Semiotics of Course Design


Sheena Lyonnais wrote on the Adobe Creative Cloud blog that “in a world where everything is identified by icons and avatars, it is no wonder the study of semiotics is beginning to make its way into the discourse of user experience design.” (Lyonnais, 2016). After reading this, I began to think of ways to classify the elements of SPS course site designs from a semiotics perspective.

I will attempt to identify examples in a way that fits with Lyonnais’ definition of semiotics as “the study of signs and symbols.” She breaks semiotics into two parts: the signifiers and the signified.

Signifiers – the physical forms that elicit meaning (this can be images, words, materials, sounds, smells, tastes, etc.)” (Lyonnais, 2016)

The signifier is useful in learning design as a way to visually indicate to the perceiver, in this case the learner, the information that you want them to make use of or have knowledge of.

Signified – the connotations of what the signifier implies, often considered a mental construct” (Lyonnais, 2016)
The signified is the mental picture the learner forms internally in response to the signified. This will differ from person to person, each individual has their own subjective interpretation.

The course site itself is a signifier, made up of many other signifiers of varying levels of complexity.

The signified would hopefully be the mental construct the learner forms, their own subjective connection between the signifier and any ideas or actions that ultimately result in their achievement of one or more of the course learning objectives.

For example, a content page in a weekly module in a course site could indicate through a combination of an icon resembling a piece of paper and a hyperlink that a student should read an article as part of the assignment for that week of the course. Neither the icon nor the link are the article itself, nor are they the learning objective. But the student, through combination of past experience, culture, and visual and spatial cues will be guided toward the content that ultimately will introduce them to more complex signifiers such as additionals article or assessments.

Signifiers and signified together form signs. This is a two-part semiotic model developed by Ferdinand de Saussure. Charles Peirce adds a third component, the object or referent, for a three-part model. Both models are covered on a web page by Daniel Chandler. Regardless of the semiotic model you use, signs can have three classifications and all three have potential use in a course site. Some may be custom created, while others may repurpose or modify common signs. The three types according to Lyonnais’ blog post are:

  1. Symbolic sign – These arbitrary symbols refer to signs where the relationship between the signifier and the signified tends to be cultural. This is often a matter of language and typically refers to words. For example, the English word “apple” has nothing to do with what we perceive as an apple, it is just what we call that particular fruit.”

Another article, written by Deirdre Bonnycastle of University of Saskatchewan, points out that words and numbers are the most common symbols. These are likely the most commonly used symbols in course design as well. Course sites are filled with text and numbers, from headings and paragraphs describing weekly modules to grades.

2. “Indexical sign – Index signs occur when the signifier is a result of the signified. For example, smoke is an indexical sign of fire. Another way indexical signs appear in design is through directional signs like arrows, which point to something other than itself.”

Bonnycastle notes that other kinds of indexical signs could be a thermometer as index of temperature, or a leash as in index of a dog. This could be a red highlight around a link indicating that an assignment is past due a or status bar displaying how far along in a multimedia experience the student has progressed.

3. “Iconic sign – Signs where the signifier looks like the signified. A photo of an apple is an iconic sign of an apple. A photo of yourself is an iconic sign of yourself.”

Some icons in course design are automatically provided by the software that hosts the course site content, in our case the Canvas LMS. An icon for a file attachment, or an icon for a discussion thread are examples (although their context could make them symbolic or indexical as well). Knowing the meaning of these (and other signs) helps when augmenting the learning environment through the addition of other icons. Additional icons can be added by designers and technologists, either by repurposing existing signs from sources like or or by creating new ones.

Many signs in a course can be classified as more than one type of sign and the intent of the sign can differ for each perceiver. How do you use signs in your course design process? Do you think differently about your use of them after reading this?

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