Semantic Environments

Media theorist Neil Postman (1931-2003) said communication happens in semantic environments. This is a useful concept for us to understand how people collaborate meaningfully. Let’s look at what these environments are and how they work.

Many of us think communication is something that happens like a game of table tennis: One person says something, another person listens, processes what has been said, formulates a response in their mind, and then utters the response. This restarts the process: the other person listens, processes, formulates, responds. Back and forth, over and over again.

Instead of being like table tennis, Postman says, communication is something that happens to us, much like growth happens to a plant when it’s exposed to an environment that includes sunlight, water, and nutrients. You can think of those things as the plant’s physical environment, which makes its growth possible.

Communication, too, requires an environment that has particular features. They include the social relations between the actors that participate in the communication, their goals in the interaction, and the particular vocabulary they use in that situation. Postman calls this set of conditions the semantic environment the conversation happens within.

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The Ladder of Abstraction

You may have heard that dogs and cats only see in black and white. That’s wrong; these animals are dichromatic, which means they have limited color vision. What is true, however, is that their vision is different from ours. Other animals, such as some bats and rodents, are indeed monochromatic: they only see in black and white and shades of grey.

Before you start feeling smug, consider the limitations of your own sensory system. Some other animals, such as boa constrictors, can see infrared light, which is invisible to you and me. And you know about dogs’ sense of smell, which is much more refined than ours.

The point is that we don’t perceive the world as it is, we perceive it as our senses allow us to see it. Our sensory system presents to us an abstracted view of reality. (This suits me fine; our sensory system has evolved to allow creatures like ourselves to survive and thrive in environments like ours.) And on top of this already abstracted view, we layer another abstraction: language.

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Aspire to Ever-Fatter Markers

A sketch by Louis Kahn
A design exploration for the Dominican Motherhouse by the architect Louis Kahn. Kahn surrounded himself with people who could realize his ideas at greater levels of fidelity. Image: Arcade

A design career is a progression from thin markers to fat markers.

When you’re starting out, someone else gives you direction. You’re expected to fill in the details using very fine lines. To do so, you must understand the characteristics of the materials you’re representing on the paper, whether they be code, words, images, or bricks.

Once you’ve mastered the details, you can graduate to Sharpies. You can’t get too granular with Sharpies. This is good since it allows you to focus on the relationships between elements without getting lost in the details. You now understand how things can fit together locally. You can also identify, define, and convey patterns that allow designers with finer markers to work faster.

Eventually, you move up to whiteboard markers. With these blunt tools, you explore systemic issues: how elements relate to each other at the highest levels, how the outside world interacts with the system, how the system will evolve resiliently, who is responsible for what. You do this with collaborators in real-time; this includes stakeholders with concerns that are very different than yours. You develop gravitas and political savvy. At the whiteboard, you have an audience, and the stakes are high.

This audience includes designers wielding Sharpies and fine markers. Now you’re the one giving direction. As the person wielding the fat marker, it’s your responsibility to nurture the people using markers finer than yours, so they move on to fatter markers. You must also bring in new people to take up the fine markers others have left behind.

And what if you’re a team of one? Then you must keep markers of varying widths at hand. You must know which work best in which conditions, and when you need to switch pens. (You must still work on the gravitas and political savvy, by the way.)

You can’t design exclusively using whiteboard markers any more than you can with only fine markers. You need a combination of both. Good design managers help their teams master their skills and broaden their perspectives, and keep a vibrant mix of line widths in play. As a leader, you don’t necessarily stop being a practitioner; you just move on to a fatter marker.


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3 Placemaking Lessons From the Magic Kingdom

If you design software, you need to know about placemaking. Why? Because the websites and apps you design will create the contexts in which people shop, bank, learn, gossip with their friends, store their photos, etc. While people will experience these things primarily through screens in phones, tablets, and computers, they actually perceive them as places they go to to do particular things.

Your users need to be able to make sense of these information environments so they can get around in them and find and do the things they came for, just as they do with physical environments such as towns and buildings. People need to form accurate mental models of these environments if they are to use them skillfully.

As a discipline, software user interface design has only been around for about sixty years. However, we’ve been designing places for much longer. There’s much we can learn from architecture and urban design to help us create more effective apps and websites. This article is a short case study in the design of a particular physical environment that has valuable lessons for those of us who design information environments: Disneyland.

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