MET:Semiotics and Design

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This page was originally authored by Peter Cameron (2008).

This page was edited by Tessa Wright (2009).


Traditional semiotics or semiology is an academic field which studies signs systems of signs, the most ubiquitous of which can be ascribed to communicative behavior through language. According to the semiotic framework, these systems are comprised of one or more of three sign types: indexical signs, iconic signs, symbolic signs, which individually and/or collectively comprise what is known as a conceptual domain (Dirven & Verspoor 1998]). A conceptual domain can be defined as “any coherent organization of human experience” (although systems of signs are not restricted to specifically human experience), wherein each member of a domain shares at least some salience with the other members of the domain. (Wikipedia)

Simple Taxonomy of Conceptual Domains (Dirven & Verspoor, 1998, p. 38)

Furthermore, conceptual domains can contain salient features which are common to other domains that allow them to be organized as members (sub-domains) of a larger domain. For example, the conceptual domain of “Tree” is comprised of members that share attributes such as: has branches and roots, produces Carbon Dioxide, requires water, etc. This “Tree” domain shares salient features with other distinctive domains such as “Flower” which can be organized into a larger domain of “Plant”.

Semiotic Design

The structure of what Gee refers to as semiotic domains can be described as modular and can have both internal purposes and functions specific to that domain, as well as external significance as a member of a larger semantic network of domains and subdomains. Taken in a social context, Gee makes the distinction between the content of the domain and those people who “engage in social practices” that are particular to a domain thereby acting as members of the domain’s affinity group. (Gee 2003)

Social Implications of Semiotic Design

As a theoretical precursor or “primer” to design, understanding semiotic domains can be invaluable to designing learning environments as this understanding allows designers to explore the relationships between signs as well as gain insight into “what they stand for, and the people who must interpret them — the people we design for.” (Hodge, 2003) In particular, attaining a thorough understanding of semiotic domains including design space, enables a designer to have conscious control over fundamental design elements such as grammars and orders of discourse of a particular domain. This allows for the possibility of creating the best possible learning environment by adequately considering various social functions that are integral to a design, such as ideational and interpersonal functions (New London Group, 1996).

Forms of Object Representation

According to Charles Peirce's sign theory, there are three components to every sign. Peirce's triangle indicates that all three components – the representamen, the object, and the interpretant – are necessary for communication.

Peirce's Semiotic Triangle (Nadin, n.d.)

Representation and interpretation of an object can take different forms depending on the processes between the three components.

These forms identify the ways that signs communicate meaning. The three forms by which an object can be represented are iconically, indexically, and symbolically. Because design has to do with representation and interpretation, this schematic is an important concept for designers.

File:Image006.jpg Three forms of object representation

Ironically: representation based on likeness

Indexically: representation causally influenced by the object, such as a mark of the object

Symbolically: representation based on convention (Nadin, n.d.)


Dirven, R., & Verspoor, M. (1998). Cognitive Exploration of Language and Linguistics. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Gee, James P. (2003). What Video Games have to Teach us about Learning and Literacy. In C.M. Reigeluth (Ed.), Instructional-design theories and models: Volume II (pp 13 - 49). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Hodge, Challis (2003, August 11). Semiotics: A Primer for Designers. Boxes and Arrows, January 2008. Retrieved January 23, 2008 from

Nadin, Mihai (n.d.) Design: Interface design: a semiotic paradigm. Retrieved January 22, 2009 from

New London Group. (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review, 66(1), 60-92.

See Also

Semiotic Design as Digital Media