Pic showing sign saying warning this is a sign

Semiotics: It’s a sign!

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A structural engineer once told me that he would always win pictionary if he was teamed with another engineer. Structural engineers have a symbolic language of their own and use it, normally in the workplace, to communicate more accurately. To the onlooker it is all triangles, little circles and arrows. But to the trained eye they represent bridge spans with fixed supports under uniform loads. Similarly, electrical engineers use seemingly incomprehensible symbols to describe apparatus layout.

In contrast, the symbols software engineers use, from data flow diagrams to UML stickmen, have been, in part, absorbed by anyone who uses computers, not just the experts. We are very good at creating and interpreting patterns in order to communicate the essence of a solution or something meaningful to us. Even if we are not trained in a field, we learn to absorb symbol meanings quite easily.

Symbols have been around since time began. It is only when they are lost and refound, does it become difficult to understand what they mean. Egyptian hieroglyphs were eventually decoded by Jean-Francois Champollion in 1822 by studying the Rosetta stone. Other symbols such as cave paintings from up to 32,000 years ago remain undeciphered. We do not know if the paintings were intended to communicate information or were part of some religious ceremony.

Some symbols remain common throughout time and people. For example, water is a sign of purity and cleanliness. Other symbols have been adopted and their original meaning is not as widely known as their adopted one. One example of this is the Swastika. It is more commonly associated with the Third Reich than with Hinduism. Symbols are borrowed from religions for many reasons, today it is more likely to be for body art and tattoos. In the past, symbolism was more common in hagiography and in paintings.

Moral Emblems

Cesare Ripa, a 16th century philosopher, compiled his Iconologia or moral emblems which contained 326 symbols and images that he had collected from various sources: Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, so that there was a guide to representing abstract concepts such as fruitfulness, virtue, and charity. It was very popular amongst artists and it is believed to have been used by Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer in his self-portrait The Art of Painting, in which the muse of history is depicted wearing a laurel wreath, carrying a horn and a book. By interpreting the painting according to Ripa’s icons, experts believe that Vermeer was saying he would be recognised in years to come as a great painter.

Signs, can be a shorthand way to communication and it is no coincidence that Charles Sanders Pierce, who defined a model for describing signs was interested in both logic and reasoning as well as semiotics (the study of signs and symbols). As we look towards new technologies which move away from the PC and desktop metaphor, we need more intuitive ways of describing shorthand interactions between humans and machines.

Tapping into the psyche

The main difficulty is that symbols are used differently in cultures and nationalities. Interaction designers often sidestep this problem by dividing design into internationalisation and localisation in order to satisfy users. A different solution may lie in the use of archetypes. Archetypes often transcend culture and are apparently hard-wired in our psyches. Could they be the key to a symbolic system of communication?


  1. RE: Swastika in Hinduism – it reminds me of the stares I got in Europe after returning from 4 weeks in South India, and one of the (ubiquitous, in India) plastic bags I was carrying with my luggage had the Hindu version of this symbol. Read more here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swastika#Bona-fide_use_causing_controversy

    In my early days as a programmer at Apple, all GUI designs had to be approved by the in-house GUI guru, who purportedly had a degree in psychology. We software engineers (aka code monkeys) found that a bit hoitey toitey at the time. Later, I realized that the problems with GUIs and such were indeed the domain of psychologists/sociologists/semioticians. It is not an obvious problem to solve, and since most software involves interacting with a human, the problem is unavoidable.

    A friend of mine has a Mac, but I haven’t used them in years (since 2000). I was helping her with a DNS configuration problem, and I realized that Apple are still as dogmatic about GUI design as they were in the 80s and 90s. For example, when you click on the URL field in the Firefox browser on the Mac, it positions the cursor within the URL, without selecting anything. This is consistent behavior with the GUI as defined so long ago: a single click positions the cursor, a double-click selects the word under the cursor, and a triple-click selects the line. This was sacred behavior in the 80s and I see it is still supported by Apple, even with its current Unix-based OS.

    Try a single-click on the URL field of a Windows version of a browser and what happens? You get the whole URL selected, so you can easily change the whole thing, which is probably what most people do when they click. This is convenient, but much less consistent. I’m not sure such minor things really matter, since most users are able to adapt to these tiny inconsistencies in the GUI.

    I wonder if Mac users are generally better at Pictionary than Windows users… 😛

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