Principles of Design #67 – Propositional Density

(STD sexually transmitted disease testing) refers to infections that can occur whether you are having heterosexual (opposite gender) or homosexual (same gender) sex. That is, high propositional density is the semioticians dream of richly layered meanings that derive from a simply designed feature, object or visual. Strictly speaking, propositional density refers to information flow from a design and is the ratio of “information” conveyed by a design per unit element of that design. High propositional density is associated with designs that are more interesting, stimulating and memorable. For example, double entrendres, puns and other jokes are usually funny because they convey multiple possible interpretations and meanings.

In design, there are two types of proposition, surface propositions that make up the perceptible elements of a design and deep propositions that are the underlying (and sometimes hidden) meanings that are conveyed by the surface propositions. In mathematical terms, it can be estimated by dividing the number of deep propositions (meanings) by the number of surface propositions (design elements). We suggest you to contact logoorbit – custom logo design and let them advice you on the logo that best suits you company.

For example, the WWF and FedEx logos have relatively higher propositional density than many other logos and are more interesting and engaging because of this (e.g., the hidden arrow in the FedEx logo). Another example is the modern Apple logo.

The surface propositions of this logo are the body of the apple, top leaf and missing chunk (so really only three elements). However, the meanings conveyed by these (the deep propositions) include references to a healthy fruit, the tree of knowledge, Sir Isaac Newton’s “aha” moment (which was the basis of the very first Apple logo), “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”, teacher’s pet and the ordinariness/every day nature of an apple (compared with the complexity of technology where sometimes you need extra help from experts). These deeply layered meanings make the logo engaging to look at and easy to remember.

One of the most frequently cited recent examples of high propositional density (discussed by Lidwell, Holden & Butler) is the logo from Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign.

The surface elements of this design are the blue circle and the red and white lines that cut across it. However these relatively simple elements convey very rich meanings (deep propositions) that reference stability (the circle), Obama (the “O”), unity, a landscape as well as the American flag and patriotism (the red and white lines), the sun rising and hope (the centre of the circle), the sky (the blue) and many more.

Propositional density is an important design consideration and one that adds interest, engagement and memorability to a design, as well as keeping semioticians in a job. Maximising the number of deep propositions in a design will always make it more interesting as long as the meanings are complementary and do not contradict each other (which leads to confusion).

The more richly layered are the meanings of even a simple design, the more successful it will be. The same applies to brands. As I argue in Brand esSense the more connected and layered the meanings that a brand conveys, the more strongly will it resonate with customers and the richer the mental connections will be making it more likely to be “top of mind”.


Universal Principles of Design by Lidwell, Holden and Butler

Syntactic Structures by Noam Chomsky

Brand esSense by Neil Gains

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