Architecture as a discipline manifests as a form of communication that transcends language barriers and involves the interaction of signs, symbols, and functions to convey its existence. The science of this interaction is called semiotics. The scientific study of these elements often creates a narrative of the architectural setting thus shaping perceptions and views. Semiotics is a framework that influences design decisions considering the cultural, social, and psychological aspects.

Unearthing semiotics through a historical lens

Linguistically speaking, semiotics deals with the science of signs and symbols. In the 1960s, Ronald Bathes propelled the theoretical concept of semiotics well beyond language. He established a link between semiotics and various forms irrespective of their context or boundaries. This understanding helped to unearth a diverse spectrum of meanings associated with images, sounds, gestures, and objects. Theories of semiotics slowly began interlacing with the field of architecture, recognizing that architecture, similar to language, is viewed as a complex and intricate system of signs and symbols. Architecture as a building form can be compared to symbols of elements inspired by the historical, cultural, and social significance of that particular region. Origins of semiotics and subsequent application are often tied to the 20th century, post-modernist period, but its origin dates back to antiquity where unknowingly the ideas and implications leading to semiotics were employed, experimented on, and widely used. From the majestic temples of ancient Greece to the rock art of historic times have stood as potent communicators of human expression, culture, and spirituality. Egyptian architecture in particular exemplified the strategic application of semiotics through pyramids and the intricate hieroglyphs adorning the wall of the temples and tombs. Another iconic example is the Parthenon, or the Elgin Marbles which stand as a testament to semiotics in architecture. 

Architectural Semiotics Decoding the Language of Space - Sheet1
Iktinos and Kallikrates, Parthenon, Acropolis, Athens, 447–432 B.C.E. © Steven Zucker

The language of semiotics evolves with architecture, together weaving intricate narratives that introduce symbolic dialogs with layers of meanings beneath them waiting to be unfolded and discovered.

The principles of semiotics in architecture

Semiotics revolve around the integration of the signified and the signifier. To elaborate on this concept, if a building can be perceived as a symbol, then the form of that symbol is the signifier, and the idea and meaning it conveys is what is being signified. The vocabulary of architectural forms constitutes the point, line, and surface in two-dimensional as well as three-dimensional forms. 

Architectural Semiotics Decoding the Language of Space - Sheet2
the first signifier and signified of architecture from the perspective of semiotics © De Saussure 1995

The symbolic value in these elements does not lie in its physical or structural form but is comprehended through the semantics shown by the external form. A building as a whole can be considered as a symbol that can be broken down into smaller symbolic representations and these symbols create harmony and unity as a whole. In architecture, semiotics impart meanings to the element used and therefore this inspires the designer to explore, absorb and innovate on elements that have certain symbolic value, improve user interactions, and add vitality to the built form.

Design semiotics and its aesthetics in cultural context

Semiotics is a discipline that underpins an interdisciplinary approach. Cultural settings are semiotic and they are neither purely materialistic nor idealistic but exist as a combination of both. The cultural significance of semiotics in the context of architectural representation explores how buildings are perceived as tangible constructs that engage with the principles of semiotics (Peirce 1960; De Saussure 1966; Sebeok 2001). This survey emphasizes two aspects; representation and meaning, both of which are essential to understand the process of meaning-making within the vastness of communication. In the pursuit of survival, cultural significance is often undermined. In such situations, humans become an agent for construction rather than an object of assertion concerning cultural values found and formed within the spaces they occupy. The significance of semiotics extends beyond what is visual, it seeps through the layers of existence and adheres to the preservation of space with cultural narratives, beliefs, traditions, and identities. The concept of semiotics in its cultural lens reflects the spirit of a place and its inhabitants, affirming their presence in time and space. Semiotic elements and symbolic elements resonate with a particular culture and social setting. Architects can design spaces that evoke a sense of belonging and develop cultural continuity.

The psychological significance of semiotics in design

The linguistic framework defined by Ferdinand de Saussure provides a model for architects to analyze the psychological impact of design elements. By understanding the complexity between the signified and the signified, architects evoke emotional responses, creating a more meaningful connection between the user and the environment. Architects can influence emotions and states of mind through articulation, transformation, or sometimes semiotic manipulation. The choice of colors, lighting, spatial configuration, and the material selected can evoke feelings of comfort, excitement, or introspection. For example, a wellness facility decorated with minimal soothing colors and abundant natural light can calm anxiety and promote healing. The psychological influence of semiotics can be seen in the work of Louis Kahn. At the Salk Institute, Kahn meticulously uses semiotic elements to evoke emotion and introspection. For instance, a healthcare facility adorned with soothing minimal colors and abundant natural light can alleviate anxiety and promote healing. 

Architectural Semiotics Decoding the Language of Space - Sheet3
The iconic central plaza at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. Photo © Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

The psychological impact of semiotics can be found in the works of Louis Kahn. In the Salk Institute, Kahn meticulously employs semiotic elements to evoke emotions and introspection. The placement of the open courtyard and the connection of the library to the landscape view represents a symbolic gesture of connecting knowledge to the outside world. The deliberate use of grey concrete melds with the Pacific Ocean, exerting continuous momentum and flow. The structure intertwines with the ocean, horizon, and sky and they form an integral part that connects one to the cosmic world.

The Social significance of architectural semiotics

Semiotics empower architects to design spaces that catalyze social interaction, while at the same time portraying as muted narrators conveying information through societal corridors. Social interaction within architectural spaces is deeply intertwined with semiotics. From the arrangement of seating to the choice of materials, every element communicates and allows for interaction between individual user groups. Landscape architect Charles Jencks expertly employs symbolic communication across his designs and creations. His remarkable endeavor in Scotland ingeniously interlaces semiotics into his design. Jencks adopts recognizable symbols like spirals and stone circles as vehicles to convey the notions of cosmology and astrophysics. Through these forms, visitors delve into a dialogue with the universe.

Charles Jencks models of sign and symbols _The Semiological Triangle © Charles Jencks

Semiotics can be understood as a guiding path to exchange meaningful conversations between elements, forms, and users. Spaces transformed into narratives resonate with human experiences. From intricate historical etchings to contemporary conceptual built forms, semiotics reveal itself as a language of depth, artistry, and purpose.

Reference List

May 28th, Ev, 2019 and Price, er (n.d.). Inspiration as an Aspect of Monumentality: The Salk Institute. [online] Monument Lab. Available at:

‌Spiotta, F. (n.d.). THE ORIGIN OF SEMIOTICS. [online] Available at: [Accessed 18 Aug. 2023].

‌World, R. (2015). Design Semiotics: Aesthetics in Cultural Context | Research World. [online] Available at: (2011). The Architectural Theory of Semiotics. [online] Available at: [Accessed 13 Apr. 2019].

Aiello, G. (2020). Inventorizing, situating, transforming: Social semiotics and data visualization. [online] JSTOR. Available at: [Accessed 18 Aug. 2023].

‌ Arkirama (2018). What is SEMIOTICS in Architecture?. [online] Arquinétpolis. Available at:

Brewminate: A Bold Blend of News and Ideas. (2016). Inside the Conservation Work at the Salk Institute, Louis Kahn’s Masterpiece. [online] Available at:


Afnan Ashraf is an artist, architect and an educator. She is the principal architect at TwoPoints ArtLab and a founding member of Coearth Foundation. Afnan excels in developing brand identities, conceptual storylines, and website content. She emphasises on a research based approach fueled through collaboration, creativity and critical thinking.