Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Words and Meanings

Last Tuesday I attended a Meetup event hosted by David Damaree, of the Chicago-based typography firm Typekit, where he spoke about “Naming Things." The hour focused on the role of naming and domain modeling in making good software and good design. He went through good and bad examples from branding, user experience and code. Sounded pretty awesome but sadly, we mostly just got to hear about the difficulties Typekit had establishing naming conventions on their own website, and how hard it was to decide which definition of “Font” to use. And while that is tricky, since it can mean many things; a metal type character of a single size and style; a digital file of a character set; a database object bla bla bla… I know, I stopped listening too, and I’m a petty big fan of typography.

So the talk wasn’t so great, but alas, what I did find interesting was his use of the Magritte painting “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” to illustrate how words mean different things to different people. While the picture of a pipe isn’t actually a pipe (I love you Magritte) and the letters P-I-P-E also isn’t actually a pipe, it does differentiate that from a cigar. So when you say “pipe” while people will hopefully know that is not a cigar, you also don’t want them to expect a different sort of pipe:

People’s perception of what you are talking about when you say “pipe” will change depending on their understanding of the word, so what is important is to define a word and then establish consistency.

What really drove the point home for me though was the phrasing of the invitation. the event would have drinks and appitizers provided by Groupon, I pictured domestic beer, cheap wine and maybe some cocktails along with some passed hors d’oeuvres, when actually they meant a few liter bottles of diet coke and a pile of empty pizza boxes.

Ah ha! Words mean different things to different people, you say? I see your point, sir, I see your point.