits.


Image Credits:
Boston Skyline ©Erin Egresitz 2013
Kate McLean smells an unexpectedly fragrant Faneuil Market Place dumpster ©Karen Zgoda 2013
Kate McLean & Sarah Reynolds in Columbus Park, Boston ©Erin Egrestiz 2013