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4/12/2019 Why semiotics matters in product design - André Grilo - Medium

Why semiotics matters in product

André Grilo Follow
Jul 2, 2017 · 4 min read

Photographic adaptation of M. C. Escher’s Cube. (Source: unknown)

“Design should never say: ‘Look at me’. It should

always say: ‘Look at this’.” — David Craib

W hen we are designing a product, both physical or digital artifact, we need to

face several requirements. Curiously, most of them are not visual aspects, in
contradiction to aesthetical and visual function that most people expect from design
activity. 1/6
4/12/2019 Why semiotics matters in product design - André Grilo - Medium

In fact, intangible aspects in product design may sounds unfamiliar. However, this point
of view is not recent in post-industrial design: it’s basilar to conceive new products and
services considerating how the people interacts with the objects and the signs that
represent the real-world objects, once contemporary artifacts are more about
information than their shape and materiality only. It more about the meaning and
emotion involved in the experience with product [1][2].

Fig. 1: Salt and pepper shakers designed to represent social symbols.

Symbols, icons and other representation typologies are largely discussed in Semiotics,
studying the relation between the things and the interpretation people have about them
[3]. In Semiotics, a same object may have several meanings by di erent individuals, for
each mental model produces its own representation dynamics. Therefore, people
comprehend products in di erent ways. The Semiotics supports designers to visualize
each level in which an object is read by the user and the in uence of its meanings in the
user experience and in the product value, consequently.

Semiotic model of product design concept
The product design may be inquired by three semiotic levels [4]:

Pragmatic Level: Why the product exists?

Semantic Level: What people think about the product?

Syntactic Level: How it was made? 2/6
4/12/2019 Why semiotics matters in product design - André Grilo - Medium

In this theoretical proposal (Fig. 2), the pragmatic level corresponds to the product
strategy. The semantic level contains the meanings of the user and stakeholders
perception. Finally, syntactic level explains how the product is structured, its
components, technologies adopted, functional interactions etc. So, this last level
corresponds to the form (syntax) of product, revealing that product design, before
aesthetics and tangible elements, is de ned mainly by the perspectives of business
strategies and user’s needs. This dialogue results in the artifact visuality and grows up its
quality of use. Also, the three semiotics levels work as design layers that interact each
other, in iterations. Here, we consider their combination as the product concept, in this
concept is balanced by iteration cycles between the layers.

Fig. 2: Semiotic Design Layers. (Source: Author)

These iterations may work in user centered design (UCD) approach, in which strategic
decisions and prototypes are re ned and evaluated by user perception (Fig. 3). 3/6
4/12/2019 Why semiotics matters in product design - André Grilo - Medium

Fig. 3: UCD dynamics between the semiotic design layers. (Source: Author)

For example, in the perception layer, a car represents an important consumer good and
social need for some people while it’s the cause of urban mobility problems for others.
So, the perception layer is a path to project di erent strategies for a transport product
solution, also its con gurations according each user/stakeholder perspectives. Maybe for
the rst group of users, an individual vehicle is good, while collective transports, bicycles
or alternative mobility services be better for second group. Looking at this interaction
between layers allows to design better experiences and value proposition aligned to each
user pro le.

Fig. 4: LRT in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Source: o cial government website)

Similarly, some consumers prefer to dine in their homes, while others seek alternatives
in the city. For both cases, there are di erent solutions and strategies to con gure, for 4/6
4/12/2019 Why semiotics matters in product design - André Grilo - Medium

example, a deliver service, culinary content service, or a food establishment.

It’s important to consider the interdependence of semiotic design layers. In an existing

product, for example, the ow of iterations between layers can start in the con guration
layer, beginning the redesign process through problems observed in the user experience
with the product and identifying the problems in its interface and structure and what
strategies the designer and development team need to re ne. Thus, the semiotic design
layers work as di erent points of view that compounds the meaning of product and its
concept, bringing new insights to design process.

In this article, I shared some learnings and theoretical assumptions on semiotics in
design. I hope these proposals help design processes and contribute in user experience

. . .

André Grilo, M.Sc.
Head of Design, Informatics Superintendency
Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte, Brazil.

1. Norman, D. (2004). Emotional Design. New York: Basic Books.

2. Buxton, B. (2007). Sketching User Experience. San Francisco: Morgan Kaufmann /


3. Chandler, D. (2007). Semiotics: The Basis. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.

4. Morris, C. (1938). Foundations of the Theory of Signs. University of Chicago Press.

Design Semiotics User Experience Methodology Education 5/6
4/12/2019 Why semiotics matters in product design - André Grilo - Medium

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