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Design semiotica: the sign as event

posted on 22.02.2017, 04:04 by Waller, Christopher Leonard
Designers rely on the consistent interpretation of visual signs to achieve stable, effective communication. When signs produce unpredictable, ambiguous, or non-sensical interpretations, they are usually disregarded as signifying errors. However, anomalous signs actually reveal insights into the dynamic nature of graphic semiosis. What is the significance of signs that unexpectedly change their identity? How can communication designers interpret phenomena produced by the actions of signs? What are the implications for communication design? Communication design and semiotics have signs at the core of their activity, but integrating semiotic theory into design practice presents challenges. This research reconsiders the relation between theory and process and develops methodologies to study signs in action. The theory of Charles Sanders Peirce’s triadic sign model is carefully re-examined through his Collected Papers. The research interprets Peirce’s semiotic as modes of propositional and diagrammatic reasoning, but also phenomenal experience. The research frames designing as the simultaneous modelling of graphic and semiotic propositions. It translates Peirce’s theory into semiotic models and methods that suit design research. Three design modelling methods – graphic, interactive and diagrammatic – observe and interact with signs during graphic semiosis. In combinations, the models facilitate different ways of experimenting with semiotic events and signifying phenomena. Outcomes reveal observable evidence of semiotic metamerism: the phenomenon of graphic signs that sequentially, yet simultaneously, communicate a multiplicity of uniquely different significations. The research contributes to the synthesising of semiotic theory and design-based research and practice. In the absence of a triadic diagram by Peirce, a triaxial Y diagram is designed to interpret his model and other sign events. Further, Peirce’s semiotic phenomenology is considered in relation to a Zen paradigm, by using koans as the subject of semiotic experiments. Doing so, this research contributes to the understanding of designing as a semiotic activity that engages with the existential and paradoxical nature of semiotic metamerism.


Campus location


Principal supervisor

Leonie Cooper

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre



Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type



Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture