Whatever their nature, planned or accidental, signifiers provide valuable clues as to the nature of the world and of social activities. For us to function in this social, technological world, we need to develop internal models of what things mean, of how they operate. We seek all the clues we can find to help in this enterprise, and in this way, we are detectives, searching for whatever guidance we might find. If we are fortunate, thoughtful designers provide the clues for us. Otherwise, we must use our own creativity and imagination.
Affordances, perceived affordances, and signifiers have much in common, so let me pause to ensure that the distinctions are clear.
Affordances represent the possibilities in the world for how an agent (a person, animal, or machine) can interact with something. Some affordances are perceivable, others are invisible. Signifiers are signals. Some signifiers are signs, labels, and drawings placed in the world, such as the signs labeled “push,” “pull,” or “exit” on doors, or arrows and diagrams indicating what is to be acted upon or in which direction to gesture, or other instructions. Some signifiers are simply the perceived affordances, such as the han- dle of a door or the physical structure of a switch. Note that some perceived affordances may not be real: they may look like doors or places to push, or an impediment to entry, when in fact they are not. These are misleading signifiers, oftentimes accidental but sometimes purposeful, as when trying to keep people from doing actions for which they are not qualified, or in games, where one of the challenges is to figure out what is real and what is not.
In design, signifiers are more important than affordances, for they communicate how to use the design. A signifier can be words, a graphical illustration, or just a device whose perceived affor- dances are unambiguous. Creative designers incorporate the sig- nifying part of the design into a cohesive experience. For the most part, designers can focus upon signifiers.
Because affordances and signifiers are fundamentally important principles of good design, they show up frequently in the pages of this book. Whenever you see hand-lettered signs pasted on doors, switches, or products, trying to explain how to work them, what to do and what not to do, you are also looking at poor design.