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A brief introduction to the study of semiotics and how it can be used to create more meaningful, powerful designs that better connect to your users.

In a world where everything is identified by icons and avatars, it is no wonder the study of semiotics is beginning to make its way into the discourse of user experience design.

What is semiotics?

Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols. These signs are comprised of two parts:

  • Signifiers – the physical forms that elicit meaning (this can be images, words, materials, sounds, smells, tastes, etc.)
  • Signified – the connotations of what the signifier implies, often considered a mental construct

By exploring the semiotic relationships between signifiers and the signified, designers can better understand and anticipate the emotional reactions or interpretations a user may have upon experiencing a design, and thus he or she can begin to develop more effective designs that begin on a rather subconscious level.

For example, designers looking to create a calm experience may add soothing music, include images of serene landscapes and add tools that encourage users to navigate through an experience slowly and mindfully. Each of these components constitutes a sign that registers with a user in one way or another.

When design is added into the mix, that is where the action happens.

Design and semiotics

Just look at the word de-sign. “Design is the making of signs,” said Farouk Y. Seif, the Executive Director of the Semiotic Society of America and Professor Emeritus at Antioch University’s Center for Creative Change. He is also a registered architect as well as an accomplished writer on the metaphysics of design whose work has explored semiotics as a tool for advanced communication.

It is a tool many tap into without even realizing it, but by becoming cognizant of the power of semiotics, designers can create more meaningful experiences.

“So many designers have no idea what semiotics is. There’s not even general understanding of what semiotics is about, and indeed as designers understand semiotics, they can be very effective,” Seif said.

To truly leverage the power of semiotics, Seif says designers need to be aware of the three types of signs and when to use each of them.

The three types of signs

  1. Symbolic sign – These arbitrary symbols refer to signs where the relationship between the signifier and the signified tends to be cultural. This is often a matter of language and typically refers to words. For example, the English word “apple” has nothing to do with what we perceive as an apple, it is just what we call that particular fruit.
  2. Indexical sign – Index signs occur when the signifier is a result of the signified. For example, smoke is an indexical sign of fire. Another way indexical signs appear in design is through directional signs like arrows, which point to something other than itself.
  3. Iconic sign – Signs where the signifier looks like the signified. A photo of an apple is an iconic sign of an apple. A photo of yourself is an iconic sign of yourself.

“What appeals to the emotion and feeling, the visceral as we call it, is not necessarily what we see, but what we feel. You can listen to a piece of music, you cannot see the music, but you can listen to it and it creates that sensory desire to act or listen and enjoy the melody,” Seif said.
While there is a tendency to rely on iconic signs, the other two also serve a purpose, often found at the deeper levels of meaning.

“There are so many things in life that if they are too explicit, they lose their punch line. They are not effective,” Seif said. “There is something about the implicit, the hint of, the hunch of. I think indexical and symbolic signs are doing this well.”

Notating Imagination

People begin to make associations with signs before they can even communicate them, something Seif calls notating imagination.

“Notating imagination is a way to externalize the imaginative thought that we have even before we have words for it, the moment that something crosses our mind and we’re beginning to imagine it, before we even find the words to explain it, that’s what notating imagination is all about,” Seif said.

This means users will react to a sign almost instantly, illustrating how powerful they can be. Sometimes these reactions can be deeply emotional, which depending on the experience you’re designing may or may not be what you’re looking for. Understanding that signs can trigger emotions in

Signs in the world of icons

These days, an icon represents almost everything. Open your mobile screen and you’ll enter a whole world of signs. Well-designed logos and symbols allow users to find exactly what they’re looking for right away, but they don’t always communicate what we think they’re communicating.

One thing to note is that the interpretation of a particular sign may vary from one user to the next, whether this is for generational, demographic or cultural reasons. I love this meme of a floppy disc/save icon discrepancy to show how the understanding and meaning of signs can differ:

Although in this example the child does not need to understand the roots of the save icon in order to understand that it represents saving something, it shows how the meaning of things can change. For the man, this disc is an iconic sign, while for the child it is more of a symbolic sign.

So, do you need to understand semiotics to be a good designer?

The short answer is no, but in a French interview translated into English, France-based semiotics professor Michela Deni noted how once designers understand semiotics there is no going back.

“They suddenly realize that everything they understood about the world of design and projects – even the very thing they were in the process of creating – can all be rethought in a completely different way, theorized and made verifiable,” she said. “Semiotics helps designers to rearrange their ideas, to think differently whilst imaging all other points of view – the most important one being that of the users.”

Deni noted that she has often seen designers become extremely passionate about semiotics when they are first introduced, producing analyses that are often better than professional semioticians.

“After a while,” she continues, “the designer, thankfully, forgets about semiotics as a theoretical discipline and methodology of investigation, but the mindset of the semiotic approach cannot be forgotten once it has been adopted.”

For more information on semiotics, check out this neat infographic on Behance.

Sheena Lyonnais

Sheena Lyonnais

Sheena Lyonnais is a Toronto-based writer, editor and digital specialist. She works in content marketing by day, studies digital strategy by night, and practices yoga somewhere in between. Follow her on Twitter @SheenaLyonnais.


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