Design always has a message. Design always has a meaning. And that means design, regardless of medium, is always a shared experience that requires interpretation. Why it matters is that it turns design into a semiotic exercise, open to structure and refinement based in analysis rather than an arbitrary point of view. Of course, that leads to the very simple, very obvious question of what that entails. There are two, though possibly more dimension of consideration then when thinking through a semiotic approach to design: a particular design understanding and the articulation of a semiotic analytical method.
Taking the work of Susann Vihma as a jumping-off point, the first step is to outline a design understanding where the design product consists of several different dimensions: The product has a sort of primary basis in factors such as function of the object/image/message, knowledge of materials/medium and embeddedness in a usage situation. In other words, how do the components governing the need for, development and placement of the design come together to express their rationale for existing as a unified whole. But there is a deep dimension in understanding what a product is – it is the semantic level where a product, brand, logo, etc. finds meaning and expresses symbolic and emotional continuity. It is the representational level that ties the object to our understanding of what it means to be human. And this is the point at which context becomes the focal point for coding and decoding what design.
Designs (again, whether they are objects, webpages, brand messages or anything else) always contain meaning, which is expressed through the given design manifestation and within the framework in which it is embedded. Point is that while we tend to focus on the obvious/functional elements of the or on the aesthetic side of the design process, it is at the juncture of the two where meaning, and thus value, are created.
This means understanding that we create more than things when we design. We create and reflect interpersonal interactions, cultural norms, aspirations, etc. Consequently, when thinking through the analysis of an existing design or creating a new design altogether, we need to think about the ways in which form creates meaning, how form is communicated and expressed under a host of circumstances and what factors influence interpretation by the user, consumer, and/or shopper. In other words, we need to think about how the brand/product/service construct and convey meaning. Once we understand that, we can start to tease out, in a systematic way, how to use color, how to express function and benefit, how to position the brand/product/service and how to make the design message resonate, what does the brand/product/service represent, etc.
We and our customers always perform our interpretations from a particular perspective derived from a mix of cultural knowledge and individual experience. That means meanings are negotiated, like a dialog between people. Thinking about design from a semiotic perspective creates a tool for heightening awareness of the messages the designer wishes to express and the context of this expressive act. In simpler terms, it means you make better designs, messages and things that lead to greater sales. Design ALWAYS has a message. Make sure you get the message right at the outset.