Semiotics: A Primer for Designers

“Semiotics is important for designers as it allows us to understand the relationships between signs, what they stand for, and the people who must interpret them — the people we design for.”

Overview

In its simplest form, Semiotics can be described as the study of signs. Not signs as we normally think of signs, but signs in a much broader context that includes anything capable of standing for or representing a separate meaning.

Paddy Whannel[1] offered a slightly different definition. “Semiotics tells us things we already know in a language we will never understand.” Paddy’s definition is partly right. The language used by semioticians can often be overkill, and indeed semiotics involves things we already know, at least on an intuitive level. Still, semiotics is important for designers as it allows us to understand the relationships between signs, what they stand for, and the people who must interpret them — the people we design for.

The science of Semiology (from the Greek semeîon, ‘sign’) seeks to investigate and understand the nature of signs and the laws governing them. Semiotics represents a range of studies in art, literature, anthropology, and the mass media rather than an independent academic discipline. The disciplines involved in semiotics include linguistics, philosophy, psychology, sociology, anthropology, literature, aesthetic and media theory, psychoanalysis and education.

Origins of Semiotics

Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure[2] is considered to be the founder of linguistics and semiotics. Saussure postulated the existence of this general science of signs, or Semiology, of which linguistics forms only one part. Semiology therefore aims to take in any system of signs, whatever their substance and limits; images, gestures, musical sounds, objects, and the complex associations of all these, which form the content of ritual, convention or public entertainment: these constitute, if not languages, at least systems of signification.

Language of Language

Structuralism is an analytical method used by many semioticians. Structuralists seek to describe the overall organization of sign systems as languages. They search for the deep and complex structures underlying the surface features of phenomena.

Social Semiotics has taken the structuralist concern with the internal relations of parts within a self-contained system to the next level, seeking to explore the use of signs in specific social situations.

Semiotics and the branch of linguistics known as Semantics have a common concern with the meaning of signs. Semantics focuses on what words mean while semiotics is concerned with how signs mean. Semiotics embraces semantics, along with the other traditional branches of linguistics as follows:

  • Semantics: the relationship of signs to what they stand for.
  • Syntactics (or syntax): the formal or structural relations between signs.
  • Pragmatics: the relation of signs to interpreters.

A Text is an assemblage of signs (such as words, images, sounds and/or gestures) constructed (and interpreted) with reference to the conventions associated with a genre and in a particular medium of communication. Text usually refers to a message, which has been recorded in some way (e.g., writing, audio- and video-recording) so that it is physically independent of its sender or receiver.

Saussure made what is now a famous distinction between language and speech. Language refers to the system of rules and conventions which is independent of, and pre-exists, individual users; Speech refers to its use in particular instances. Applying the notion to semiotic systems in general rather than simply to language, the distinction is one between code and message, structure and event or system and usage (in specific texts or contexts). According to the Saussurean distinction, in a semiotic system such as cinema, any specific film is the speech of that underlying system of cinema language.

The structuralist dichotomy between usage and system has been criticized for its stiffness, separating process from product, subject from structure. The prioritization of structure over usage fails to account for changes in structure. Valentin Voloshinov[3] proposed a reversal of the Saussurean priority, language over speech: “The sign is part of organized social intercourse and cannot exist, as such, outside it, reverting to a mere physical artifact.” The meaning of a sign is not in its relationship to other signs within the language system but rather in the social context of its use. Voloshinov observed “there is no real moment in time when a synchronic system of language could be constructed… A synchronic system may be said to exist only from the point of view of the subjective consciousness of an individual speaker belonging to some particular language group at some particular moment of historical time.” As it turns out, both are correct.

In other words, take a very simple example—the word live. The fact that the ‘L’ is next to ‘I’ is next to “V” is next to “E” is important. Without those characters in that order we wouldn’t have the word live. But it is also important that the word live is being viewed on July 3, 2003 and that the context is ‘on a concert ticket’, so that we may imply that the music is indeed being played live! The study of semiotics needs to account for the relationship of the symbols and the social context or context of use.

Understanding Design as a Dialogue

In Semiotics: The Basics[4], Daniel Chandler sums up precisely why we as designers must be well versed in semiotics.

“The study of signs is the study of the construction and maintenance of reality. To decline such a study is to leave to others the control of the world of meanings.”

Semiotics teaches us as designers that our work has no meaning outside the complex set of factors that define it. These factors are not static, but rather constantly changing because we are changing and creating them. The deeper our understanding and awareness of these factors, the better our control over the success of the work products we create.

Semiotics also helps us not to take reality for granted as something that simply exists. It helps us to understand that reality depends not only on the intentions we put into our work but also the interpretation of the people who experience our work. Meaning is not contained in the world or in books, computers or audio-visual media. It is not simply transmitted—it is actively created, according to a complex interplay of systems and rules of which we are normally unaware.

Becoming aware of these systems and rules and learning to master them is the true power of visual communication and design.

Glossary

Semiotics, Semiosis, Semiology: The noun form of the study of signs and signification, the process of attaching signifieds to signifiers, the study of signs and signifying systems. The study of the process by which signs and symbols come to have meaning. Signs are seen as the basic building blocks of meaning. Semiotics is concerned with how signs are produced, maintained and changed. This is why semiotics is sometimes called the study of the process of signification.

Signs

  • Symbol: Stands in place of an object – flags, the crucifix, bathroom door signs.
  • Index: Points to something – an indicator, such as words like “big” and arrows.
  • Icon: A representation of an object that produces a mental image of the object represented. For example, a picture of a tree evokes the same mental image regardless of language. The picture of a tree conjures up “tree” in the brain.

Signifier: Is in some ways a substitute or stand-in. Words, both oral and written, are signifiers. The brain then exchanges the signifier for a working definition. The word “tree,” for example, is a signifier. You can’t make a log cabin out of the word “tree.” You could, however, make a log cabin out of what the brain substitutes for the input “tree” which would be some type of signified.

Signified: What the signifier refers to (see signifier). There are two types of signifieds:

  • Connotative: Points to the signified but has a deeper meaning. An example provided by Barthes is “Tree” = luxuriant green, shady, etc.
  • Denotative: What the signified actually is, quite like a definition, but in brain language.

Slippage: When meaning moves due to a signifier calling on multiple signifieds. Also known as “skidding.”

Discourse: Messages that serve a communicative function and are usually more complex than simple signs.

Mythic Signs: Messages that “go without saying” that reinforce the dominant values of their culture. These messages don’t raise questions or inspire critical thinking.

Denotative System: A signifier, signified, and sign that together form a meaning.

Second-Order Semiological System: Connotative system that incorporate the sign of an initial system which becomes the signifier of the second system.

Taxonomy: A kind of structural analysis where features of a semiotic system are classified.

Structuralism: Structuralism is a mode of thinking and a method of analysis practiced in 20th-century social sciences and humanities. Methodologically, it analyzes large-scale systems by examining the relations and functions of the smallest constituent elements of such systems, which range from human languages and cultural practices to folktales and literary texts.

Social Semiotics: Social semiotics is the study of human social meaning-making practices of all types. These include linguistic, actional, pictorial, somatic, and other semiotic modalities, and their codeployment. The basic premise is that meanings are made, and the task of social semiotics is to develop the analytical constructs and theoretical framework for showing how this occurs.

Other Terms

Exegesis: Critical interpretation of a text. Interpretation of content only that searches for meaning connotatively.

Hermenuetics: Differs from exegesis in that it is less “practical.” It is the text that postpones and even breaks with itself to shift meaning through slippage or skidding.

Readerly Text: (from the Pleasure of the Text) Discourse that stabilizes and meets the expectations of the reader.

Writerly Text: is a text that discomforts the reader and creates a subject position for him/her that is outside of his/her mores or cultural base.

References

[1] Semiotics, Structuralism, and Television, Ellen Seiter, 1992.

[2] Saussure, Ferdinand de (1993). Third Course of Lectures on General Linguistics. Pergamon Press. http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/fr/saussure.htm

[3] In Perspective: Valentin Voloshinov, Issue 75 of International Socialism, Quarterly Journal of the Socialist Workers Party (Britain), Published July 1997. http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/isj75/parring.htm

[4] Chandler, David (2001). Semiotics: The Basics. Routledge. ISBN 0415265940

Bibliography

Barthes, Roland (1964). Elements of Semiology. Hill and Wang.
http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/fr/barthes.htm.

Chandler, David (2001). Semiotics: The Basics. Routledge. ISBN 0415265940.

Saussure, Ferdinand de (1993). Third Course of Lectures on General Linguistics. Pergamon Press. http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/fr/saussure.htm.

Stuart Hall, Recent Developments in Theories of Language and Ideology: A Critical Note, from Culture, Media, Language: Working Papers in Cultural Studies, 1972-1979 (1980).

Vestergaard, T & K Schroder (1985): The Language of Advertising. Oxford: Blackwell.

Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976), p. 16.Challis Hodge is an Experience Strategist with over 16 years experience leading cross-functional teams in the planning, research, conceptualization, design and development of user-centered products, services, software and Internet solutions. Challis was CEO and co-founder of HannaHodge a pioneering user experience firm that broke new ground in human-centered design process. Challis has undergraduate and graduate degrees in industrial design and human-computer interaction. He consults, teaches and writes about design and experiences at the intersection of people, business and technology! You can contact Challis at challis@challishodge.com or learn more about his work at www.challishodge.com.

Posted in Design Principles, Methods | 11 Comments »

11 Comments

  • David Heller

    August 13, 2003 at 9:47 am

    Not being a visual designer, I found this article interesting and new. Lets remember that not everyone in the B&A readership is of one type and many audiences get to learn from one another.

    That being said, it seems to me that the importance of understanding semiotics is similar to the importance of understanding form, structure, layout, type, iconography. It is just one piece of a grander puzzle. But the more pieces you have in that puzzle the better the final resolution (or solution) will be for those looking at it.

    Thanx, Challis.
    — dave

  • maggie hendrie

    August 14, 2003 at 8:15 am

    I think that as designers (IA, Visual, Interaction, etc,) our job is to create meaningful experiences for users; semiotics is all about understanding how “meaning” is created. Academically, one of the issues semiotics faces as a field of study is that it focuses on “textualisation” when we work in a “hyeprtext” world. This article doesn’t address current use of semiotics but gives a short overview of the field. I think that anyone working in the interactive field can learn a lot from it’s techniques. To say-
    “Other than making work for academics, there’s little practical application of semiotic theory” is rather niave- I’ve been worked as both a semiotician and as an information architect for quite a few years and think the challenge is to take an analytical technique and use it as a creative tool, but it can be done.

    The comment “I would liken semiotics to the mechanics of language not philosophy” is ironic- one of the best primers in semiotics is by Umberto Eco – “Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language”. It gives a good explanation of the different experience of a dictionary versus an encyclopedia- which is a metaphor I’ve used with clients when they ask why we don’t just bundle content any old way. We need to look at users as co-creators of meaning, co-creators of the user experience not as passive recipients of our sytems, no matter how well designed. Any tool that helps us seems like a step foward to me.

  • Claudio Aguirre-Bianchi

    August 25, 2003 at 3:16 am

    Semiotics (or semiology) is far more than an academic luxury.

    Well understood, it will help designers to embedd significance and meaning in perceptible objects (ie visual objects).

    Moreover, the semiology of the webb and the semiology of multimedia are necessary approaches to understand the media we are working with and its possibilities/limitations.

    I think Challis Hodge should have focused more on the enbeddment of meaning in perceptible forms than in definitions. But that is probable another article. Who wants to write it?

    Clau

  • Rob Harrap

    September 2, 2003 at 6:57 am

    Just a clarification. Semiotics did not in fact originate with Saussure. It was ‘rediscovered’ by the European academic community in the writings of the founder of Pragmatism, Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce was more interested in understanding ‘understanding’ and science than he was in design. He also developed the notion of predicates in logic (also developed at about the same time by Frege in Europe), did fundamental work in statistics and geodesy, and hugely influenced William James and consequently John Dewey.
    In any event, an enjoyable article, thanks, ….
    Rob

  • Chick Foxgrover

    December 13, 2003 at 6:08 pm

    Thanks Challis for bringing this up and Rob for correcting the impression that Saussure originated Semiotics. And in general, I believe the study of the pragmatists and other philosophers from Pierce through Dewey and Mead on to Rorty, Searle and Habermas (to name a few) is fascinating reading for anyone involved in communications and designing such things as “semantic webs” “meaningful experiences” working with things like “mental models” etc. They had a great deal of interesting things to say about alot of what we take for granted (or misunderstand) when we speak about these things.

  • Claudio Vandi

    June 20, 2007 at 9:02 am

    Hi, thank you for the interesting article which i could spot only today (while it’s on the website since 2003) I agree with you that Semiotics can be of some use for designers, not only as a mysterious language to describe simple things, but as a theory to understand how people interpret the world in order to act on it. For this reason I agree with Rob that Peirce is a key reference for semiotics. I would like to hear your opinion on what i think could be the role for semiotics in GUI design. According to my idea (resumed in an idea about metaphors http://www.boxesandarrows.com/idea/view/3722) semiotics can go beyond the “look and feel” to analyze the user’s action in its practical unfolding.
    If we choose our categories wisely (that for me means mostly Peirce categories), then semiotics can say something on how design matters in the continuous action of a user carrying out some task. I can assure you that “practical application of semiotic theory” are far from being absent.
    For example semiotics can help us to sketch a theory of how the user learns the interface while using it, and not only by recognizing the referent of a single sign. This is the difference between a semiotics of signs as taxonomy and a semiotic of signs as action oriented elements. To be used, to be “acted”, is the key role of interfaces. Pragmatics teaches us that there is no meaning out of a pragmatic horizon, out of an actual practice. This leads to a semiotic theory that can say more than what is needed to recognize a sign as a sign of something.

  • RS

    August 12, 2003 at 2:14 pm

    Semiotics is interesting, but saying it’s relevant to design is like saying one should study the philosophy of language to write better fiction.

  • -challis

    August 13, 2003 at 8:00 am

    Can a carpenter build houses without any deep understanding of lumber? Yes. Can a carpenter build better houses if he understands the biology of trees and the process of creating lumber? Yes. Why? Because he can anticipate things that he could not otherwise conceive.

    I would liken semiotics to the mechanics of language not philosophy. And I agree that it’s interesting. Problem is we designers have been tuned off by the overblown use of $50 words and the general elitism in the field. We need to get under the hood and get our hands on this stuff (no extra charge for the goofy metaphors).

  • harumph

    August 13, 2003 at 8:04 am

    I agree. Other than making work for academics, there’s little practical application of semiotic theory. After reducing this to “make things look like what they mean as well as you can”, is there much more to get out of it?

    Besides, quoting things like “The study of signs is the study of the construction and maintenance of reality” as a dictum for design only reinforces the black-turtlenecked, litcrit-theory-clutching image of the pretentious designer. You honestly think you’re engaged in the “maintenence of reality” in any way different than everyone else?

  • kb

    August 13, 2003 at 8:22 am

    The most important thing for designers to take away from semiotics is the notion that as soon as you publish your work, it is completely beyond you. It will be interpreted not in any way that you intended it to, but rather as the user wishes to.

    The “death of the designer” would be a more appropriate article to write, borrowing heavily on Barthes “the death of the author”:

    http://www.eiu.edu/~literary/4950/barthes.htm

    Of course, all this is leading to a more post-structuralist worldview in which meaning is just as divorced from structure as from any kind of designerly intention.

    In all, perhaps this article could have expanded more on how this relates to designers rather than just what semoitics “is”.

    -kb

  • Larry Irons

    August 13, 2003 at 9:07 am

    The importance of semiotics to design seems to reduce to the issue of whether we, as human beings, can directly respond to signs. People like Aaron Marcus so no. They claim we need a language to give the signs context, i.e., metaphors. On the other hand, people like Brian Donaghey draw from neuropsychology to argue that come key smells and senses are keyed directly by representations. Moreover, the latter position maintains that feelings and emotions can be triggered by understanding those direct representations.

    Any way you look at it though, the question is of basic significance to experience design.

Sorry, comments are closed.