5 Reasons Why Design Language Makes Us All Bilingual

thumbnail_mitra_headshot[3]By: Mike Mitra, Art Director, Drumroll

We’re all bilingual. Sure, designers may use a primary language to communicate with the people around them, but we all know and understand a second language: the language of design. We use and interact with it every day. In fact, you’re using it right now as you read this article. The “X” in the corner of your browser closes the window, the little sun and cloud icon means it’s partly cloudy, the circle with a line coming out the side (something that used to be known as a magnifying glass) denotes ‘search,’ and so on. The simplicity of the sun and cloud graphic is something we’ve understood since we were children and is just one example of how design languages are ingrained in us from a very early age. Because of this, we’re comfortable reading and interpreting this language, using it to inform and empower us. It’s important to subscribe to the notion that your users speak and understand a certain dialect, and you should not betray that.

Here are five reasons why design language actually makes us all bilingual:

1. Innate familiarity or predictability

Just like the spoken language, design linguistics quickly become very familiar to us, and we start to use it with others in a way that makes sense. Take the sun graphic – and all the other iconographic shapes associated with weather. We fundamentally know that each has a specific meaning, and when one is used, the outcome is predictable.


Yahoo weather app, via PC Mag 

2. Established system or library 

The root of any design system is the particular method to which it establishes itself. Take the door handle, for example. If the door opens toward the opener, a handle is used to visually and functionally alert the user to pull the door. A similar thing happens when one has to push the door open. This is universally understood by all of us as the way that design tells us to act upon the door.

A similar response occurs in the world of digital design. One good example is the differences between iOS and Android. I like to think of them as ‘language dialects,’ as they perform the same purpose of communicating actions yet use different symbols, shapes, and colors to communicate it on similar hardware. Just as Android users recognize and are comfortable with the Android system of symbols and graphics, so too are iOS users comfortable with the iOS system. Yet, when you give an iPhone user an Android, there’s a distinct unfamiliarity to it, making it difficult to understand and frustrating to use. It’s akin to learning a different language – all of your preconceived understandings of a smartphone are slightly differentiated enough so to confuse you and make it difficult to perform simple functions, much how venturing to a different country with language and culture barriers make it difficult for travelers to feel comfortable and perform simple tasks like finding a restroom or ordering a coffee.

3. Providing direction

Much design simply facilitates or prompts action, and this also reigns true in design language. In the world of UI/UX, directional symbols and buttons prompt a user of different actions. Road signage and airport wayfinding symbols use established languages to tell you to turn left or right and inform where the baggage claim is located. Clear design language communicates simply and directly, allowing those who understand to make quick action. Think about that the next time you’re searching for the nearest bathroom sign before your flight.

4. Establishing or reflecting (brand) personality or purpose

Because design systems use familiar shapes and lines, a distinct nuance occurs when brands or software use these systems. To carry the spoken language metaphor, you can think of this as foreign accents ­– each region uses the same language but offers its own unique way of saying it, much like how brands can reflect their own brand personalities within their experience using the same design systems that we know. Brands like J. Crew, MTV, and LEGO all use very common design systems in UI/UX web experiences yet, at a glance, we can clearly see how each brand has its own personality that is vastly different than the others.



5. Scalability

With an established system comes the necessity to scale. Much like an alphabet adding accent marks or other symbols within its established set of letters, so too do the symbols and mechanism of design language evolve and grow as the need develops. We can think of design systems used in experiential environments—the airport, the mall, the amusement park – as good examples of conventional systems and how smart phones and app integrations have added to that experiential language we’ve grown to know. Now you can open the amusement park app and utilize much of the same symbols for navigation and utility but also utilize a variety of added design pieces that help you navigate both the physical park, the added features in the app, and the brand as a whole. The better a brand understands the design language, the more adept they will be at adding to that language to help their user have a better overall experience.

As we go further into evolving technology into our lives, so too will design language evolve. Additionally, as more and more of us become ingrained in our collective understanding of design
language, the more it will become the universal language that bridges us. It is this collectiveunderstanding that will help us continue to be worldlier and more connected as the industry – and world—around us grows in technology.

Mike Mitra is a Senior Art Director at Drumroll, an engagement agency based in Austin, offering a full range of marketing services. Mike has a diverse background in digital design, including app development and art direction for national brands.

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