Artemy Lebedev

§ 106. Coding. Part one

June 21, 2004

Coding is one of designer’s most effective tools. Under coding we understand supplying an object or an entity with additional recognizable features. Symbols, forms, positions, colors, sounds etc. may perform as codes. Some codes are widely known, others are known by specialists only, but as their definition suggests, any code has to be decoded.

Code—in communications, an unvarying rule for replacing a piece of information such as a letter, word, or phrase with an arbitrarily selected equivalent.
Encyclopaedia Britannica 2003

Symbolic coding

Figures, letters, signs, icons, geometric figures etc. may serve as codes. In the example given below light emitting diodes turn on besides pictograms, signaling a definite status of the server.

Apple Computer. Xserve RAID. 2004

Form coding

The object’s form may be either functional or informative. A classic example of form coding is the hands of a clock.


A salt shaker traditionally differs from a pepper shaker in the number of holes: several holes for salt and one for pepper.

TERU Salt & Pepper Shakers

Not only is this kind of coding informative (additional markings are superfluous)—it is also functional: the consumption of salt customarily outstrips that of pepper.

Chess is a complex game where different figures are used. Apart from having a definite name, each form is subject to certain rules of action. On the contrary, checkers have the same form, which makes them a much simpler game.

Art. Lebedev Studio. S&P. 2003

In electric and electronic devices different plugs have different functionalities. Exceptions to this rule lead to consequences that can’t be good.

For example, about 20 years ago Moscow districts had different electric potentials: in some places it was 200V, in the other—127V. However, all plugs and sockets looked alike, which caused lots of equipment to break down every year if connected to power supply without a transformer. Another example of lack of reason on a nationwide basis is Soviet loud speakers and radio sets with three embedded programs and without the tuning option that had the same plug as any other electric device.

Do not plug in into electric supply network
The Ministry of Metal Industry (MMI) of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR)
Elektrometallprom Trust
Radio Spare Parts Plant, Leningrad
Nominal voltage 30V

The warning “Do not plug in into electric supply network” that’s written on the back of the device wasn’t usually read until the radio set burnt out.

Position coding

In this kind of coding the position of a sign or sound in space or on a plane is viewed as a code. In the majority of examples right-left or up-down positions are used. Unlike other coding methods, position coding has a limited functionality, since the viewer can assuredly recognize six positions of an object in space or nine on a plane at most.

A fine example of position coding is the markings of distance to the nearest sewer manhole that have become a fixture garnishing city buildings’ walls. On the one side of the marking there’s the manhole type (e.g. D which stands for drain), on the other—the manhole number. But we are most of all interested in the numbers around the T-shaped navigator. The upper number is the distance in meters from the plate on the wall to the manhole. The number on the right- or left-hand side from the vertical line signifies the distance in meters in the relevant direction.

6.5 m off the wall, 5 m to the left
St. Petersburg, 2002

3.6 m off the wall
St. Petersburg, 2002

m off the wall, 6 m to the right
St. Petersburg, 2002

That’s very convenient, considering that there may be a heap of snow, leaves or just dirt on a manhole lid.

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