All the roads and winding paths of my academic career led to user-experience design or, as I like to think of it now, practical semiotics.

Photo by Ariel Besagar on Unsplash

In the fall of 2018, I decided to branch out from my academic career and plant roots in the soil of user-experience design. My peers thought I was crazy. My wife nearly killed me. And my kids were frustrated because they really wanted me to be a garbage man. But I took the risk. I took it for a lot of reasons. My academic career wasn’t progressing the way I thought it would. I was tired of writing for an overly educated audience. And, being honest, I was just burnt out. I had invested over twelve years of my life into becoming a university professor, a life of all work and no compensation. So I did it. I transitioned — and maybe I wasn’t as crazy as everyone thought.

As part of my transition, I picked up Don Norman’s The Design of Things, a book that every designer has read. “The term signifier,” he writes, alluding to a mark or sound that communicates appropriate use, “has had a long an illustrious career in the exotic field of semiotics, the study of signs and symbols” (13).

While most of you yawned through that sentence, I jumped for joy. My doctoral dissertation was on semiotics, which could only mean one thing. I was exotic! All the roads and winding paths of my academic career led to user-experience design or, as I like to think of it now, practical semiotics.

My dissertation, in fact, was on the Italian philosopher and novelist, Umberto Eco. He thought, at one point in his career, that a sign — the most common definition in academia being something that stands for something else — could be applied to the process of communication. Actually, he went one step further and argued that a sign is an actor in the process of signification. While he received some pushback on this, the implication was clear: a sign must be interpreted. It wasn’t always a given.

In terms of user experience, this can mean a couple of things. While we strive for invisibility in our designs, we also have to take account of the context of our user. A design isn’t invisible only because of the aesthetic efforts of the designer. We also have to consider the way in which our designs will be interpreted in any given context.

I would argue, in fact, that this is why we have design libraries like the Human Interface Guidelines and Material Design. Apple and Google, in both cases, are trying to establish a convention or code by which users can interpret a respective design. Each design library is a kind of cultural encyclopedia that taps into the subconscious of the user. “Oh yeah,” the user thinks, “I’ve seen this before. I know what to do.”

A sign is a process or an interaction between the designer, the design, and the user, in which the designer utilizes a common code in order to communicate with a potential user. It is this process — this connection and interplay — that renders any design invisible.

This is an important addition to what Norman writes. To him, a sign is “anything that might signify meaningful information” (13). Designers, he suggests, are the ones responsible for providing the clues, the signifiers, of what is meaningful and what is not. If we take Eco seriously, however, then we have to extend Norman’s argument.

Designers are responsible for providing the clues of what is meaningful and what is not within an already given context, code, or design library. Designers should understand not only the desires of a user but also the context in which any user might utilize a design. And it is only when designers take account of a context that a signification becomes intuitive, effortless, and invisible.

So maybe I’m not crazy. Maybe my background in semiotics will be incredibly helpful in thinking through meaningful designs. And if not, then I can always be a garbage man, right?

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