Benefits of Semiotics in User Interface Design

jsalvador / Friday, September 13, 2013


Essentially, Semiotics is the study of signs or symbols and their meanings. It is a science that seeks to investigate how signs are formed and its core concept is to define the transfer of meaning to a sign. It is comprised of three main parts: Semantics which refers to the relationship between a sign and the meaning of what it represents, Syntactics which deals with the formal properties of language and systems of symbols and Pragmatics which deals with the causal relationships between words, symbols and their users. Visual Semiotics in particular, focuses on how meaning is formed through visual signs and what is perhaps the most important aspect that a user interface designer should understand is the relationship between what the users see and the meaning of what they are seeing as well as the context through which they see it.


User interface design trends come and go but an understanding of semiotics is timeless and can help us identify which aspect of our designs can be enhanced to reflect a look that is exclusively ours or our clients’. For instance, now that the world has grown tired with the so called skeumorphic design approach which utilizes visual metaphors to reflect the physical objects a digital version intends to replace, the flat minimalist look has caught on so much that it has become the de rigueur design theme to date. Nearly all modern websites or operating systems employ it and as good as it looks, how do we functionally and visually breathe life to a client’s product without making it look like the rest when everything else looks flat and reduced? Applying semiotic concepts such as understanding the intended purpose of a client’s product and the context through which it will be used are considerations that can help us decide whether we need to add a particular background texture, specific font or the use of icons to effectively convey the intended message and provide that extra oomph in our overall design.

Thinking from a semiotic standpoint can also help us produce iconography that effectively and clearly conveys the intended purpose. This is especially crucial for us interface designers because in today’s world where we are faced with the challenge to visually represent large amounts of information and fit them into limited amounts of space that is usually determined by the size of the target device we’re designing for. Interestingly, because the world is globally connected, an important consideration we need to make in terms of iconography is how to effectively represent the given information to the various cultures around the world.

Fig. 1 The examples below shows the three different aspects of icon design qualities that need to 
         be considered to ensure that the intended message is effectively conveyed when creating


Making Meaning

As design consultants, thinking out of the box is a challenge by itself and satisfying the requirements of our clients is another. As user interface designers, it is our aim to create functional and aesthetically-pleasing interfaces that evoke positive emotions from our clients and users. Regardless of the target medium or platform, a user friendly product that effectively conveys the intended brand message and purpose is what we should constantly strive for and as such, it is imperative that we constantly keep our minds, ears and eyes open to study the various design tools, theories and trends that can help us serve our clients and users better. We must keep in mind that the interface as well as the experience both define the product and to our clients and users, the product is the platform by which we are judged.

Fig. 2 Notice how visual elements such as the arrow and the dotted line help represent the intended message of each sign.