XIII.6 November + December 2006
Page: 56
Digital Citation

Review of “The Semantic Turn: A New Foundation for Design by Klaus Krippendorff”, Taylor & Francis, 2006, ISBN 0415322200, $79.95

A. Henderson

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The title says it all, but as with much of this amazing book, it takes some context to get the full sense of it. Thankfully, Klaus Krippendorff provides that in a direct, readable, and engaging fashion. The Semantic Turn: A New Foundation for Design is grounded in history, dense and profound. While only 300 pages in length, it is long: It requires and deserves serious study. I believe it should be required reading for anyone interested in design. This is particularly true for those of us in HCI, as Krippendorff locates the human making of the meaning of artifacts (and specifically—as one of a number of levels—by users) at the center of design.

The Turn of the title is the observed change in direction that design has been taking for the past decades toward being human-centered; the book is full of wonderful accounts ("sketches," by Krippendorff's assessment) of the history of various aspects of design. For example, Krippendorff's review of human-centeredness starts with Protagoras. It also recounts Goethe's battle with Newton over whether color was located in the world (wavelengths) or in what people made of the world (the situation-specific human experience of color):

Goethe fought against the then-emerging objectivism that privileged physical measurements over human experiences; he considered Newton's theory a major epistemological mistake and a disservice to mankind.(p. 41)

His historical accounts (e.g., of HCI's heroes, like Wittgenstein, Gibson) are exciting for their clarity and for their interweaving in the production of his emerging view. He articulates their positions with simplicity and depth, and with the authority of scholarship.

Krippendorff is an excellent source who speaks gently but decisively: He was schooled in industrial design at the Ulm School of Design (Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm), which figures heavily as context in the book. He has been and is a practicing designer. He is now principally a professor in a school of communications (the Gregory Bateson Professor for Cybernetics, Language, and Culture at the Annenburg School for Communication of the University of Pennsylvania). He pulls no punches, but from his deep understanding offers strong medicine for design, design theory, and designers.

This is not, however, a history book. The Semantic Turn hammers the manifesto to the door: It offers a new solid grounding—point of view, philosophy, theory, language, discourse, practice—for design. Krippendorff sees design as a poor relation to other disciplines in that it lacks a "discourse" of its own. Physicists have a physics discourse, engineers have theirs, sales people theirs... managers theirs. But, possibly by virtue of their interest in how others see the world, designers have tended to fail in telling their own story:

Designers' extraordinary sensitivity to what artifacts mean to others, users, bystanders, critics, if not for whole cultures, has always been an important but rarely explicitly acknowledged competence. Putting meanings into the center of design considerations will give designers a unique focus and an expertise that other disciplines do not address. Moreover, the apparent irrefutability of this axiom gives design professionals a solid rhetorical ground from which to justify their work (p. 48)... Without realizing its strength, designers are doomed to chase the ghosts of other discourses. (p. 50)

The manifesto, however, is not polemic, although it does sound the trumpets for design. Rather, it is grounded in experience (historical and personal), and Krippendorff argues it persuasively. It may best be seen as philosophy: an extended argument for a perspective that informs the discipline. Krippendorff sets context with history, presents a thesis (the centrality of the making of meaning of artifacts), and works it out at four levels:

Use: meaning of artifacts in use
Talk: meaning of artifacts in language
Lifecycle: meaning in the lives of artifacts
Coherence: meaning in an ecology of artifacts

Krippendorff sketches the new discourse for design thus: a science for design, methods for creating spaces for possible futures, methods for inquiring into stakeholders' concepts and motivations, human-centered design methods, validating semantic claims, and advancing design discourse. In appendices, he articulates (in Distantiations) how this differs from other positions (Semiotics, Cognitivism, Ergonomics, Aesthetics, Functionalism, Marketing, Textualism), and (in Roots) its ideological connection in the Ulm School of Design.

This is the full spread, a somewhat overwhelming map of a new perspective on design. It is full of careful definitions, lists of characteristics that make or follow from these definitions, and compelling examples of everything. While distinctly abstract, this discourse is grounded in the everyday: using scissors, driving cars, sitting in chairs, working on computers, making copies, skiing, playing the slots... and on and on. The book takes readers to great heights, but with a safety net of examples.

At the heart of the matter is the Semantic in the title, the human act of constructing meanings for artifacts. For Krippendorff, the interesting aspect of human-centered design is how humans make sense of their artifacts. His central axiom is:

Humans do not see and act on the physical qualities of things, but on what they mean. (p. 47)

His account (p. 59) is based on the interplay between sense, meaning, and action. Human understanding of artifacts is grounded in sensing the world; this sense of sense is expounded effectively at length, but "is the tacit, taken for granted, and largely unconscious monitoring of what is" (p. 50). This is a good example of the need for careful reading and much thought. Sense is not the sensory perception of physiology or even psychology. It crosscuts these accounts from other disciplines. It is this crosscutting that leads to the new discourse. Meaning is related to the differences between what is sensed and what seems to be happening. It includes all the experienced possibilities of what's happening and could happen. It looks as much forward as backward. Meanings unfold into actions that contribute to changes in an unknowable-as-such external world and anticipate (set up expectations for) new senses. The set of possible meanings are in principle unbounded, but are in practice limited by the context of what the human is engaged in.

At heart this story is grounded in a belief in the emergence of everything, and its embodiment in people. People sense, understand, act. This is profoundly specific to the situation at hand. However, different people ("stakeholders" involved in different ways) have different meanings. This includes the designers, who are not privileged in Krippendorff's account. And since people sense other people, individuals' meanings will include the meanings of others. This makes the story second-order: Meanings about others' meanings are central to my meanings. (Why is this here? What is it for? What did the designer have in mind? What does the HR department have in mind when I use this?)

The story is also about creating the new. Krippendorff distinguishes this view of the world sharply from the scientific view. Science asks, "What is?" Design asks, "What should be?" This is true not only for the designer, but for all players in the game. The domain of design is about understanding and acting in the world. The creation of artifacts to support that acting is part of being in the world, not only for designers, but for all of us.

Krippendorff works this theory out at four levels of understanding. For those in HCI, all are of interest, but the first retells the story of how people interact with artifacts, particularly complex artifacts like computers and cars and doors. The telling is different than what we are used to. It is not fine-grained; it feels more like a sketch of the interaction that HCI knows, and in this it is dissatisfying. However, it is much more deeply demanding of what the interaction must address (the making of meaning) than we are used to. In this it is deeply exciting. Again, through this sense of skew about what is important, the new discourse becomes evident.

In the end, Krippendorff refers to the book as a sketch of a new discourse. He makes clear that he is not giving details, although the depth to which he goes is often profound. Reading this book, I was often disturbed that it read awkwardly under my usual perspective on things, forcing me to back off and review. But this is exciting and very hard work. I found myself disagreeing with some things, for example, his account of people making meanings of artifacts in use. (Does the sense of the world to people come only through the artifact, or does it come directly, too? As there is a transition from the artifact's actions to the user's sense, should there not be a corresponding transition from the user's meanings into actions affecting the artifact?). But ultimately I'm left feeling that these may be the misunderstandings of a first encounter, or if not, that they can and will be worked out. They are not central to the book's larger endeavor.

For some time I have been searching for an account of design that satisfied my understanding of design's fundamentals. In this book, Klaus Krippendorff has provided an account that challenges us as designers and humans to join the once and future discourse to which it points. I, for one, will accept Krippendorff's challenge.

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Austin Henderson
Pitney Bowes, Shelton, Connecticut

About the Reviewer:

Austin Henderson is the director of research strategy at Pitney Bowes in Shelton, Connecticut. He has been active in ACM/SIGCHI since 1983, including as conference chair (1985), and organization chair (1989-1993). Austin has a BSc in mathematics from Queen's University, Canada, an MS in computer science from the University of Illinois, and a PhD in computer science from MIT.

To submit a book review, please email Gerard Torenvliet at


Gerard Torenvliet
CMC Electronics
415 Leggett Drive, P.O. Box 13330
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K2K 2B2

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