Semiotics is the general study of signs or of whatever conveys meaning. This field of study attempts to articulate a comprehensive theory of signs.  The primary contributors to this body of knowledge include Ferdinand de Saussure, Charles Sanders Peirce, Roman Jakobson, Susanne Langer and more recently Umberto Eco and Jacques Derrida.

Saussure founded semiology by offering it as "'a science that studies the life of signs within society'. A society is made up of a multiplicity of language-like 'codes', in all media (speech, literature, architecture, clothes, vehicles, cooking, and so on), which establish objects such as texts, buildings, cars and so forth as 'signs' having cultural meaning over and above their constructions and functions." [1] "First and foremost, an understanding of how signs are formed, transmitted and interpreted can help the designer to systematically analyze a communication problem and provide the basis for the development of a coherent solution." [2]

The most important contribution from semiotics for the Web designer, is the idea of sign, signifier and signified offered by Saussure. A sign has two parts the signifier and the signified, Saussure purposely chose words that were similar for his explaination, however this leads to a confusion of meaning. Subsequent to his work being published in 1916 other academics in the field have refined the definitions and chosen different terms. Peirce offered the term "representament" instead of "sign" because sign is too closely tied to many other conceptual meanings. Nonetheless, the general framework still stands.

Various terms can been used to express the concepts involved.  In this instance Saussure's original terminology has been modified by Eco.[3] In this example, the perception of an icon with a printer on it forms the signifier and the function of 'printer friendly version' is the signified. The third element is the act of signification, which is context dependent: an experienced Web surfer may immediately understand that a printer friendly version makes a page easier to print, while an inexperience visitor may have not idea at all.  Semiotics argue among themselves the validity of the semiotic triangle.

For a more complete discussion of semiotics see: Semiotics for Beginners

References on this pageSources:
  1. Bothamley, Jennifer. Dictionary of Theories, pg. 481
  2. Mullet, Kevin & Darrell Sano. Designing Visual Interfaces,  pg. 175
  3. Eco, U. A theory of semiotics, pg. 58-59

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