Design language

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  • “Design languages, formal or intuitive, lie at the heart of all design and development processes and tools.” (Gibbons & Brewer, 2005:111).
  • A design language is “a tool that designers use to communicate designs, plans, and intentions to each other and to the users of their artifacts” (Botturi, 2006: 268)
  • “Notational systems, used in mature fields of study, are closely related to design languages. The future of a technological field depends on the ability to communicate ideas and changes with others in the field. Instructional technology is one field that can benefit from a notation system enabling designers to duplicate, execute, and communicate their ideas” (Waters & Gibbons 2004: 57).

See also:

Dimensions of Design Languages

Gibbons & Brewer (2005:115-118) distinguish the following dimensions along which design languages may vary:

1. Complex vs. simple: E.g. Chinese writing has a notation system including 50’000 characters. In contrast navigation icons used in an airport use a very limited set of symbols. Simple languages require less investment to learn.

2.Precise vs. imprecise. A good example of a precise system is notation system used in chemistry whereas spelling of foreign names or indications about difficulty levels and interactivity in pedagogical metadata are the opposite.

3.Formality & standardization: Formalization helps to add rigor to a design but only standardization (implying systematic analysis) will allow to insure that each element is fully understood.

4.Personal vs. shared. A similar issue is related to the fact that design languages often emerge with individuals, making them public and publicly used involves a longer process of negotiation and creation of a solid symbol system.

5.Implicit vs. explicit. Some design languages (or parts) only may exist implicitly i.e. influence actions and decisions. On the other end of the spectrum, there exist design languages whose terms and rules are fully specified

6.Standardized vs. non standardized: Standardization implies that languages are expected to be functional in a wide setting. Products confirming to a standard can or should function smoothly. Typically, main-stream e-learning standards were made with this goal in mind. Non-standard languages are either ignored or reflect future or different design stances.

7.Computable vs. non-computable. E.g. natural language is rather non-computable, whereas XML-based e-learning formats that we will introduce below can easily be read by a computer program.

As you may implicitly infer from this list, design languages address a range of issues that are important to education. On could argue that their major purpose is to capture abstract and/or implicit ideas to create transferable and discusseable designs. Another argument is related to rigor, i.e. better quality.

The current state in educational technology

“In the field of instructional software development, designers and producers lack a common, explicit notation system (Gibbons, Nelson & Richards, 2000; Waters & Gibbons, 2004). A notation system is an embedded element of a design language and captures abstract ideas to create transferable designs (Gibbons & Brewer, 2005). Part of the reason why designers and producers use different languages and notation systems, even though they are discussing the same instructional software, is simply that they are interested in different aspects of the product and thus need to describe different features and functionalities (Nelson, 2003).” (Boot et al. 2007: 919).

See educational design language.


  • Eddy W. Boot, Jon Nelson, Jeroen J.G. van Merriënboer, Andrew S. Gibbons (2007). Stratification, elaboration and formalisation of design documents: Effects on the production of instructional materials, British Journal of Educational Technology 38 (5), 917–933. [doi:10.1111/j.1467-8535.2006.00679.x]
  • Botturi, L. (2006). E2ML. A visual language for the design of instruction. Educational Technologies Research & Development, 54(3), 265-293. Abstract/PDF (Access restricted)
  • Botturi, L. and S. Todd Stubbs (eds.) (2007). Handbook of Visual Languages for Instructional Design: Theories and Practices, Information Science Reference. ISBN 1599047292, Google books preview
  • Gibbons, A. S. (2003). What and how designers design? A theory of design structure. TechTrends, 47(5), 22–27. PDF (Access restricted)
  • Gibbons, Andrew, S. and Erin K. Brewer, (2005) “Elementary principles of design languages and design notation systems for instructional design”. In J.M. Spector, C. Ohrazda, A. Van Schaack, and D. Wiley (Eds.), Innovations to instructional technology: Essays in honor of M. David Merrill, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah NJ, pp. 111-129.
  • Waters, Sandie, H. & Andrew, S. Gibbons (2004). Design languages, notation systems, and instructional technology: A case study: Educational Technology Research and Development, 52(2), 57-69. PDF (Access restricted)