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In my thesis class at SVA Products of Design this week, I talked to the students about ontology. Unlike lexicography, which is the collection of meanings, ontology is the designation of a specific meaning within a given context.

In other words:

“What do we mean when we say what we say”

Dan Klyn

Facebook re-purposing the words “like” or “friends” for their purposes; The hamburger icon navigation phenomenon flying around the mobile web; The use of the floppy disk icon to mean “save” far past the use of floppy disks for storage of files; The “folders” that are used to organize your “files” on a computer; These are all examples of ontological design decisions that impact not just our everyday life but our perception of the world that we live in and the places we spend our time.

At some point the makers of things looked at the potential and relative meanings for those images and terms and claimed or created a specific version for the context in which they interact with us, the users.

For each of the culturally excepted examples I state above there are thousands of examples (millions maybe) that people “just didn’t get.” It turns out that there are many complications and complexities involved in establishing meaning with the intent of it making sense to others.

As some brain food before sending my students to the park with their own ontological dilemmas I gave a short lecture on the lessons I have learned so far about dealing with the establishment of meaning.

The lessons we went over can be found in full in the deck, but in brief I explained to them:

  • Taxonomy is a tool of rhetoric: meaning can be lost in the way something is organized just as easily as the way it is presented once found
  • Every instance of poly hierarchy potentially reduces meaning: If everything is bold then nothing is, this goes for categorization as well
  • Cultural meaning matters: What means something “here”, can mean something different “there”
  • Pay attention to grade and reading level: We are not all graduate thesis art school students.
  • Beware of homographs and accidental synonyms

In preparation for class I asked them to come prepared with a lexicon of terms that they intended to use in their thesis work and a list of words they intended to not use. They were then asked to exchange lexicons with another student, who was asked to point out any term within each definition that could be further defined, contested and/or unpacked to add more clarity or simplicity to their definitions. Read the rest of this entry »


“If your work isn’t what you love, then something isn’t right.”

– The Talking Heads

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findable, accessible, clear, communicative, useful, credible, controllable, valuable, learnable and delightfulIt is late spring 2011 and I am sitting in Dan Klyn’s kitchen. It smells like blueberry pie and startup rollercoaster tracks. Dan and Bob are three months into their new company, The Understanding Group. It is my first week full time; I am living out of a suitcase on my way to New York City. We have a client that we recently started to work with and we are excitedly discussing the heuristic assessment that we are about to start for them.

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Design Systems, Not Stuff

“I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s” – William Blake

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