Here is one of the links taken off Soumitri’s Reader that he sent to us all.

This is a good little introduction into what semiotic means, the study of signs and symbols of all kinds, what they mean, and how they relate to the things or ideas they refer to.

This is a few of the more interesting bits in this pdf called Semiotics in product design by Sara Ilstedt Hjelm. It’s well worth a read, the quotes I have chosen to post up stand out the most to me and my meaning and sense of things.

To apply semiotics on product design has provided me with a set of invaluable tools for analysing issues like identity, metaphors and visibility in artefacts.

One approach in product semiotics deals mainly with the correct way to design artefacts so that they are easy to use and to understand. This is both a result of modernist design theory (a product should communicate the correct way to handle it and its function) and a reaction against ’black box design’ of high modernism in the sixties and seventies.

Contemporary Semiotics have moved away from the classification of sign systems to study how meanings are made and are not only being concerned with communication but also with the construction and maintenance of reality.

The sign
Semiotics therefore studies not only ”signs” in everyday speech such as traffic signs, symbols or pictures but everything, which ”stands for” something else. This also includes our material culture such as buildings, furniture and products. The most common object for semiotic analyses is a ”text”. A sign must have both a signifier and a signified; you cannot have a meaningless signifier/form or a meaningless signified/concept.

Denotation refers to the literal, actual meaning of a sign – what the product is, i.e. a chair, a telephone, a book etc. To Denotation I also add the obvious function of an object: How to handle it. You sit on the chair, you use the telephone for making phone calls etc. Connotation is how you do it, the choice of words or media. Myths can be seen as extended metaphors. Like metaphors, myths help us to make sense of our experience within a culture. Their function is to make dominant historical and cultural values; attitudes and beliefs seem entirely “natural”, “normal”, obvious and commonsense – and thus objective and true reflections of “the way things are”.

Signs and codes are always anchored in the material form of a medium. It might refer to such different categories as typewriting, print, film, radio, handwriting or different types of mass-communication.

To denaturalise the obvious is one of the great challenges of semiotic analyses. It is only then we can see what is in charge of the meaning making and whose power it is supporting.

“No sooner is a form seen than it must resemble something: humanity seems domed to analogy.” A study showed that English speakers produced an average of 3 000 novel metaphors per week. In semiotic term, a metaphor is something that explains the unknown in wellknown terms.

How may we recognise something new? The answer is that we cannot. There must be something familiar in the new. The solution is to make an analogy to something well known. We can use a metaphor that helps to create understanding of the function; it facilitates a re-cognition of the product. Therefore design exists in the interplay between tradition and transcendence.

Products that belong to the same paradigm perform the same function in a given context. If we need to sit down we can use a sofa, a chair, a stool or a bench. If we are thirsty we can drink water, coke, tee, beer etc. Which product we choose is shaped by socially defined, shared classification systems, some of them being personal taste.

“Much higher than function, material and technology is the FORM. If the FORM didn’t exist we should still be living in a barbarian world” The inclination to use the word ‘form’ to indicate content or concept has caused some confusion in the design community. With form today we mean the material aspect of a thing, but for Plato it was the immaterial.

The actual material in itself has references and gives the content a different meaning. That is why exactly the same mug in plastic means a different thing than one in ceramics.

Art, which had until then concerned itself with style and beauty, developed into an area almost exclusively engaged itself with critical reflection, and shifted away from the “surface” toward the authentic. Some artists were assigned to industry by the various design organisations where they became involved in practical aesthetics. During the twentieth century, the division was further reinforced. Art dedicated itself more and more to an internalised formalistic investigation that was distinct from the practical, functional work of industrial designer.

Design is important in constructing identity whether it’s on a personal or national level. In the adolescent search for identity, clothes are used to give new meaning/identity to the wearer.

Function follows form
A chair in a smoking room looked very different from a chair in the ladies’ lounge not because men and women sat differently but because the chairs’ primary function was to state the differences between masculinity and femininity.


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