The Language of Design: Part I


I like to think of a language, as a system for encoding and decoding information. Technical instructions, poems, words and sentences relate meaning, in an agreed-upon system of understanding. Our society has learned to combine systems of information to create relationships and meaning in surprising and creative ways; each language and medium presenting a different system of encoding and decoding information. Our fluency with any given language often determines our ability to understand information through it. Understanding the language of 17th-century Dutch artwork (e.g. peeled lemon) can turn a placid still life of flora and food, into a message of vanitas – or the brevity of life.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how languages, as systems of understanding, have limits and challenges. In other words, the ability to understand a particular concept can be limited by a specific language or medium. When I lived in Hong Kong, I learned to speak Cantonese, and discovered new concepts that previously lied outside of my understanding. One of these concepts was found in the expression – Guk Sei – which is used to describe the climate of a closed-off room that has become too “stuffy”… except it really doesn’t mean “stuffy” and can’t be described in English. I’ve tried for years to use an English equivalent for Guk Sei, but to no avail. Guk Sei a condition that existed before learning this cantonese phrase, but it lied outside of my cognition and experiential understanding – until I experienced it with a new language. Even to this day, when I feel really stuffy in a room, I’ll refer to that phrase in the Cantonese language.

Designing has a language. It has symbols, technologies, and different mediums – each one with it’s own limits and expressive qualities. Designing interactions in an environment of spoken, written, marketing, and development languages is not only challenging – but seemingly impossible. As I’ve tried to introduce some new interactive ideas and concepts in the past couple months, I’ve realized that some of the resistance I’ve encountered has been a result of the languages that are used to encode and decode the sketches, wire frames, and mock-ups I’ve been presenting. The developer understands and expresses his understanding of a wire frame through his known languages of programming. A salesman understands and expresses his understanding of my interactive features through his known language of marketing and sales lingo.

I’ve found myself becoming more sensitive to the way I talk about my designs with others, sometimes calling a new overview interactive dashboard of information a “pling-blingy” instead of a “dashboard”, trying to set it free from existing ideas or baggage. I even sometimes present ideas and emphasize what the idea “is not” – to reiterate a difference. Knowing that others will try to make sense of a “new thing” through their past, existing knowledge, and understood language(s), can help designers create a language of design. Presenting an idea through a specific medium that has qualities key to conveying understanding can help designers emphasize the uniqueness of an idea. I’ve come to realize that new ideas need new words to set them free. Creating a language of design is just as important for designers and organizations as it is to create new designs.

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  • tim

    Matt, this is right on! Unlike you, I have struggled to articulate what the problems associated with change are. I think you are really on to something here. The notion that our existing knowledge structures impact how we think about new ideas is absolutely correct. Thus, if we want to make change we need to think about the ways that the new idea will be connected back to existing knowledge.