Introduction to Signifiers
Signifiers are a crucial element of design that help us understand and interact with the world around us. According to Don Norman, author of “The Design of Everyday Things,” signifiers are elements of a design that convey meaning and provide information about how to use a product. They can be symbols, icons, labels, color coding, or even physical shapes and forms. In this article, we’ll explore the role of signifiers in design, and how you can use them to create more intuitive and user-friendly products.
Examples of Signifiers in Design
One common example of signifiers in everyday life is the use of symbols and icons on buttons or controls. For instance, the universal symbol for “power” is a circle with a line through it, and it’s used on all kinds of devices, from TVs to smartphones. This symbol immediately tells us what the button does, regardless of the language we speak or the country we’re in.
But why are signifiers so important? According to cognitive psychology, our brains are constantly trying to make sense of the world around us by searching for patterns and connections. Signifiers help us do this by providing visual cues and information that allow us to understand how things work and what they’re for. They also help us remember how to use a product, so we don’t have to spend extra time and effort trying to figure it out every time we encounter it.
In addition to symbols and icons, labels and text can also serve as signifiers. For example, a fire extinguisher with a clear label indicating its purpose is a signifier that helps us understand how to use it in an emergency. Similarly, color coding can be used to convey information and guide our actions. Different colors can indicate different functions or categories, but it’s important to use colors that are distinct and easy to distinguish from each other.
The physical form of a product can also serve as a signifier. For instance, a round doorknob with a latch is a signifier that tells us we need to turn the knob and push or pull the door to open it. Similarly, the shape and size of an object can provide clues about how it should be used.
Tips for Using Signifiers in Your Own Designs
So how can you use signifiers in your own designs? Here are a few tips:
- Use familiar symbols and icons to convey meaning. People are more likely to understand and remember these, so try to use established conventions whenever possible.
- Label controls and buttons clearly and concisely. Use plain language and avoid technical jargon or abbreviations that might not be familiar to everyone.
- Use color coding to convey information. Different colors can indicate different functions or categories, but be sure to use colors that are distinct and easy to distinguish from each other.
- Consider the physical form of your design. The shape and size of an object can convey meaning and provide clues about how it should be used.
By keeping these tips in mind, you can create designs that are more intuitive and easier to use for a wide range of users. So the next time you’re working on a product or design, think about how you can use signifiers to make it more user-friendly.
 Don Norman, The Design of Everyday Things (New York: Basic Books, 1988).
 George A. Miller, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information,” Psychological Review 63, no. 2 (1956): 81-97.