An Introduction to Digital Semiotics

How designers and engineers convey meaning is an extremely important consideration when crafting systems. Why do we utilize forward or backward buttons on our MP3 playing software? An MP3 file does not have direction, it is just a series of ones and zeros. Up or down arrows could have been used or entirely different icons could have been created. Software engineers continue to use 3.5" floppy disk images for “save” functionality though 3.5" disks have not been used in years. It is not that designers don’t know this but that the shared-interpretation of the disk icon means something to us.

Semiotics is the study of signs. Signs can be anything that conveys meaning. The semiotician Umberto Eco, author of Foucault’s Pendulum and A Theory of Semiotics, defines a sign as “anything by which knowing something we know something more.” So really semiotics is the study of how we derive meaning from things, either individually or collectively as a group. How we derive meaning is important in all disciplines including technology.

Digital semiotics is the study of signs within the context of the digital realm. Many who read this blog will know what a “meme” is (for example the disk symbol mentioned above), but may not know that memes are a part of semiotic study. A meme is the smallest unit of culture, or a shared-experience sign. There are other emic units within semiotics including the sememe which is the smallest unit of meaning. You can think of sememes and memes as the smallest possible building blocks that make up signs. According to the model developed by Charles Sanders Peirce signs are the result of two components: The signifier (that which you recognize), and the signified (that which you understand by either learned convention, resemblance, or have a casual connection). Signs must have both a signifier and a signified.

Often times meaning is generated through metaphor and metonymy. Metaphor is relating the signified of one sign to the signifier of another sign. Metonymy is a sign that represents the greater whole such as a police officer representing the law. Let’s take the example of the images below. If you glance at both images, your brain will likely initially see or encode them as two dogs, therefore placing them in the same category “dogs.” However, upon any greater consideration, your brain will realize they are, of course, not the same and in fact Flop is not a real dog at all, but rather a digital sign that signifies “dog” – as well as our beloved Belly mascot. The metaphor is Flop represents a dog and the metonymy is Flop represents the whole company of Belly.

What is happening here is that the Belly logo, unfamiliar to someone seeing it for the first time, is being expressed in a familiar way by looking like a dog. Are these two images the same thing? Of course not but we might say they possess as dog-like-quality that signifies meaning.

As a discipline, digital semiotics helps engineers building user-interfacing systems create models to convey meaning. Consideration of the user and your interface’s metaphors and metonymy is critical for a more seamless adoption. In future posts I will continue exploring the intersection of semiotics and software engineering with topics such as connotation, denotation, and deconstruction.

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