Susann Vihma



by Susann Vihma


There have been many attempts to broaden the concept of design. My aim is to analyze the meaning of design products in order to improve the outcome. The essay starts with a critique of the conception of Product Semantics as it has been presented recently. It is followed by an extension of design beyond the analysis of the product on the market. Design is conceived from an interpretative perspective and the interpreter's position is taken consciously into account. This is largely due to a semiotic approach. Finally, semantics of design is broadened towards aesthetics.


The scope of design

A design product can be conceived as the outcome of a design process. If design is to be perceived in broader terms the concept of design must be expanded in two directions. First, we can look at the predecessors of the "end product" on the market (i.e. at sketches and models). Second, we can think of the product on the market, in use, and then as used material. (1) The product becomes, then, a phase in the process. It is put into a set of actions and decisions within that process. Accordingly, the scope of design is not restricted only to the planning of a product displayed in a shop and purchased for use. Instead it extends back to the very beginning of the planning process and can be conceived as an idea put in concrete form as a sketch (as something vaguely outlined on paper, as something receiving shape). These actions can take place in a design studio and at a conference table, and many persons can participate in the formation process. Broadening the scope of design creates a shift in the analyses of design because, earlier, emphasis was placed on the end product on the market. Design theorists have lately, however, argued that the focus of design should be shifted from the product to the process. So have Klaus Krippendorff (2) and Wolfgang Jonas (3) in their own way; Alain Findeli has preferred the term "project oriented" instead of process (4)

Earlier, design has been defined as a linear process proceeding from problem definition to optimal solution. (5) When looking at the schemes derived from this way of thinking, we easily see that the goal and effort of design are directed towards an end, the product, which is located far from the starting point. (6) Types of outcome other than those directly serving the distant end of the process have been underestimated as mere sketches to be thrown into the waste basket, as unrealistic experimentation and ideation, fantasy, play, art, exercises, not to be taken too seriously. The space for design as creative work has been very limited.

A too restrictive a view of design has been advocated by approaches used in design education as well. One example is the application of information theory, which has been a popular discursive practice in the context of design since the 1950s. (7) Design as communication of information starts from the presumption that there is a sender, a receiver and a message, the message being transmitted from the sender to the receiver through a channel. Two conclusions are easily drawn from this model, which I conceive as misleading in design context. In the model, the sender (often considered the producer or the designer) is situated opposite the receiver (which is the consumer or the user). The model emphasizes both a contradiction and a distance between the two. Why?


A critique of Product Semantics

Klaus Krippendorff's theory on Product Semantics (8) is important for further discussions because it is one of the few attempts to form coherent theoretical grounds for design analyses and, therefore, deserves close reading. Krippendorff is, in my view, clearly pointing at some important shortcomings recognizable in design practice and its tradition. The notion of design having a basic practical dimension is useful, though the comparison with medical practice seems a bit pompous. (9) In spite of the apparent benefits of his argumentation, some critical remarks can be made for further discussion.

Krippendorff's approach is a modification of the information theory model. (10) Its basic configuration is the same. The designer (sender) creates and the user (receiver) acts on something received: the designer creates an artifact, which embodies the designer's objectified meaning as form. The user acts on the artifact and tries to make sense of its form, thus trying to produce meaning. (11) Product Semantics, according to Krippendorff, studies the relationship between the form produced by the designer and the meaning produced by the users (who are others than designers). He stresses the interface as a basic problem for design.


Form language

One of Krippendorff's most frequently used terms is "meaning". Therefore, it is important to account for how he conceives meaning. (12) But he does not do this. A thorough reading of the writing reveals that his conception of "meaning" is restricted. He states that design has become language-like (13) and its objects are "texts" (14) that "people act not on physical qualities but on what they come to mean to them". (15) He limits meaning to the level of concepts and symbols. Meaning is constructed in discursive practices. From this position he criticizes what he calls semiotics (without any references).

Krippendorff states that semiotics conceives meanings as fixed correlates of form. (16) However, this position is just the opposite of that of traditional semiotics, for example, as discussed by the American philosopher Charles S. Peirce. Peirce's conception of meaning does not limit itself to symbols (and language) only. In addition to symbol production, meaning can be produced immediately and by causal relations as well. (17) The physical interaction between persons and artifacts contributes to the meaning of form. This complexity of meaning production is vital for understanding interactions involved in design.

Krippendorff states that semiotics sees artifacts as representatives of things extraneous to the artifacts. (18) This formulation is misleading. When peircean semiotics conceives artifacts as signs, they refer to something. The object referred to is not, however, located somewhere outside the product or the perceiver, but resides in their relation. The references are really there. Reference relations, simply called signs in semiotics, do not act as substitutes for reality. Signs associate. Artifacts are conceived as references for interpretation and take part in it. An artifact contributes to the process; it affords meanings and functions as a sign. It is, then, not conceived as a passive block only.

Sign production does not imply a specific style of form. On the contrary, designers can become more aware of possible reference relations and various stylistic outcomes. An overemphasis of expressiveness of form is simply not good design if it affects the interaction negatively.

Krippendorff is not familiar with what he intends to criticize, namely semiotics. This is also revealed by his remark that semiotics is something "that was fashionable in graphic design circles in the 1960s but abandoned a decade later". (19) In recent years, attempts have been made to scan the whole field of research on visual interpretation, for example, pictures and art objects, places and space. These surveys by Göran Sonesson (20), Groupe µ and others (21), have a decisive impact on visual studies.


Visual scenarios in design

According to Wolfgang Jonas, the aim is to design "functional concepts" (22) as alternative scenarios. Design consists of a complexity of actions that can lead to different strategies, which can be illustrated as visual scenarios. Products are mere subordinated details (phases) if they are needed at all. Various strategies have divergent consequences, which are taken into account at early stages of the planning process. Scenarios include the outcome; they visualize various outcome. They serve as arguments for design alternatives as well. With the help of scenarios, the outcome of design (23) can be recognized early during the process instead of in the future (in the hands of a distant receiver). A commissioner of design, for example, a community, society or firm, is given possibilities to choose between scenarios and is better equipped for choice.


Position in interpretation

The design product cannot be separated from the process of its formation. It cannot be separated from previous ideas and precedent objects. Women's studies have, for some time, required clarification of the position and placement of the researcher. Too self-evident, universal and dominant (and consequently masculine) perspectives in scholarly writing have been criticized. (24) In design, it is also important to be aware of pitfalls and routines of thinking. No longer can design be accepted as the outcome of one creative genius. The pioneering heroic examples in design history are looked upon differently. Both designers and the "masterpieces" are put in a context of daily use and production as a result of teamwork including different kinds of participation, as in industrial product development processes. Design is put into various cultural contexts and given ideological and moral contents according to social relations and modes of human action. Awareness of positions of the interpretation helps design achieve what it is meant for.

Another theme further along these lines concerns the relationship between persons and artifacts.


Visuality and form

Visual qualities are basic to design. A design product illustrates and embodies qualities in whatever medium they may appear (as sketches, photos, 3D material artifacts). It is, therefore, relevant to ask what someone perceives when looking at some thing. There is the material thing, be it a product or a picture (an event) on a computer screen. In addition, there are reference relations produced by the interpretative act (sign production). This combination of materiality and interpretation of appearance can be called "form". Form has, then, a twofold meaning. It is both a material construction and something experienced and interpreted. (25)

By studying various reference relations, one can describe the product form, analyze its qualities and argue for its meanings. One of the advantages of such an analysis of references is that it enables design to actually deal with visual qualities instead of interpreting texts. Another advantage is that it illuminates different modes of interpretation, and does not limit interpretation merely to the symbolic.

How can a form be characterized with the help of its references? What is the content of the references? The product can be seen as actively partaking in the interaction, and, in the context of design, form seems to contribute to the interpretative act. As impressions form can be conceived as ambitious, impressive, modest, peaceful, clean, Australian, primitive, exotic, romantic, dreamlike, and so on. Form can function as a visual metaphor. (26) Form can also express attitudes, moods, gestures, mimicry, and so on. A product form often borrows expressions from familiar things, bodily parts, domestic animals, flowers and trees; form "makes faces", takes human postures, hides its "face", turns away, waits for action; it can be dumb, patient, conceal emotion; it crawls, creeps, grasps, and so on. Products' forms also interact and function with each other (and at the same time they may support the human body and posture).


Other modes of references

A product's form can refer as a real and actual connection to something that caused it. It appears then as "brute force and hard fact", as traces of use, sound and smell. Visual traces appear as results of manufacturing tools or production methods and as traces of use as engravings and signs of wear, all of which influence both the material form and its interpretation. (27) However, design publications usually omit products with traces of use. Only new design is illustrated, often even without any user.

A reference relation can actually be felt through the form as, for example, the pain in the hand while carrying a heavy thing with too thin a handle. Interpretation is actualized when one hears a door shut, touches a knob, senses texture, and so on.

The third mode of reference relation is perhaps most familiar and used, the symbolic. Symbolic signs must be learned and cannot be fancied or known in advance. Text, numbers, graphic figures, ritual objects, souvenirs and things of a particular color partaking in ceremonies and customs embody conventional references called symbols. A mixture of old and new symbols is prevalent.


Meaning diversified

A form that catches attention and seems interesting may have many characteristics when interpreted. Interpretation produces multi-layered and multifaceted references. The psychology of perception as a discipline offers knowledge about human perception, but it does not suffice for the purpose of studying reference relations. There is more involved in the study of form in design. Neither does technological research provide data that can further our inquiry of form and its interpretation. Technology looks at design from syntactic and material points of view. Social science, studies in cultural history and consumer research, ergonomics and many other disciplines close to design discuss pragmatic dimensions of design. Research that is mainly based on empirical data seems to neglect referential and interpretative qualities when it stresses the practicality of design. Discussion based on empirical research generally stops at notions of, for example, individual variation within the sample material, personal experiences and changes. It does not include subjective meanings as narratives, dreams, daydreams, memories, personal histories. Empirical research is too busy sorting facts and organizing practical matters. Traditional design is encumbered by restrictive practicality. Design products play social roles in accordance with their users. They help to imitate manners.

Conceptual thinking in design needs an opening and an attitude of permissiveness (i.e., more space to think and experiment). Such thinking is perhaps commoner in architecture, from which design thinking then can benefit. Design has a limiting tradition both from its craft heritage and from more recent technological pressure in industrial mass production.



A designer may reflect upon the sketch or model on the basis of its reference relations. Other people's experiences can reach out to the designer's interpretation, one influencing the other. To use a musical term, instead of unisono, we have polyphony. Interpretation can be enriched by other people's points of view. There is not only one given correct interpretation to be found. The interpretations that are brought out can be discussed and compared and agreed upon. Beneficial characteristics in a design can be supported, and negative references can be dismissed. However, interpretation is not stable and cannot be fixed or wholly controlled. Products can be designed by deliberately forming references, but design cannot escape various modes of interpretation (of reference relation). Should designers be anxious because interpretations vary and may conflict with each other? A frequently asked question about the problem of diverging interpretations is which one is best. The question stems from the presumption that there must be one correct (and true) interpretation instead of many possible interpretations. Instead of stressing the dilemma of conflict and using it as an excuse for not reflecting and discussing form, designers should ask for arguments for the various preferences. Such argumentation helps design to achieve a more prominent role in the product development process.

Well-known forms and models, important events, cultural rituals, festivities or catastrophes, push people's interpretation in the same direction, and many people see the same thing. Cultural characteristics frame and partake in interpretation. (28) The position of the perceiver (interpreter) seems to be attached to form in various ways during interpretation. Form can be viewed from above, from the side; the view can be scanning like in a theater. One can ask how close to form a perceiver can get and how dominating one's position can be. And, if the position of the perceiver does not show, one may ask where the perceiver stands. Interpretation exhibits the way in which the perceiver experiences the form. Part of interpretation is tied also to the role and "habitus" of the perceiver. (29)

It may sometimes seem as if interpretation is neutral, since research is thorough examination in which a researcher collects much detailed knowledge from different sources and exhaustively sorts the data. A semiotic inquiry does not only rest on such observed facts, it also includes value judgment. As has been shown, interpretation is not neutral or independent of the perceiver's position and context. Therefore, it cannot be separated from social values. Once the position of the perceiver is taken into account, it is not possible to escape a point of view, or hide, or speak out from the shadow, or neutralize one's talk from a podium of matter-of-factness.


Productive labor

Interpretation requires effort; it is productive labor, as Umberto Eco has put it. (30) The conception was already outlined by Peirce in his semiotic discussion. A Danish scholar, Svend Erik Larsen, has criticized interpretation, which limits itself to documentation and categorization of material. (31) A meaningful interpretation is productive and creative. It adds something to perception and is partly subjective. It connects the thing seen to other things in reference relations (as signs), to things seen earlier. Form can, then, acquire more characteristics than it has when only described as a material structure placed in a historical, social or technological frame.


Design aesthetics outlined

An interpretation of a product's references, a semantic analysis, does not necessarily concern aesthetics. However, the question of whether a product is conceived as beautiful and elegant is associated with what it refers to. It is, therefore, interesting to study the connections of semantics and aesthetics in design. As peircean semiotics seems to be a beneficial approach for the study of semantic qualities, it is tempting to continue to follow Peirce's thoughts on aesthetics. How does Peirce conceive aesthetics?

Peirce makes a distinction between aesthetic feeling and perceptual judgment. He also distinguishes emotional evaluation, such as pleasure and pain, from it. (32) Pleasure and pain are secondary, like symptoms, like transitions. (33) Aesthetic feeling attracts or repels. It is a disposition like an open mind in a continuum, for example, when one admires something, when one leans back and listens to music, when one responds to something and sees the thing staring one in the face.

Aesthetic feeling supersedes the ken. (34) It is immediate, without comparison with other feelings, (35) and cannot be described or analyzed. The organism itself goes along thinking for a while without any care of thought. The obscure part of the mind is the principal part; it is no longer a sensation, not yet a thought. So it is a mere tone of consciousness. (36) It does not represent anything. It presents. The aesthetic feeling has no reference relation. (37)

Afterwards one can try to remember what happened. It is perhaps useless to try to remember aesthetic feeling itself. One may rather think of the circumstances surrounding the feeling and of the things, which caused it and participated in it. The relation begins to unwind, and possible references for analysis open up. But then we are no longer talking about the aesthetic feeling. We have shifted to the semantic dimension with all its specific qualities.

Aesthetic feeling involves attractive ideas. (38) "Beauty", or to use the Greek word kalos, is an active force characterized by tension and indeterminacy. (39) Peirce used kalos to mean admirableness (something to be admired) as a quality rather than as a formalistic way to refer to something proportional and harmonious, as in classical thought.

Aesthetic feeling can be strong, memorable and significant as a personal experience. It may be overwhelming, striking and fascinating. However, aesthetic feeling can also include less intense qualities, such as everyday enjoyment. It goes almost without saying that aesthetic feeling is an important ingredient in design. The feeling as a disposition is beyond our ken, not analyzable. Still we like to speak about it. We want to speak about the unspeakable. This is paradoxical.

One way to come to terms with the paradox is to conceive form as a special case of reference relation, as semantic quality, touched by and framed in aesthetic feeling. The aesthetic feeling can be re-entered in memories and repeated. A designer may reconstruct or redesign settings and combine and vary the elements to enable the aesthetic feeling to reappear. A designer discovers resemblance and new dissimilarities. (40) The perception of a new order is an occasion for surprise. (41) Pleasure arises as an association is formed and strengthened by resemblance (by producing iconic signs). (42)

A designer can study the environment, connectors between spaces, spaces between spaces, spaces between things, furniture and materials as settings for aesthetic feeling. Concrete product forms take part in the formation of the feeling. Here again, artefacts are not mere passive blocks. The forms designers use as elements for their plan have acquired semantic qualities that can function in the aesthetic feeling.





(1) When design studies go in this latter direction, they face the problems dealt with in what is called "sustainable design".

(2) Krippendorff 1995, 152.

(3) Jonas 1995.

(4) Keynote speech at the conference No Guru, No Method? at UIAH Helsinki, 1996.

(5) For elaboration see, for example, Design Awareness and Planned Creativity in Industry by L. Bruce Archer 1974, 9, 53; Design: Geschichte, Theorie und Praxis der Produktgestaltung by Bernhard E. Bürdek 1991, 164,170; éléments de design industriel by Danielle Quarante 1994, 360, 376. Krippendorff's cycle figure is a modification of the linear horizontal or vertical illustrations (1989, 28).

(6) It is a concrete end, a product. Even if "system" is mentioned as an end, it means an arrangement of concrete products.

(7) See, for example, ulm...Die Moral der gegenstände by Herbert Lindinger, 1987; Quarante 1994.

(8) Krippendorff presented, together with Reinhart Butter, "Product Semantics" in innovation, Spring 1984. See also Krippendorff: On the Essential Contexts of Artifacts or on the Proposition that "Design Is Making Sense (of Things)", 1989.

(9) Krippendorff 1995, 141. In Finland we even used to speak about "design clinics" a while ago.

(10) Krippendorff 1989, 15.

(11) There are two meanings: one is the designer's meaning, the second is the user's meaning. Krippendorff does not differentiate between them or explain how the meanings possibly contrast. He gives only few examples.

(12) "Meaning" has many connotations in different contexts, as is well known at least since Ogden's and Richards' work The meaning of meaning and as is also apparent from philosophical literature.

(13) Krippendorff 1995, 138.

(14) ibid., 140.

(15) ibid., 152.

(16) ibid, 143.

(17) As icons and as indices, respectively

(18) Krippendorff 1995, 148.

(19) Krippendorff 1995, 144. Semiotics has, for some time, offered fruitful approaches for studying meaning and signification. Semiotics was applied to design already at the Ulm School in the 1950s and long before that in cultural studies. At the Ulm School in the 1960s Gui Bonsiepe analyzed advertisements with the help of a semiotic approach. But his is only one example of semiotic application. Roland Barthes, interestingly at that time, analyzed pictures as well as many other things. There are many kinds of semiotics nowadays. The field undulates and combines various concepts.

(20) Pictorial concepts, 1989.

(21) See, for example, Advances in Visual Semiotics edited by Thomas A. Sebeok and Jean Umiker-Sebeok 1995.

(22) Jonas 1995, 51.

(23) or 'end product', if you like.

(24) See, e.g. Vision & Difference by Griselda Pollock, 1988.

(25) The semiotic sign production process, as discussed, can be simplified as an interpretation of something referring to something. With the concept of the sign, Charles Sanders Peirce discussed representational qualities and signification processes as reference relations. He noted that there are three basic kinds of references: iconic, indexical and symbolic. Actually, they constitute aspects of form. All three modes of reference function together. Actual interpretation may emphasize one of the aspects. Then, either the iconic sign or the indexical or the symbolic sign may dominate the interpretative act. This distinction made by Peirce is among his main contributions to the analysis of visual form. It is also the reason why it is more suitable for design purposes than the French linguistic tradition of the conception of the sign, which constitutes a different starting point.

(26) For interesting literature on images and metaphors, see Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard, 1958 (trans. 1964). A visual metaphor should not be mixed up with written metaphors. A form is not necessarily speedy, even if it looks fast moving. It refers to speed metaphorically. In both cases, it can be called speedy.

(27) See examples in Chi und Stotz, 1995, 212-223.

(28) Johansen, 1993, 291.

(29) See Distinction by Pierre Bourdieu 1986.

(30) Eco, 1979, 151.

(31) Larsen, 1994, 271-273.

(32) A perceptual judgment can be expressed as, for example, "this looks good". An emotional evaluation can be expressed as, for example, "I like this".

(33) CP 1.552; Barnouw, 1994, 169.

(34) CP 5.119

(35) CP 7.530

(36) Salabert, 1994, 209.

(37) Other concepts that are closely related to "aesthetic feeling" as discussed by Peirce, are firstness and the iconic sign. The aesthetic sign is an aesthetic icon, one that is non-representational. For those of the readers who are already familiar with the diagrammatic illustration of the sign, a modification of the usual formal triadic figure of the sign will be illuminating. During an aesthetic feeling the object relation R-O has shrunk. The distance between R and O in the triangle has shrunk to almost nothing. The aesthetic feeling has no representation.

(38) CP 5.551

(39) CP 2.199; Kevelson, 1994, 216.

(40) Kevelson, 1994, 223.

(41) ibid., 228.

(42) CP 6.426




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