UNIT 5.1.


This unit aims to:

  • introduce you to a set of categories used to sort what work words do
  • provide a framework of meaning categories for your design studies 
  • help you to sort terms you meet by activating these categories


1 hour


The words, terms and concepts we meet in studying design, at master’s and doctoral levels, come at us from all directions. We hear them in lectures, see them in the media, encounter them in studios, adverts, and reading. Design draws on terms from a multitude or sources, from popular cultural to technical. It redirects them to the purpose of a design brief, exploration or inquiry.

Words may not always be directly understood as a form of material in designing, as they are not the substance that shapes our artifacts quite like other material do. However, words are used to perform a wide range of ‘functions’. We use them to label, describe, annotate, explain, interpret and mediate what designers design educators and designer-researchers do, mean, share and support.


Words matter in how we construct, share and promote FUTURES DESIGN. The words we inherit or borrow carry meaning with them. Others we encounter have ‘senses’ or connotations: they point to meanings that are shaped by context and use. In brief, the use of vocabulary in design is a complex mix of what we call lexical material, that is words as material.

Words matter for design. They are adopted and adapted from other disciplines and their specialist meanings. Equally, different domains of design are said to have their own ‘language’. You have heard people speak of ‘the language of graphic design’, meaning specialist uses of terms and concepts in that domain area of design knowledge  and practice.

Meanings come into being through the values, characteristics and qualities we assign to words. These work as signs. Technically, from Semiotics or the study of signs, the meanings we give to words are called significations. Social Semiotics has emerged as a domain that shows how meanings are shaped in and by use. For design, this means that ‘meanings’ are embedded within the social relations, structures and enactments that make up daily personal, public and professional life. 

Denotations are the links we make between objects and words. A word refers to a ‘thing’. Connotations are the meanings located in culture and context. These meanings are arrived at only because words are given values in relation to the situations in which they are used as well as how they relate to other words. In Design this is complex. Much of what is communicated is embedded within design artifacts (products, processes, services, policies and participation). This is also complex because in designing and in the design artifacts we make and consume, share and interpret, many modes of communication are in play. They are processes of becoming not just existing or being.


It’s important to stress that words and vocabularies also only gain meaning because they are used in wider communication, or discourse. The term discourse refers to language that operates above the level of a sentence. At the level of discourse, there are patterns and moves (ways sections of texts work, such a section doing explaining).These sections join together to make larger units or styles. They are further gathered in forms, conventions of speaking, imaging, moving or writing, and so on, that are called genres. 

Design discourse consists of layers and relations and networks of words that take on meaning because of how they operate together. In this LEXICON, we present many words de-linked from their contexts of publication and use. Yet we do not mean that you should see them this way. It’s crucial that language use in design is centred on the activities of designing and that language be understood as a wider set of modes  of communication, or multimodal discourse. This refers to touch, sight, smell, movement, taste and sound and sound.

These many modes of expressing communication come together in a diversity of ways in design processes, objects and uses. Language, that is words, may not always predominate and nor should they. Design may communicate complex sets of links and distinctions in non verbal and three dimensional forms. Words may be used to describe and interpret these ‘objects’ and processes but they may only be realised in design as discourse, that is through acts of active engagement with the designerly casting of meaning within form and way of use.

Language is complex, language is cultural, language is contextual. These are things we know as people who go about ‘languaging’ in the world. We learn our first, main or several home languages without formal grammar lessons. We may learn other languages and study our own ones in schools and courses, and into universities and later in life. All the time, we are learning to locate, identify and decode words and their meanings in the social, technical, communicative and cultural settings in which they are situated. 


However, language is not neutral nor is it simply transparent. The meanings we give to words are charged, or carry weight and force, influence and effect. Learning how to use them is also a matter of being acclimated and apprenticed in a way to conventions and expectations. It is also a matter of understanding that language enacts power relations and that this exercise of language is also a site or a location of how power is written into society as it were, socially and professionally. One example of this is when the activities of an event or process or participation are shifted from being expressed in a verb (that is as an activity)  into a nominalisation (or a noun form). One of the effects of this shift is that the role and agency of actors is obscured.


This might be even more difficult to achieve, as a process and as an outcome, when we are both making and reflecting on what we have made when it’s about futures. Often design is characterised as a tacit mode of knowledge building in which what is known is embedded or remains silent within a design object or activity or embodied within our experience of it. This does in itself form a mode of knowing, but it leaves that knowing under-articulated, some say. 

Design has an additional problem for itself and for outsiders in that its tacit knowledge making may also hide some of its own internal language. That language is crucial for how designers and design educators and researchers communicate in a wider community of practice. It’s also a matter of access for people outside of design who may not work with the same processes, tools and methods. Design does need to preserve, generate and circulate its own professional expertise and discourses. Yet it has many insights into matters of creative production and engagement that may offer value for others.


This part of the LEXICON is arranged according to semantic or meaning categories.
Semantics is a field of Linguistics that concerns meaning. It uses the key terms sense (and reference. In our here, we use semantics as a general term to refer to how words are sorted by the work they do.

We have developed 12 semantic categories. These categories are built and realised by arranging entries by thematic meaning. These categories are all design oriented, though they may not be explicitly labelled so. We drew them up by sorting 600 or so futures related words into sets or types. We used the words and some given categories to develop our set of 12. We narrowed down the words to THE 200 FUTURES WORDS also included in the LEXICON.

Semantic relations refers to the grouping of words according to their meaning types. These types are arranged to present different but connected aspects of how design, futures and literacies may be understood. This is a matter of making groupings by fields or topics. 

It is also about working with what are called sense and references in the formal area of Semantics in Applied Linguistics. This part of the LEXICON does not go into details on Semantics. What it does do is take you through processes of seeing how the categories are shaped and what they include, with chances to work with your own understanding and use of language. 

It is important to remember that individual words always have meaning because of how they are used in a context, whether social or cultural, technical or specialist.


The categories are presented in pairs to provide some measure of proximity between aspects of shaping this meaning making activity. A short description of each category is given.


2. Read through the 12 categories and study them for 5 minutes.

3. Then take a sheet of paper/open a new document, and write down as many of the categories as you can recall.

4. Compare your notes with the list of the 12 categories and make any adjustments.

5. Re-read the TABLE OF SEMANTIC CATEGORIES (List only)

6. Return to your list and now try to write out a one line text is italics stating what the category does.

7. Compare your notes with the one liners in italics.


1. Return to the  TABLE OF SEMANTIC CATEGORIES (List only)

2. Look through the list once more.

3. Choose two categories that best relate to the work/project you are currently busy with.

4. Try to describe what those two categories mean in how you are approaching your work.

5. Now draw two images of your own style/form/medium that represent your sense of what that work concerns.

Download this UNIT in printable format: 

Print Version



On product semantics: Krippendorf, K. (10995). The Semantic Turn. London: Taylor & Francis.
Vihma, S. (1995). Products As Representations: A Semiotic and Aesthetic Study of Design Products. Helsinki: University of Art and Design.

On social semiotics:
van Leeuwen, T. (2005). Introducing Social Semiotics. Abingdon: Routledge.
Hodge, B. (2017). Social Semiotics for a Complex World: Analysing Language and Social Meaning. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Language and digital media:
Martinec, R. & van Leeuwen, T. (2008). The Language of New Media Design: Theory and Practice. London: Routledge.

Semantic maps:

Makhoul, Annie, and Simon Morely. 2015. The Winchester Guide to Worlds and Concepts for International Students in Art, Media and Design. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell.

Marenko, Betti. 2018a. “The un-designability of the virtual. Design from problem-solving to problem-finding.” In UnDesign: Critical Practices at the Intersection of Art and Design, edited by Gretchen Coombs, Andrew McNamara and Gavin Sade, 1-30. London: Routledge.


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