signifiers of a macbook pro

Learning design – signifiers

See this photo of a MacBook? There’s great design here.

Do you see it?

Probably not, great design often goes unnoticed.

Apple used what’s called a signifier to 1) let you know which direction of the laptop is forward, and then 2) where and how to open it.

A good exercise is to act like you’re a baby that knows nothing about the world, everything is new and you’re learning it all for the first time. In this mindset, if you were told to open the computer, instinctively you’d probably see that indent and try there first to open it. Now, there might be a number of different ways how baby you would open. You know, like a book or upside down. Despite that, at least you’d instinctively know where to open the laptop.

Signifiers are little hints that the designer adds to their design so that the user knows, instinctively, how to interact with the product. Like with the laptop, the notch tells you the direction and where to open it, along with making it easier to open.

Without signifiers, we fumble with how to use products which makes us frustrated at best and feel stupid or dumb at worst. A book that changed my life, for many reasons, but for one great one was that now when I feel stupid for not knowing how to open a water bottle lid or find the battery compartment on a kids toy, it’s not because I’m an idiot, it’s because the designer did a terrible job at creating a signifier to make the experience intuitive and easy. So every time you use a product now, you can blame it on the designer, not yourself. Even if you continually mess it up, that’s most likely because it was designed poorly!

So how can we use this concept when organizing or make our life at home better and easier? To start, think about giving yourself hints. If you have a pegboard in your garage that you hang tools from but constantly forget which tool goes where, and never end up putting anything back, try outlining each item on the pegboard in white or black or any other color marker. This way you instinctively know where the item goes because you can see its shape, and if you put an item in the wrong place it’s clear because it won’t fit inside the lines.

Another great way to do this is by using colored tape. You can simply put some colored tape on the item around a spatula handle, then another piece of the same color where that spatula should go. Then, whenever you or anyone else needs to put the spatula away, it’s very clear where it should go because it matches up with the color on the handle.

So I apologize for teaching you this because now you’re going to be seeing signifiers everywhere and will get upset when they are not there but should be. But hey, at least now you can blame it on the designer and not yourself!