A Semiotic Introduction
The UC San Diego Semiotic Zoo is most proud, not of its panda, but of its precise explanations for the pecularities of its exhibits. Despite the Barnum & Bailey hyperbole of the zoo's homepage, every animal in Area I is actually quite ordinary: each one represents a certain class of very common design error; and each one was captured in the wilds of academic discourse, not made up, cloned, or constructed from spare parts like Dr Frankenstein's monster.

Each exhibit is a complex sign, one such sign among many that inhabit a certain "semiotic space" of all possible such signs. The signs in each exhibit were (we must presume) deliberately chosen by their author as an appropriate way to represent certain information; therefore when we see a certain display, we try to infer the author's intention for it. We can think of this as trying to plausibly infer a "source sign" for the authorial intent having properties that are significantly reflected in the sign that we actually see. More precisely, whenever we see a sign, we try to infer a systematic mapping from a space of possible source signs to another space of possible display signs, such that the observed sign is the result of applying that mapping to the inferred source sign, and preserves the most significant features of that sign. An important part of the inference process is the assumption that the author of a sign has used a systematic mapping which applies to other signs from the same space, not just to the one that we happen to have seen; this assumption allows us to eliminate many irrelevant possibilities when inferring the author's intent.

We will use the term sign system for the "sign spaces" involved, and the term semiotic morphism for their mappings. See the on-line tutorial Semiotic Morphisms for more detail, and see the basic technical paper An Introduction to Algebraic Semiotics, with Application to User Interface Design for much more detail. For a fairly easy going introduction to semiotics with some computer science examples, see On Notation. Perhaps surprisingly, this research has shown that it is more important for a semiotic morphism to preserve structure than for it to preserve content.

The point of each exhibit in Area I is that some important properties were in fact not preserved by a semiotic morphism. It is really amazing how often everyday representations are designed poorly, or at least suboptimally. This area of the zoo contains a selection of real world representations that are less than optimal in some interesting or suggestive way. The "NEXT" button below will start you on a guided tour, and the "HOME" button will take you back to the zoo's homepage. Every page except this one has a "PREV" button to return you to the previous page, and each exhibit has an "EXPL" button to provide an explanation for that exhibit. Please enjoy our zoo!

To UC San Diego Semiotic Zoo homepage.
To Tatami project homepage.
To UCSD Meaning and Computation Lab homepage.
To my homepage.
10 February 1998; modified 5 February 2000.