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On the Semiotics of Visual Interface Design



Artifacts & Assumptions

My choices of artifacts for this project are the basic Google home page, the Apple Ipod and the interface design principals that define the FPS genre of video games. My choice of these artifacts is basically informed by two major assumptions:

1. There is a link between successful interface design and commercial success. 2. A broad comparison between interactive media will yield insight into interface design principals representative of the basic process of interactivity itself rather than specific uses or applications.

About my first assumption I have two things to say:

1. I realize that this is a rather weak principal on which to base my choice of artifacts. Of course, there are many other factors influencing the popularity of a certain device or tool besides a user’s objective assessment of the tool’s interface design. 2. That being said, I believe that it cannot be denied that the artifacts chosen for this project are remarkable for the design principals employed in their interface and that at least some appreciable degree of the success enjoyed by these artifacts in the marketplace has been due, at least in part, to effective interface design.


The format of this paper will be as follows: I will introduce a particular artifact and state my reasoning behind my choosing it as an example. Next, I will analyze the artifact’s interface and identify significant themes representative of the artifact’s popularity. Lastly I will use these analyses to develop a number of theoretical principals of interactivity that may be used either in the development of future HCI theory or in the design of future digital interfaces.

The artifacts and theories that will be addressed are as follows:

Artifact: Google Theory: Give the user what they want.

Artifact: Apple Ipod: Theory: Introduction of goal-based theory and “Concentric Rings of Importance”

Artifact: First Person Shooters: Theory: Goal-based theory & “Objective Stratification”

Final discussion

Some notes before we begin:

It is important to note that I do not believe that the examples provided in this project necessarily represent the epitome of interface design. I am confident that as digital devices and tools continue to be developed much more effective interface representations and organizations will emerge. That being said, each of the artifacts addressed in this paper are currently very successful; their interfaces are easy to use while still being very powerful and they do represent a broad spectrum of interactive digital media tools. The connections I draw between them is indeed a theme dominating currently successful interface design and is a theme that is beginning to form the basis of more and more interactive tools. Therefore, while these artifacts and this theory will inevitably become outdated with the development of new tools and new interfaces, this seems like a logical place to begin at this point in time.

It is also important to note that I have read a great deal of theory concerning technology, especially interactive technologies such as hypertext and video games, and that my knowledge of this theory has taken a part in shaping what follows. That being said, the theories and analysis developed in this paper are very much the results of my own meditation on this subject. In fact, this project is a result of my own frustration with much of the scholarly material that has been written about the role of technology in today’s culture and video games in particular.

What I am trying to do in this project is introduce a new perspective on the role of digital media in our lives. The reason we use the above-mentioned artifacts despite all the warnings we receive about brain cancer and social, moral and intellectual decay is because they are useful for allowing us to perform the tasks we wish to accomplish. They are effective tools. That is the primary function of technology: to provide new, better ways of doing things. The purpose of this project is to identify tools that are effective and identify some lessons that may be learned by these tools to create more effective tools in the future.

“The medium is the message”: Interactive Content vs. Interactive Structure

Structuralist literary theory looks past the content of a text to address the functions of the words themselves and the ways these words are used within a text in order to create meaning.

Semiotics is the study of language on a level that is not concerned with meaning so much as the organization and interconnection between symbols of which a text is made up that constitute the system by which meaning is created. Semiotics addresses words as signs and symbols referring to the real world, not artifacts from the real world itself.

Theorists such as Roland Barthes propose that to read a text is a process of navigating a certain series of pre-determined signs, each of which carry their own particular significance, the resulting impression of which is a meaning created within the reader that is greater than the sum of the individual signs themselves due to the connected connotations that each of these signs carries.

From this theoretical perspective the medium itself may not necessarily constitute the message, but the medium does determine the syntax by which a series of signs may be interpreted to be a legitimate medium of meaning creation.

A linear text, or book, is an example of a medium that organizes words, pictures and diagrams, the symbols of a text, in a certain way according to certain conventions. Books take many different forms: Some examples of different books are picture books, epic novels, textbooks or reference manuals. Each type of book is designed to fulfill a very different role, but the basic conventions of the book form are maintained throughout each example.

Film is another such example of a well-established medium that is put to different uses while maintaining fundamental similarities: The film medium indicates a certain organization of symbols designed to convey meaning in a particular way. Again, film can be used for many different purposes ranging from instruction to entertainment while maintaining the same fundamental syntax throughout.

One of the extensions of the argument presented in this paper is that the first step towards coming to terms with a better way to design interactive interfaces is to understand what interactivity itself is and our relationship to it. Web pages are one form of interactivity. Digital devices are another, as are video games. Operating systems are yet another. I suggest that each of these examples of interactivity are beside the point in understanding what interactivity is and how it functions in the same way that distinguishing between educational texts and entertainment texts does not serve to assist one in understanding by what means a book creates meaning.

While content is important, the purposes of this project requires attention to broadly defined structures rather than specific examples of the messages those structures have been used to convey. The scope of this project is the process of interactivity itself, not just specific genres or specific artifacts.

On the flaws of past content-based debate:

As a digital native I am tired of being told that my choice of entertainment is brainwashing me into becoming an unthinking automaton or training me to be a perfect soldier or cold-blooded killer. The notion that my way of life is wreaking havoc on my soul and dooming the moral condition of the world awakens some very deeply seated angst in my consciousness because I know this is cannot be true. Yet I have not yet heard a voice offering a compelling argument to the contrary. This paper is my first attempt to find that voice for myself.

I have personally played many, many hours of FPS games and have “killed” countless numbers of enemies by means of a virtual arsenal of more weapons than I could hope to remember. Yet, I am one of the most laid-back, peaceful and non-confrontational individuals I know. I detest uninformed accusations and I do not appreciate being told I am learning to be a killer in my spare time, and I especially do not appreciate being told this by someone whose primary objective is political leverage rather than pursuit of the truth or of any real understanding of the subject at hand. This is not to say video game violence is not a topic worthy of attention. It is. But it is a subject that should be met with understanding rather than accusation.

Video games are powerful cultural artifacts. Games are crafted using some of the most advanced digital tools available to mass markets. It is a medium that fuses art with technology in a way that has never been possible in the past. Teams of creative individuals numbering in tens or hundreds of employees create them. Their budgets often reach into the millions. Games are an expression of creative culture on the cutting edge. It’s time academia stopped treating them as if they are a new and strange pastime and started asking the real questions such as what games tell us about who we are. The matter of FPS being the most consistently best selling genre should not cause us to turn a wary eye at the players. It should cause us to ask ourselves about the social, political and economic climate we have created that is able to support an atmosphere where such artifacts of cultural production can be so highly successful in a free market.

As a regular gamer and user of digital devices myself I know that these games do teach me something. But it is not to kill. Rather, the learning that occurs in games is primarily concerned with the conceptual matters going on behind the scenes rather than with what is going on right in front of my eyes.

Good gamers do not look at the monitor: They look through it to see the system that is functioning in the background. Their success depends upon their ability to know the properties of that system and to anticipate what is coming next. This is what play is all about: This is what using any tool effectively is all about: To be able to learn a system and to be able to employ one’s knowledge of that system to one’s advantage.

The world of online games is so compelling because it puts knowledge of the system in a social context. Suddenly in an online environment one’s familiarity of the system becomes cultural capital within that system. It is no longer enough to know the system, but one must know it and be able to use it better than others.

This is structuralism applied to games. What I intend to demonstrate in this project is how such theory may be applied to interactivity in general in order to understand what makes the best digital interfaces work. What follows is a structural analysis of the organization of information and choice within digital environments.

Artifact #1: Google


While I have no statistics to back this assertion, I believe it is common knowledge that Google has become the standard search engine of choice for millions of users worldwide.

I suggest this success is a result of four factors: 1. Simplicity 2. Effectiveness 3. Speed 4. Marketing & other business practices

I am not in a position to evaluate the relative importance of each of these attributes. For this reason I will simply state that this project will focus only on the first of these attributes, simplicity, since this is the only attribute that deals most directly with the topic of understanding the semiotics of visual interface design.

Google is an example of interactivity in the form of an Internet search engine. What is important about this point in the context of this analysis is that people use Google with a very specific objective in mind: To find what information the Internet has to offer on a given subject.


Years ago anyone in an introduction course to computers learned about the input - processing - output process that computers follow. This was a very obvious way to explain the function of computers in an era of punch-cards, but the extent to which computers have since been integrated and automated users now rarely consider this basic process.

Google, however, hasn’t forgotten this basic functionality.

Google’s interface is designed with the simple idea in mind that you must first give it something; it will then process that information and give you something in return. That process will then be repeated as you choose an option from Google’s output of a list of searches most relevant to your inquiry.

Google’s strength and importance to this study is the following:

Google’s claim to fame is to do one function: Search the internet and display results. The one dominant function occupying Google’s namesake domain,, is one simple tool inviting the user to achieve their primary goal: A search bar. This is the one function people expect from this particular tool. And it is this function that is placed front and center on the Google website, second in screen real-estate only to the brand of the tool itself:

While there are a number of other options made available to the user, the way these options are presented to the user are significant for three reasons:

1. They are functions secondary to the primary objective of the tool 2. The relevancy of these options as secondary functions is visually represented in such a way that clearly signifies their subordinate status 3. Secondary functionality does not distract or otherwise “derail” the user from their primary objective: The search function.

In closing, Google is a valuable artifact for the purposes of this project because the visual design of its interface presents a clear objective that reconciles the user’s primary goal with the tool’s primary function. In terms of useful theoretical conclusions that can be made from Google, it is that Google gives the user what they want.

Artifact: Apple Ipod

Again, I have no hard data to back up my presumption that the Apple Ipod is one of the most popular MP3 players on the market. This assertion is the result of personal experience alone. That being said, I think few would dispute the popularity of this particular device in the same way that few would dispute the success of Google.

I suggest the Ipod has been successful because of three factors:

1. Simplicity 2. Effectiveness 3. Marketing & other business practices

Again, while the last two elements to success are indeed very important, the scope of this project limits our focus to the first point of simplicity alone.

Ipods are known for two things: Excellent functionality and excellent ease of use via a remarkably intuitive user interface.

As with Google, simplicity is the first thing that comes to one’s mind when one first lays eyes on the Ipod. An Ipod interface essentially consists of three elements: One central button, a secondary button(s) and a LCD screen for output.

The Ipod is a tool designed to play MP3s. This is the primary functionality a user expects from this particular tool, and it is this primary objective around which the interface of this device was designed. The play button, the button by which one accomplishes one’s primary goal, is presented to the user in such a way that it is actually quite clearly circled on the device itself and is quite difficult to miss.

Indeed, one could go so far as to say that the play button on the Ipod is not only physically and visually convenient for the user, but that this button is in fact a visually and ideologically centered representation of the purpose of the device itself:

Significantly, this button also serves as the selection tool in the device’s menu system. The center button is used by the user to indicate their choice, or may be viewed as a symbol of the user’s agency within the device’s interactive menu system.

The design of the secondary functions of this device are based on the same ideological theme. Secondary to actually playing a song is the need to skip to the next song, rewind or go to the previous song, change the volume, pause, navigate menus, etc. Secondary to actually selecting a menu item is the ability to navigate through the menus.

Significantly, the secondary functions of this device are organized in a ring secondary to the central position of the primary button. The orientation of these buttons is likewise reflective of their function relative to the central point of reference that is the primary button.

What appears in the above diagram is a pattern of concentric rings whose orientation is a reflection of their relative importance to the user’s needs.

Drawing Connections

Now is a good time to review what we have seen thus far.

Here we have our two artifacts in their original state:

Here we have our two artifacts with their primary functions being highlighted:

And finally here we have our two artifacts with their primary and secondary functions highlighted:

I argue that both of these artifacts may be seen to share very important characteristics. While I do not believe these characteristics of interface design are solely responsible for the success of these tools, I do believe the similarities that arise between them may be considered worthy of the attention of interface designers as design elements that are not simply coincidental to the success of these devices.

These similarities are as follows:

1. The primary purpose of the tool matches the user’s primary reason for choosing that particular tool 2. The tool’s primary objective is clearly marked in an obvious way at the center of the interface 3. Secondary objectives are located towards the periphery of the tool in such a way that does not distract or otherwise interfere with the user’s access to the tool’s primary function.

Artifact: First Person Shooter navigation mechanics


First Person Shooters are a genre of video game that has been consistently producing successful titles ever since its inception in the early 90s’. Beginning with Castle Wolfenstein, past examples of FPS games include the Quake, Unreal Tournament and Halo series of games as well as a plethora of others. The immense success of these titles indicates to me that there is something very important about the way that these games work and why players are consistently drawn to games that use the same formula over and over again despite there being very little variation to game play or content.

I argue that FPS games are one genre that has been so repeatedly successful in an ever changing and dynamic marketplace because of one primary reason:

1. Intuitive interface design

I argue that the FPS navigation mechanic is so successful because it is, in effect, the most advanced extension of the theories that have been identified in this paper so far. What I mean by this will be explained in what follows.

The following screenshot from Farcry demonstrates a typical FPS interface:

In following the previous discussion, the reader should notice two things about this interface in particular:

1. The exact center of the screen is clearly marked with an aiming reticule 2. Other information is distinctly presented away from the center of the screen

Having marked these elements of the interface, this picture should look very familiar:

In applying my theory to this interface I suggest the following:

In FPS games, the center of the screen is always going to be representative of the players’ primary objective at any one point in time. My rationalization of this point is as follows:

1. The player’s goal in a FPS game is to achieve certain goals. These goals are located in specific spaces throughout a given environment. 2. This means that in order for the player to accomplish the primary goal of the game they must successfully navigate to a certain predefined point, overcoming obstacles and challenges along the way. 3. These obstacles or challenges either take the form of puzzles or enemies. These are overcome by one of two means: 1. The player’s successful navigation of the map to reach a certain objective 2. The player’s successfully dispatching one or more enemies within a given area or timeframe

Anyone who has played a FPS game knows that the fun of the game is produced through two primary methods: 1. Exploration & navigation of the game space (level) 2. Fighting enemies

These are the primary elements of play that are essentially defined by the FPS genre. In the first case, were there no element of exploration inherent to first person shooters there would be no purpose behind the first person perspective. In the second case, were there no enemies to fight, the game would not be a “shooter”.

Interface is everything. In FPS games, the perspective is the interface.

In an interface where perspective is everything, it is a point of supreme importance when different parts of that perspective serve different purposes, as is the case in a FPS perspective. The following diagram once again outlines two very distinct areas of importance in this interface:

1. The center of the screen 2. Everything else 3. These points in the interface correspond to the following functions:

1. Where your weapon’s bullets will go & the axis that will determine the player’s movement whether that movement is forward, backward, left or right. 2. Surrounding perspective. This space represents that which is not in the center of the screen. This means that this is space secondary to that space which is currently occupying the player’s primary screen real-estate. The space surrounding the center of the screen serves no interactive purpose until the player chooses to change their perspective to highlight any point in that space.

This interface clearly privileges the center of the screen since it is that which is in the center of the player’s screen that determines what the player may or may not interact with in the portrayed environment. At any one point in time during regular game play in a FPS the player may choose to either shoot or move towards what is directly in the center of their screen. Alternatively, they may change their character’s orientation and thus modify their perspective and the subject of their primary objective.

The following screenshots demonstrate this point:

Current Primary and Secondary Objectives:

Previous Primary Objective

Point of origin:

Looking around:

Up & Down

Left & Right

In each of these screenshots the point defined within the small middle circle determines the player’s primary objective: That is, the objective of current primary interest to the player as determined by the interface. The player may either shoot at this point or move towards it. The player cannot shoot anywhere or move anywhere but that exact point, nor may they interact with the environment by any other means.

In order for the player to progress successfully through any FPS game the player must successfully navigate the space presented to them by means of determining where an objective is or how to overcome a challenge. What this means is that the player must engage in a process whereby they must explore the space presented to them and determine what aspects of the space are conducive to their advancing through the game.

The resolution of either objective is dependant on the players’ successful identification of in-game objects in relation to what degree these object represent their goals. In order for the player to identify these goals, the player must first see them. In order to do this, the player must use the interface to target important objects in this virtual space by means of the targeting reticule in the center of the screen.

The above screenshots demonstrate two important points:

1. There is a similar pattern to be seen here as could be seen with the two other examples of interactive digital media tools 2. Players in FPS operate in a free environment in which they must learn to identify what is of primary importance to the task at hand.

These concepts are most easily demonstrated, explained and made relevant by using an example of a cliché scenario in FPS games. It is common in such games to walk into a room and suddenly find yourself confronted by a number of enemies at once. Since the player can only shoot in one direction at a time and his or her enemies will most likely be occupying various points in space throughout the room the challenge for the player is to identify which opponents to take out in which order. This process will be informed by to what degree each enemy poses a relative threat. Naturally, the enemy posing the most immediate threat should be taken out first.

As the player notices this first enemy, chances are they will line this enemy up in their sights in the center of the screen. This enemy then becomes the player’s primary objective. As the player is concentrating on neutralizing this opponent they may notice other opponents located outside of their aiming reticule, opponents occupying secondary real-estate on the game screen. However, so long as these opponents remain outside the center of the screen they are necessarily secondary objectives according to the player’s point of view.

After the first opponent is neutralized that particular space will no longer be of importance, and so the player will adjust their view and thus change the subject of his or her primary objective to the next enemy, who will very likely be the same opponent that was occupied part of the secondary screen real-estate indicated by the second, larger red circle in the above screenshots.

In conclusion, what my analysis of the FPS genre of video games has to offer to the topic at hand is this:

In order for the player to successfully clear the room in the example given above they must successfully dispatch their opponents according to which ones may be deemed the larger threat at any one point in time. I call this process in which the player is constantly involved in evaluating the relevancy of the choices at hand “Objective Stratification”, and I believe this is a term that does not only apply to FPS games but to all forms of interactive media including all games, all personal digital devices all websites and more.

Final Discussion: “Objective Stratification” and what it has to do with semiotic interface theory

Here I argue that objective stratification is the primary process by which a user approaches and engages any interactive medium. I argue that the most effective user interfaces are those that minimize a user’s “resistance” in the interface by presenting the user with choices that clearly link the user’s available options with their primary objectives.

Essentially “Objective Stratification” is a term I have chosen to describe the process by which a user asses the choices available to them in a given interface and assesses the likelihood of which option will yield the most satisfactory results. I suggest that each option presented on an interface is a symbol representative a potential “objective” for the user and that the more extraneous options or symbols are presented, the more “resistance” there is for the user to work through before they are able to achieve their goal.

That is, each option or choice presented within an interface represents a possible choice the user must identify and evaluate according to its relevance to the task at hand. Therefore, the more choices are presented to the user the more time and effort a user must take evaluating their options and browsing the available choices before making their choice and working toward their desired objective.

As with any other situation where a certain subject is required to get from point A to point B (electricity, water, vehicles) the less resistance there is between those points the faster and more efficiently that process will occur.

When a user chooses to use a digital tool, the point at which they pick up that device is point A. The accomplishment of the task that causes them to choose that tool is point B. I suggest the fewer choices to be made and the fewer options required to be assessed before the user is able to accomplish their task the more efficient that process will be.

Too many options in a user interface has the same effect as debris in a pipe or corroded wires: These adverse traits result in resistance to the current that is the user’s pursuit of their primary objective.

I suggest the artifacts listed above are the chosen tools of so many users because they offer users a clear path of least resistance to their objective.

The layout of Google effectively says to the user: “You want to search the internet? Here’s what you need: A textbar directly in the center of the screen.” There are no news clippings or advertisements to distract the user. There are no arbitrary settings to sift through or other hoops to jump through. Just type your query and press “Enter”. The user’s curser even automatically goes to the search bar as soon as the page loads. Of course, Google does have a number of other options present on its home page. However, these secondary options are significantly smaller than their primary counterpart. Therefore, the largest symbol on the Google homepage is the one that is most likely to lead the user to their primary objective that in turn facilitates minimum resistance to the user.

Likewise, if an Ipod could talk it would say: “You want to listen to music? Sure, just click this large button directly in the center.” Again, the minimalist Ipod interface presents the user with so few options but the user can hardly manage to do anything but play music.

And of course, the FPS genre is also very effective in minimizing the number of steps between a user’s need and the fulfillment of that need. Players of FPS games usually interact with their environment in two ways: move through it and shoot things within it. The interface of the FPS genre addresses both these requirements remarkably efficiently by merely orientating each of them in the very center of the screen and linking control of the center of the screen directly to the smallest movement of the mouse or control stick.


Essentially what all this means is that the less a user has to jump through hoops in order to achieve their goals the more intuitive that interface will be and the more easily users will pick up on it.

We are living in a time where computers are becoming ever more powerful and able to do more and more things. However, it is an unfortunate coincidence that the more powerful a program or device is and the more it is able to do, the more likely its interface will be cluttered with choices that confuse a user rather than allowing them to capitalize on the device or program’s potential.

I hope this project has shed some light on two issues:

  1. How we may think about interface design in such a way to foster the creation of digital tools that are not only powerful and effective but also easy and intuitive to use.
  2. The valuable insight that a humanities perspective may bring to the field of Digital Media.
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