Language is a set of rules and conventions used for understanding and communication. Every language has a specific set of protocols that prescribe usage. A person who grows up learning Spanish has access to a different set of words and conventions than a person who develops communicating with Hebrew. For example, we can communicate the concept of an “experience” in German and English via language. However, German has two different words to express discrete types of experiences, while English only has a single word for experience. In German, speakers can choose the perfect word to convey meaning. English speakers must add other words to experience to capture German’s single-word meanings.

Visual languages are no different. Physical gestures in some cultures can mean friendship, while others may signify an insult. In many cultures, holding up a middle finger is understood as an insult. But the meaning will be lost on a person who does not know what a middle finger signifies.

Language is a two-way concept. It is a resource people pull from to understand thoughts and ideas, and it’s also used to communicate those ideas to others. People who possess a vast bank of language resources can comprehend and communicate ideas across a broad concept range. People use this language bank to make meaning. When faced with a situation, concept, or phenomena, people reach into their language bank to define it. If a person lacks sufficient language, they will often have a hard time explaining the matter at hand.

Designers must consider language carefully when creating outcomes. If the language used in a product is not accessible to a person or persons, communication will suffer. At best, users will be annoyed when language is “off.” At worst, they may abandon the design or even suffer insult due to a language gaffe.

Examples of Language

  • People call a soft drink a “Coke” in the southern United States, a “pop” in the east, and a “soda” in the midwest.
  • People in the Cincinnati area call a Reeses Peanut Butter Cup a “Ree-see Cup”

Researching Language

Examining language when researching for design reveals the ways people prefer to communicate. It helps designers get a sense of the words and gestures people use to convey messages. When designers know the style in which people communicate, designers can use words, processes, and techniques that align with these modes.

Questions to Ask

  • Why did they choose that word over another word?
  • Why do people use one medium over another to communicate a certain message?
  • What is the style of language people use in this context?

Look For

  • The tone used when communicating
  • Word choices used when communicating
  • Style of communication
  • Range/scope of language usage



Updated: June 22, 2024 7:37 am
two white women using sign language to have a conversation with one another
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