Chapter 20: The Materials of Semantic Function provides a framework for using language to analyze a system in terms of its discrete elements. This semantic approach focuses on careful inspection of the relationships and protocols that define the operations in a network. Hinton places emphasis on clear labeling and organization of each architectural member at all steps.


This section delineates some of the fundamental areas of the semantic function. As Hinton phrases it, “These are general framing devices for helping us think through what we are making, and with what elements” [1]. The framing devices can be broken down into a series of nested circles, forming a growing mesh of connections. The chosen categories for information architecture are Labels, Relationships, and Rules. They relate to the Klyn model of Ontology, Taxonomy, and Choreography, and as such are paired appropriately in the next sections.

Labels and OntologyEdit

The notion of labeling something helps to understand it and manipulate it. Similarly, ontology represents the meaning behind certain words, such as labels. Labels encompass all the names that can be applied to objects or ideas. Klyn's definition of ontology is "What we mean when we say what we say" [2]. It represents the connection between a word and its definition. The pair make up the simplest level of an architecture by giving common forms of reference to concepts and elements, which in turn allows for classification and organization without introducing complexity. A specific example chosen of a bad label is the familiar “cloud” computing structure, which obfuscates the meaning of the decentralized server system and does not explain the repercussions of its use. These unclear labels have been shown to frustrate users more than improve the immersion. As Hinton states, “...[S]emantic environments need seams that clearly indicate where and how one context joins to another” [3]. Having clearly defined labels that are observable and understandable is necessary for a good user experience and a healthy system.

Relationships and TaxonomyEdit

Relationships make up the dependable connections between elements, and are crucial to usability. Hinton uses examples such as hyperlink behavior to underline this point – links must behave predictably or users will lose an important tool and become frustrated. Labeled elements can have relationships, and these relationships themselves are subject to labels. The term taxonomy is detailed to represent the connections between nodes and how these connections interact. Since ontologies are definitions within a context, they rely on taxonomies to define these contexts. In Hinton's words, “When we design environments in which different perspectives are in play, we can use taxonomies to create thesauri to do these translations” [4]. These thesauri describe many different ways to interpret a design element, and serve to expand the available context space of the design by including logical, empirical paths. Encompassing all the possible contexts that may affect a design's perception is mentioned in Chapter 22: Models and Making. The section ends with examples of navigating a doctor's office (and the tools people rely on to do so) and the benefits of a faceted classification, or having a number of attributes that represent relationships.

Rules and ChoreographyEdit

Rules represent the structures that connect relationships on the order of action. Any course of action taken by an agent relies on rules to achieve its goals. Choreography is a more expansive term that is one or many rule sets that define a system. The choreography of a system is the flow of action within it, which can be broken down into the individual taxonomies that explain how the ontological elements interact. One powerful example of choreography as a design strategy is shown in smartphone applications. These applications readily fit a more specific interaction than a browser, and can tailor to an individual through their smartphone features such as local storage and location services. As Hinton says, “With smartphones and ambient devices, services can be choreographed intimately with individual user action, on the fly” [5]. This choreography is not often rigid in nature, but rather a series of elements that can be mixed and matched to the user's benefit. The author compares this view of rules with improvisational dancing, and how the previously designed moves can be combined into an almost infinite number of unique dance routines. The concept of choreography necessitates an architecture that can adjust to a context, which is accomplished in Chapter 15: Information as Architecture. The architecture must allow for recombination in a way that users expect and understand, or they will likely be frustrated with a system.

The Organization as MediumEdit

This final section details how organizations are comprised of information and its structures, which can be further broken down into the three elements previously listed. Organizations function on the correlations of information, mimicking the model explained in this chapter. These correlations provide a usable framework for context design.

There is much value to the information architecture world in decomposition of already formed systems into their smaller elements, such as legacy businesses being analyzed and altered for better workflow. Hinton gives several examples of businesses that seem to be made of disorganized elements and how they manage to use language to form an understandable set of rules and protocols to handle this complexity. The extensive rigor associated with business dealings extends to design choices, and having a solid theoretical basis to explain design choices improves the chance of success. A full understanding of the language associated with the design space can provide a valuable sense of scope when designing a system.


This chapter functions as the logical offspring of Language as Infrastructure, mentioned earlier in the book. It describes Language as a tool for understanding and communication, and serves as an excellent starting point for establishing an architecture. More importantly, Hinton argues that semantic elements can be used to understand an architecture already in place.

In terms of macroscopic design and implementation, this chapter may initially seem to be too detailed to be of practical use; however, there are many foreseeable situations during a design project where clear communication of labeled elements can be crucial in clarifying the product. Many fields of science emphasize common nomenclature as a mantra for unambiguous communication and increased fundamental understanding. When a design problem seems to be too complex to approach, taking the time to label each element and observe its relation can clarify the importance of a piece within a greater context.

One advantage of the semantic approach is that the granularity of the finite elements is at the discretion of the designer. Individual ontological elements may be defined in exhaustive detail, as in the information sciences[6], or broadly defined using obvious qualities[7]. This choice is equally applicable to the taxonomy and choreography elements being defined, allowing for a wide range of formality. One can use semantic evaluation as a supplemental top-layer analysis or a stand-alone approach to understanding a system, depending on the detail desired.

For designs that people can interpret as a writing problem, this chapter provides an extremely valuable framework for understanding a system using the same tools that comprise writing: namely, words and sentences. By establishing clear labels for a system, writing can provide excellent referentiality and convey meaning in a way relevant to the system at hand. Relationships and rules can be directly rendered into sentences, greatly improving communication with users over non-written realizations. Semantic organization essentially moves a design problem into a predictable writing space for analysis and application.

The two complimentary systems provided here can be viewed as a formal approach with empirical results. This is in contrast to the immersion method of study, which is less mathematically complete but produces a more human outlook on the system. Since the ethnographic total immersion method has a greater resource cost (personnel, time, associated costs, etc.) it is valuable to consider a semantic approach before committing to another design strategy.


  1. Hinton, Andrew, and Peter Morville. Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture. Sebastopol: O'Reilly, 2014. Print. Page 353
  2. Hinton, Andrew, and Peter Morville. Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture. Sebastopol: O'Reilly, 2014. Print. Page 355 
  3. Hinton, Andrew, and Peter Morville. Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture. Sebastopol: O'Reilly, 2014. Print. Page 358 
  4. Hinton, Andrew, and Peter Morville. Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture. Sebastopol: O'Reilly, 2014. Print. Page 363 
  5. Hinton, Andrew, and Peter Morville. Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture. Sebastopol: O'Reilly, 2014. Print. Page 367 

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