The Semiotics of Design

“A few years ago it was simpler. Designers just designed things: objects like lamps, chairs, computer mice, cars, buildings, signage, page and screen layouts. Of course, we knew that the things we designed affected people’s experience. But still, it was enough to design the thing.”  – Fulton Suri

Design and everyday life

Great design is able to serve our needs and, more importantly, give meaning to our lives. It adds value to products by manipulating both subconscious emotional cues and also tactile and material factors to create an emotional bond. Our bodies and most especially our hands, have amazing capabilities already built into them to enable us to interact with and manipulate the world to achieve our goals, and good design ‘amplifies’ those capabilities, empowering us to do more with the abilities we already have.

Thus, great design has moved from a focus on product itself (product-centred), through a focus on the needs of the user (user-centric) to an understanding and embracing of our current habits and practices (practice-oriented). As Steve Jobs said , “People think it’s this veneer — that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.

How can design amplify our capabilities, in particular by using subconscious cues which help us to understand and create meaning?

Getting into hot water


9093 Kettle
Il Conico Kettle

What more can a designer add to a simple kettle? Alberto Alessi’s best selling design is the 9093 kettle, which gives a value of more than $100 to an item found in every home as well as new meaning. It is designed within a set of constraints which reflect common codes about the function and appearance of the object (for example, the final item had to whistle).

The kettle has a distinctive personality , a simple geometry and clear functional symbols including the dots at the bottom of the kettle which are red as it is placed on the stove to signify heat. The handle is distinctive and its grooves indicate where the users hand can be placed. In addition, the blue colours in the design indicate places which are cool to touch, and the bird on the spout whistles as intended.

All these elements (handle, rivets, bird) make the kettle distinctive, and although the colour coded elements are there for a functional reason (to indicate hot and cooler areas), they are also playful, approachable and show a high sophistication appealing to many consumers, and transforming a mass market object to a desirable (and premium) item. These elements are true to their symbolism, with the blue handle remaining cool in use and easy to grip with the hand, as long as you don’t go beyond the small red balls which indicate the hot exposed metal which the grip protects the user from. Although the bird is not very ‘birdlike’ when it whistles, it is distinctive, although its function is not as good as the rest of the design (it needs to be removed in order to pour hot water).

This is a whimsical and playful design, giving the task of boiling water new meaning.

By contrast, the Il Conico kettle (also by Alessi) is a more geometrically inspired design, giving depth and interest to the basic form of a kettle, with a more architectural and sculpted feel, with the lid completing the form of the body and sitting on top of the base of the kettle. The small orb at the top of the kettle gives the impression of a hat and is really the only ‘grippable’ part of the design, but is not functional as it is dangerously hot during use (with no warning signs like the 9093 design).

The spout of this design is aesthetically pleasing although relatively small compared with the rest of the design (looking like the beak of a bird perhaps?) and giving it a more anthropomorphic feel (see below). The large bottom maximises the surface area for heating water, and the overall shape provides ample volume for water, but the shape also makes it difficult to dispense water which requires a very steep angle to effect (and sometimes leading to unwanted rushes of hot water when the angle is reached). The angled handle creates additional geometric shapes, but its metal material means that it is again dysfunctional (and arguably dangerous) making the item something to look at rather than use.

This design may be more simple, geometrically shaped and minimalist in its design, but the designer has forgotten that the purpose of a kettle is to boil water, and the aesthetic value of the item far outweighs its functional value, unlike the 9093 design. Although for some it may win on appearance it will always lose for its usability.

Watching time

Ball Clock (by Irving Harper and George Nelson Associates)
City Hall Clock (by Arne Jacobsen)

There is no better example of how technology and design can shape culture than the invention of the clock (in 1286). From this moment, we lived in a world where the primary reference point was no longer the daily course of the sun and the yearly change of the seasons, but a precise (although arguably artificial) measure of the passing of time. In the modern world, we plan our day, week and whole life around such signifiers of time. [The majority of people I know still wear a watch even when they have many other devices which keep the time, although watches can of course signify many other things too.] Before 1286, it was not possible to say to someone, “meet you at 8.30 on 5th”, and it would have been more likely to be, “meet you at sunrise.” Everything in our modern lives is planned around clock time.

Designs for clocks have changed little over many years, although the Ball Clock stands out as unique and different. The inspiration came amid a flurry of random drawings and ideas among a group of people (with drink involved according to the designer). The form of the clock is very straightforward, with six lines intersecting at a midpoint and terminated by spheres. The hands have odd shapes and with the mix of colours, give the clock a cartoonish (or childish) quality which is also abstract and playful. Unfortunately, the lines also add a large amount of visual noise (and cognitive load which you can read about here). Indeed, the design of the hands confuse as much as they inform and are unhelpful in accurate reading of the time. The design is based on the premise that people tell time by looking at clock hands versus numbers (ie analogue time), which has been shown to be true for the hour, half-hour and quarter-hour positions but not for intermediate times. This makes the clock less readable than other designs.

The City Hall Clock is a classic design, originally made for the Rodovre City Hall in Copenhagen (along with many other items). It manages to simplify the representation of time to its most basic form without compromising readability, and has become an icon for functionalism. The use of lines and circles to mark time is more usable than than traditional numeric markers and more universal across different languages and cultures. For this reason, the clock still looks modern anywhere in the world that measures time in units of 12/60, stripping the essence of time measurement to its core symbols and meanings. As Leonardo da Vinci said, “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

The design has not dated at all, and is still a standard for offices (retaining the feel of its original office context), with a simple and geometric face, with its black hands making the accurate location of the time much easier than the Ball Clock design. The design manages to be both minimalist and highly functional.

Designs for little and big people

Hug Salt and Pepper Shakers (by Alberto Mantilla)
Cabbage Patch Kids
Dish Soap Bottle (by Method)

The US holiday shopping season in 1983 is (in)famous as the ‘Christmas of the Cabbage Patch Doll’, with hordes of parents fighting over a limited supply of the dolls and prepared to pay anything to get one for their daughters (and in many cases themselves). The dolls clearly had great meaning to those who were so desperate to buy them, coming with their own ‘official’ adoption papers and birth certificates and each one with its own name (taken at random from the 1938 state of Georgia birth records). This naming gave each individual doll its own personality, supported by the computerised manufacturing process which meant that no two dolls were exactly alike, becoming signs for individual people (at least in the imaginations of the children and their mothers). The Cabbage Patch dolls are a classic example of anthropomorphism or the symbolism that comes with human forms and signs (read more here about the attribution of human qualities to inanimate objects), and is related to the more ancient practice of animism which is still prevalent in some parts of the world.

The makers of Cabbage Patch Kids described them as pieces of contemporary art or sculpture, helping them to stand out at a time when the trend was very much towards more mechanical designs including limited motion, prerecorded voices and artificial behaviours (eg ‘pooping’). Thus these dolls represented a return to simplicity with their large round heads (highly anthropomorphic – think of the Teletubbies) and soft fabric bodies, including large eyes, chubby cheeks, round faces and short pudgy limbs, oversized hair mops and highly obese facial features. They are not intended to be realistic, but rather to be symbolic.

Each doll is one-of-a-kind in name and appearance with variations of hairstyle, hair colour, eye colour, skin colour and clothing, endorsed by an individual birth certificate signed by the ‘father’ and also adoption papers giving responsibility for love and care of the doll to the new owner. The dolls were never called dolls and were always ‘kids’, never bought but always ‘adopted’, and were opened and removed from their boxes to a faint whiff of baby powder to make the meaning as real as possible. Of course, like any kid, the Cabbage Patch kid required new doll clothes (which the manufacturer readily provided at a cost), and although many adults tried to rationalise their purchase as an ‘investment’ in something collectible, the reality is that the investment was primarily an emotional and nurturing connection, intensified when it is shared between a mother and her daughter (which it often is), creating a very powerful story and ritual around this ‘toy’.

The anthropomorphic principle is also evident in the Hug Salt and Pepper Shakers, a very ‘cute’ and simple design concept for a basic household object, with multiple layers of meaning embedded in the design, triggering an empathic response to smile and hug someone! The black and white colours have different levels of meaning, including the white of salt and black of pepper, and the deeper connotation of how superficial differences can be overcome by gestures and acts of kindness (such as hugs). The forms are highly anthropomorphic, sometimes described as two ghosts in an embrace, with eyes and mouths as three holes for dispensing the contents. Users don’t want to keep them separate, but find the need to keep them together as a single unified piece, a reaction which would be impossible with more common forms. Everything about the shapes is rounded like baby faces (read about baby face bias here), appearing cute, naive, and helpless.

There is even a functional role for their ‘hug’ position in order to minimise the amount of required real estate on the table. In fact, the design compresses a huge number of messages into a very small form, including how it should be used (eg holes for shaking), an emotional connection (shape), colour codes with multiple meanings (racial harmony, salt and pepper codes, yin and yang), shapes and holes for human features, symmetry conveying equality, roundness for baby-like characteristics, hugging conveying harmony all leading to an overall story of balance, harmony and humanity and a remarkable piece of communication through design.

In a much more simple way, the Dish Soap Bottle is an everyday object which can be proudly displayed in your kitchen (instead of being hidden under the sink as with other more mundane designs). The simple design has minimal amounts of text, a bulbous (anthropomorphic) shape and brightly coloured body, fitting easily and comfortably into the users hand, easy to grip and squeeze (even with wet hands), creating a great tactile experience. This bottle has been nicknamed ‘the dish butler’ looking clean, modern and upright. A fun way to keep your dishes clean.

Calling all designers

RAZR V3 Phone (by Motorola)
iPhone (by Apple)

The RAZR revolutionised the thickness of cellphones, and became a fashion statement for many users, but failed to deliver the functionality promised by its sleek design. The thin profile is lost to a heavy bottom on opening and an excess of lines in the design creating a less aesthetic interior than promised by the outside form, described by one designer as ‘a triumph of industrial design and a failure of interaction design’, with a great external appearance and hardware but poor usability caused by clunky software, even though it reintroduced (and revolutionised) the ‘clamshell’ form in mobile phones.

Its keypad was flat and cut from a single piece of metal alloy (reminiscent of early computer designs), and gave clear ‘click’ feedback. The grouping of the keyboard characters was achieved through cutout lines giving a structural feel to the keyboard, although the lines are overdone and perhaps could have been reduced to greater effect. The keyboard was backlit to make the phone easy to use in the dark (and giving the appearance of a ‘Star Trek’ communication device. The greatest failing of the phone is the software, with very high failure rates for common tasks, and a key factor in poor feedback in customer satisfaction surveys. The RAZR is another aesthetic hit, which misses the keys to usability.

By contrast, for many (perhaps the majority) of users, Apple have set the bar for user experience in telephones, although offering relatively little that is new from other products already on the market. The real innovation of the iPhone is to deeply embed the real needs of customers within the technology, and its designer Jonathan Ives shares a very similar perspective to Steve Jobs quote earlier in saying, ‘The word design is everything and nothing. We think of design as not just the product’s appearance, it’s what the product is, how it works. The design and the product itself are inseparable.”

The phone is covered by a touch screen on one side, which is highly intuitive and responsive (usable by the old, very young and even the blind). The touch screen minimises the real estate required for content and allows individual adaptation and optimisation for accessing individual applications. The embedded meanings in the touch screen are powerful and truly engage the senses, with the initial sliding of a finger to unlock the phone an introductory gesture (teaching the user how to control the phone) and act like a handshake creating an emotional connection with the user.

The icon for home is modern and intuitive, easily affording a return to the start position of the phone, and apart from this button the front face is a seamless pane of glass. The size of the phone is ideal for holding (although less so for pockets, and the screen allows multiple clear and colourful application icons to be available at any time with the size of these within the high resolution screen ideal for all but the most clumsy of fingers. The scrolling, zooming and flicking of content is easy and intuitive making use of the phone easy (with a very low performance load). Although the design has many faults (battery life, no cut and paste in earlier models), it truly allows users to achieve their goals easily, quickly, enjoyably and seamlessly with consistent and elegant user interaction.

Ten green bottles

Absolut Vodka Bottle
Coca-Cola “Contour” Bottle
POM Wonderful Bottle

I often buy wine based on the visual design of the label (with no knowledge of the contents), and to many the visual appearance of the Absolut Vodka bottle is ugly, but somehow it has also become iconic and instantly recognisable (even when not present as in some of the 1,000s of adverts which it has or has not appeared in). The design was derided by early critics as a ‘plasma bottle’, but is a great example of a subdued design which whispers rather than screams. In part, its iconic status is down to the consistency of its execution in more than 1,500 adverts over 25 years, making it as recognisable as it is today. It was inspired by an antique Swedish medicine bottle, a reference to the contents ‘medical’ use perhaps and a sign of purity too (one of the vodka’s main differentiators when launched). For more information about medice stimulant that belongs to a chemical class known as cathinone, visit The transparency of the bottle was initially controversial, and the bottle was able to stand out on the shelf and cut through the clutter, but the design has been ‘tweeked’ over the years including the elongation of the neck to add height and improve gripping and pouring performance. The silver cap is well integrated with the bottle design and a small glass rim at the foot of the neck reinforces the joint and adds a small element of ornament along with the domed bottom which increases the base strength too (as well as adding the feel of a hand blown item). The seal was originally intended as a joke, but adds a touch of authenticity and history which creates and interplay with the otherwise modern aesthetic (the seal has the likeness of Lars Olsson, a Swedish inventor of distillation methods in the late nineteenth century). The name is boldly set in blue and a modern font of Futura (the colour blue reinforces the code of purity). The (mis-spelt) name is cleverly exploited in advertising (eg Absolut Singapore), and the emphasis and positioning of the “Country of Sweden”emphasises that the product was not from the Soviet Union (Sweden was not known for vodka when Absolut was launched, primarily targeted at the US market when the Cold War was still with us).

Coca-Cola’s “Contour” bottle also evokes authenticity, with its flute giving a rugged (and reusable) feel and originally made from Georgia Green Glass (the home of Coca-Cola) and launched to counter competition from imitators in the earl 1900s, with a design brief that read, ‘We need a new bottle – a distinctive package that will help us fight substitution … we need a bottle which a person will recognise as a Coca-Cola bottle even if he feels it in the dark. The bottle should be shaped that, even if broken, a person could tell what it was’. The designers sought inspiration in the ingredients of the drink, but mistook a cocoa pod for the coca leaf and kola nut! The final design was curvaceous (and inspired by contemporary female fashion) and given a patent in 1915. The form is very feminine, although the dimensions have changed (particularly in the early years) and at human scale would approximate a 37-24-35 figure (hence the ‘Mae West’ name that it has been given). Compared to its competitors, both then and now, the curvy shape, soft fluting and embossing give the bottle a distinctive feel. The embossed name breaks the vertical fluting and helps make the brand name stand out in the middle of the bottle, and the narrow waist and solid weight affords easy gripping, creating a tactile experience and keeping Coca-Cola ‘in hand’ (or ‘always within an arm’s reach of desire’ as one early company boss put it).

The POM Wonderful bottle is a more recent example of distinctive packaging design, single handedly creating a new market for pomegranate juice, with a premium image which features the distinctive shape of the pack prominently in advertising (in a similar vein to Absolut). The bottle shape was unique at the time of launch, representing the pomegranates which are the source of the product, albeit in an ironic and abstract form. The roundness of the bottle creates a friendly feeling (see above) with proportions which are both like snowmen and feminine in character, and also symmetric and easy to handle with a secure grip both at the neck and the waist.

The name and bottle shape evoke the life giving nature of the pomegranate fruit (and filled with blood-red juice full of vitality) reinforced by the heart embedded in the middle of the name. Even the red cap is shaped to look like the distinctive crown of a pomegranate fruit (as well as a more regal crown). The POM name provides a simple, easy to remember shorthand for the name of the pomegranate fruit, and the Wonderful name reflects the variety of the fruit used as well as evoking something to be celebrated and savoured. The heart strongly supports the drink’s main health claim of healthy heart as well as giving the product a ‘love’ interest, explicitly supported by the purity of the product which is stated as 100% (a key differentiator) which is the only other text on the front of the package. All in all, this package design conveys multiple (implicit and explicit) meanings which reinforce the rational and emotional reasons for buying the brand.

Lighting up your life

Maglite Flashlight

Finally, let’s consider a unique functional design which has created a highly successful brand in a category which previously consisted of many similar (and relatively nameless) products. For many people, in many places, the Maglite is a constant companion, with its bright and focusable light, efficient power use, solid construction and potential alternative use as a self-defense weapon.

As in many of the cases above, the Maglite’s success comes from a deep understanding and addressing of design issues which reflect both product, user and practice (which users cannot articulate). It was originally designed for the public sector, and its reputation for reliability and ruggedness made it a great success with consumers too. Its original inspiration was the poor quality of flashlights carried by the police in the 1970s, which were typically flimsy, made of plastic and broke as soon as they were dropped. Instead of building one from metal, the designer, Anthony Maglica, gave it a pushbutton switch to replace the more typical slide switch and an adjustable beam so the light could be used to spotlight something or flood an area with light. There are many stories about Maglites which have survived being underwater, runover, washed in the laundry and countless other catastrophes and continued to work.

The design itself is long, cold and heavy, built from machined aluminium combined with ample batteries, sealed with O-rings and treated to be water resistant. The black colour reinforces the ‘seriousness’ of the product (as well as its premiumness) and to some it looks and feels more like a weapon. The gripping surface is machined into the aluminium under the rubber exterior and wrap the full circumference of the torch, with a textured surface which tells the user where to hold even in the dark, and a grip which does not wear or deteriorate even in adverse conditions. The tail cap contains a spare light bulb and affords access to the batteries (which last a very long time). As well as providing redundancy, the extra bulb communicates the seriousness of the product to users, who know that it will always work when they need it (and is therefore worth paying a premium for).

The power switch is made from black rubber and is placed within a thumb shaped well in the metal, blending with the body but distinct enough to be easy to find and inviting the user to press down with a soft and warm feeling relative to the surrounding casing. The switch is water resistant and durable, and also automatically cleans the internal electrical contacts whenever it is used, supporting three positions: on, off and ‘signal’ (intermittent flashes). With a tulip-like head just larger than the body, the light beam is adjustable between ‘flo0d’ and ‘spot’ through a simple twist of the head (a unique innovation when first launched). As you would expect, the torch bulb provides strong and high quality light, making this the perfect companion at night.

In summary, the greatest designs reflect the practice of the user (‘design is how it works’ in the words of Steve Jobs), and not only superficial considerations of the product and the user. Great designers use deep understanding of the practice of product (or service) use, the context and meaning of that use, and the emotional value of each element of the product and the messages it communicates, to leverage and amplify our existing capabilities and help us do more with our lives. This makes anthropology and semiotics the key research tools to inspire successful innovation.

Design is much much more than aesthetics. Design is what a brand or service ‘is’, and can only be measured by the extent to which it  makes a user or customer ‘better’ at what they want to do.


The Design of Everyday Life (Cultures of Consumption) by Shove, Watson, Hand & Ingram (2007)

Of Cigarettes, High Heels, and Other Interesting Things by Marcel Danesi (1999)

Deconstructing Product Design by William Lidwell & Gerry Manacsa (2009)

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