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Information design: text message

(fig. 1) The app/keyboard Slated translates your messages to other languages on real time. In this specific case it’s translating English-Tagalog

When we think about music, photos, videos and text and how we are able to produce them and transmit them using technology it can be a process described as incredible, even magic, but very little understood. Even though as users it is not clear to us what is happening ‘behind the scenes’, we continue to use this medium to communicate and transmit this information. It might look like magic but it was designed by us to perform that way and to be interpreted by us. Let’s further analyze the specific case of the text message.

We know how to interpret text messages, emails, pictures or sounds when we receive them because the meaning comes from the symbolic system that surrounds them and the social use of said structures (Irvine, Intro to Information Theory in Meaning Systems). For example, when we read a text message and we understand the words in it it’s because of language and symbols. When we read a text message we are not interpreting the digital bits that transmitted it to our device, we understand the meaning of said transmission.

(fig. 2) Martin Irvine, Introduction to the Technical Theory of Information (p. 7)

If we look at the image above we can state that a very clear set of encoding/decoding it’s happening in this process, or it is designed to, in order to transmit our cognitive system however we want to describe it: information, message, and/or meaning.

First we take our social-cultural meaning, in this example it could be the alphabet in one specific language. Second, in “pattern matching” each symbol is correlated to tokens that are specific to the medium is being used, in this case it would be specifically for the text message and whatever device we’re using to receive said message. Third, those signals are transmitted from one device to another, for that to happen they need to be converted into a language that can be registered and displayed in the receiver’s device. Then, it seems to me that there are two ‘decoding’ stages: first, our device decodes that digital signal into symbols in our screen, and then we decode those symbols into words or ‘meaning’.

However, we can not separate the digital transmission from the meaning entirely, because the existence of the ‘meaning’ and the need to transmit it is what motivates, or the reason for, having a digital signal transmission designed to encode this ‘message’ or ‘meaning’ and transmit it to another device, that in turn will decode it into a symbolic structure that we can interpret. Therefore, the characteristics of our cognitive symbolic systems are going to be a key part into the design of digital transmission systems, because we are the ones designing it and interpreting it. 

In the case of the text message, we can see a few characteristics that are necessary for our interpretation of the signal received:

  • Symbols: it can be the alphabet or images (such as emojis) to help us ‘decipher’ the message.
  • Visual representation of said symbols that is appropriate for the receptor. For example, visually it has to resemble the symbolic structure as much as possible: the size of the font has to be adequate for reading, the shape and order in which the symbols appear has to make sense in whatever language the message is communicated through.
  • It has to follow the rules of the symbolic structure that it is transmitting in order to be interpreted. In the case of the text message, it has to follow the rules of reading and writing.

What is interesting is that this process of encoding the cognitive symbolic structure into a digital signal, then to be sent and decoded again into the same cognitive symbolic structure is invisible to us, we can’t see this “semiotic envelope” (Irvine, Introduction to the Technical Theory of Information, p. 7). We cannot see it, but it’s happening right there in our hands. It is black boxed. Why? it seems to me that, as we’ve mentioned before in class, this is a case of “I don’t care how it works only that it works”.



  • (fig. 1) Darrell Etherington, Slated iOS 8 Keyboard Translates Your Text Messages to Other Languages in Real Time, Tech Crunch, extracted October 18, 2017,
  • Martin Irvine, Intro to Information Theory in Meaning Systems, (extracted on October 16, 2017)
  • (fig. 2) Martin Irvine, Introduction to the Technical Theory of Information, (extracted on October 16, 2017)