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August 06, 2003

It's All Semantics

From a book I'm reading:

"A theoretical grid through which behavior, institutions, and texts are seen as analyzable in terms of an underlying network of relationships, the crucial point being that the elements which constitute the network gain their meaning from the relations that hold between the elements."

This quote resonates with a theme from the last information architecture summit, where people expressed frustrating with spatial/structural metaphors, and wanted to develop systems that better expressed meaning, and did so through the relationships between items. This feeds into notions of ontologies (Brett Lider's PowerPoint from the Summit) and the Semantic Web.

What's interesting to me is that in the book I'm reading, the passage actually begins with, "We can define structuralism as a theoretical grid..." Yep. I'm reading a text on semiotics. (New Vocabularies in Film Semiotics, to be exact. Blame him.) Maybe these Frenchies are onto something.

Posted by peterme at August 6, 2003 07:11 AM

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And so what are some of the tangible, visualizable, or designable ways that designers can represent these grids or networks. The problem with semantic structures is that there are good ways to present them, the way that "visual heirarchy" or "network of hyperlinks" can present spatial/structural metaphors. So far, it seems like designers have mostly stuck with network diagrams of nodes connected to nodes.

Posted by: andrew at August 6, 2003 08:30 AM

Yes, there is loads of stuff that we can learn from literary theory (semiotics and structuralism in particular). There are important connections between what we do (creating structures to convey meaning) and what structuralism and semiotics do (understand artifacts by investigating their structures and rules).

Jesse's 'IA of Everyday Things' talk at the IA Summit a year and half ago was a really good starting point for understanding IA in this way (as structures that convey meaning).

The connection between the fields is definitely worthy of further exploration. I'm slightly worried that people will get bogged down by the more, erm, academic aspects of the theories, but as long as people aim to stay focussed, relevant and practical, this is an area from which we can learn a great deal.

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