You Design What Now?
You Design What Now?

Semiotics in Architecture

“So what does all this tell us? Well, first of all the pragmatics of meaning can have, and have had, effects on how buildings were designed. Any attempt to design buildings consciously for the effects they now have on their users in this sense was a pragmatic affair … Secondly, and obviously, there is, and has been, a considerable traffic in architectural syntactics. Any attempt to generate architecture according to some geometric system obviously is syntactic in this sense. And thirdly, all buildings ‘carry’ meaning in the semantic sense. Now that we accept this as inevitable, we might as well make sure that they do it properly.”

Geoffrey Broadbent, in “A Plain Man’s Guide to the Theory of Signs in Architecture” in Theorizing a New Agenda For Architecture, ed. Kate Nesbitt

I’ve encountered theories about the relationship between semiotics and visual design before, so it’s not too surprising that similar thoughts are described in this architectural article from 1977. In the context of postmodern architecture, the article gives a critique of the modernists attempt to create buildings free of meaning, suggesting that architecture carries meaning by necessity.

In the same way it been leveraged in architecture and visual design, we can see what insights semiotic theory can surface for interaction design. In particular, we can examine how the three levels of semiotics identified by Broadbent (pragmatics, syntax, and semantics) adapt themselves in the context of interaction design.

Broadbent’s treatment of architectural pragmatics is not disimilar to how they would apply to interaction design. The concept clearly resonates with ideas of user-centered design and design research. These are ways to understand how a design effects those who use it, not just as a visual sign system, but through all the senses (a point made by Broadbent when discussing the user’s experience of architecture).

The article uses the idea of syntax to discuss the possibilities of generative forms in architecture based on a set of syntactical rules. I think his discussion is possible because architecture has the common ground of physical space to build a syntax on. Due to the more abstract nature of interaction design, it’s more difficult to define syntactical systems without getting more specific about the particular objects being built (if there are any). Perhaps a syntax could be fashioned from the common foundation of human behavior, thought, or emotion.

The semantic level is one that gets a lot of attention in interaction design. We speak often of the “language” of interactions. For example, we might discuss whether a new gestural language of a touch interface is “intuitive” or not. Broadbent explains how the issue is not about intuition, but instead concerns the various social contracts that a community builds around certain signs. He also highlights the fact that, unlike language, architecture has no social contracts around the meanings of its forms. I feel that interaction design carries the same distinction. This is perhaps a limitation on how far we can apply semiotic theory to design fields.


Architecture & Design


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