for academic scholars, who get
to write learned articles about
the true meaning of the term.
People need some way of
understanding the product or
service—some sign of what it
is for, what is happening, and
what the alternative actions
are. People search for clues, for
any sign that might help them
cope and understand. It is the
sign that is important, anything
that might signify meaningful
information. Designers need
to provide these clues. Forget
affordances: What people need,
and what design must provide,
are signifiers. Because most
actions we do are social, the
most important class of these
are social signifiers.
We are all detectives searching for clues to enable us to
function in this complex world.
Whether it is flags waving in the
wind, the difference between
empty or crowded train platforms, or the desire lines illustrated by footprints in the fields,
we search for significant signs
in the world that offer guidance.
In the social world comprising
people and technology, these
cues are social signifiers.
Consider a bookmark, a
deliberately placed signifier of
one’s place in a book. But the
physical nature of books also
makes them an accidental social
signifier, for the placement of
the bookmark tells the reader
how much of the story remains.
Most readers have learned to
use this accidental signifier to
aid in their enjoyment of the
reading. With few pages left,
we know the end is near. And if
the reading is torturous, as in
a school assignment, one can
always console oneself by knowing “only a few more pages to
get through.” Electronic book
readers do not have the physical structure of paper books, so
unless the designer deliberately
provides a cue, they need not
convey any signal at all about
the amount of text remaining.
The traditional browser on the
computer screen provides a
deliberate social signifier, with
the position of the scrollbar
showing how much more of
the document remains and its
length showing what proportion is visible at the moment.
Hill, Hollan, Wroblewski, and
McCandless’s addition of usage
marks—edit wear and read
wear—is yet another clever way
for designers to add signifiers
to guide readers of electronic
documents [ 1].
The signifier is an important communication device to
the recipient, whether or not
communication was intended.
From the purpose of surviving
in the world, it doesn’t matter
to an individual whether the
useful signal was deliberate or
incidental: To the recipient, no
distinction is necessary. Why
should it matter whether the
flag was placed as a deliberate clue to wind direction (at
airports or on the masts of sailboats) or whether it was there as
an advertisement or symbol of
pride in one’s country (on public
buildings): Once I interpret the
flag’s motion to indicate wind
direction, the flag’s intended
usage no longer matters.
Whatever their nature,
planned or accidental, signifiers
provide valuable cues as to the
nature of the world and of social
activities. For us to function in
this social, technological world,
we need to develop internal
models of what things mean,
of how they operate. We seek
all possible cues to help in this
enterprise, and in this way, we
all act as detectives, searching for whatever guidance we
might find. If we are fortunate,
thoughtful designers provide the
clues for us. Otherwise, we must
use our creativity and imagination. (This is the premise behind
Distributed Cognition [ 2].)
Social signifiers replace affordances, for they are broader and
richer, allowing for accidental
signifiers as well as deliberate
ones, and even for items that
signify through their absence,
as the lack of crowds on a train
platform. The perceivable part
of an affordance is a signifier,
and if deliberately placed by a
designer, it is a social signifier.
Designers of the world: Forget
affordances. Provide signifiers.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Don Norman
wears many hats, including cofounder of
the Nielsen Norman group, professor at
Northwestern University, and author. It
should not come as a surprise to learn that
social signifiers play a major role in his new
book, tentatively entitled Sociable Dezsign.
He lives at jnd.org.
© 2008 ACM 1072-5220/08/1100 $5.00
[ 1] Hill, W., J. D. Hollan,
D. Wroblewski, and
T. McCandless. “Edit
Wear and Read Wear:
Text and Hypertext.”
Working paper. CHI’92,
Monterey, Calif., 1992.
[ 2] Hollan, J. D., E.
Hutchins, and D. Kirsh.
A New Foundation
Issue on Human-Computer Interaction in
the New Millennium 7,
no. 2 (2000): 174-196.