De-Sign: A Lecture on Semiotics and Meaning

Our first lecture in the series of CTS rotations focused on denotation and connotation, both in written and visual language. As a class, we explored the various ways in which this system of symbology is complex, dependant on the human conversation, and, at its core, ever changing. This blog post will describe the base technicalities of the subject and then go into three case studies which I found particularly interesting. However, to explain these complications and complexities, we must start at the very beginning, which is, as Julie Andrews so aptly explains, a very good place to start.

Lesson Number One:

Semiotics is the study of signs, and the overarching container which deals with denotation, connotation, and a host of other complex topics. In this field, we learned about three key individuals: Ferdinand de Saussure, Charles Sanders Pierce, and Roland Barthes. Each of these visual and lingual theorists came up with a set of terms which we will need to delve into, in order to understand the very framework of why the duplicity of language is important to understand.

Ferdinand de Saussure was a Swiss professor, who passed his views on symbols on to his students during university lectures. Saussure identified the difference between the signifier, the signified, and the sign itself when discussing symbology.

The signifier is the literal object or word which is presented to you; take the logo of the tech company Apple. The signified, then, is the conceptual or imaginative meaning behind the literal object. So when we see the Apple logo, the immediate implication is wealth, style , class, ability, and innovation. The sign is the combination of that which is literal and that which is conceptual. So then the Apple logo and the meaning behind it, including the simple phonetics “ah-ple” combine to create an interactive cultural experience.

Next up is Charles Sanders Peirce, an American pragmatist. He contributed the three terms indexical, iconic, and symbolic symbols.

Iconic symbols are symbols which display a likeness to their target, i.e., an icon of a dog means “dog”. Indexical symbols, then, are symbols which suggest something else entirely. For example, a paw print on a sign does not show the dog itself, but it references its presence. Lastly, symbolic symbols do not look like anything in particular and are not indicative of physical properties, but instead have a culturally accepted meaning. A heart shape, for example, means love, and if used in conjunction with the previous examples, means you love dogs.

Last in this series is Roland Barthes, a Post Structuralist French thinker and semiotician who dealt quite a bit with imagery and photography. Barthes perpetuated the difference between denotation, connotation and myth.

Denotation is the literal meaning of the symbol or image, connotation is the subconscious and associative meaning of the symbol, and myths are the self-validating truths which occur when connotation is put in discourse or gossip. Barthes actually put it best with his example of a French magazine, showing a black soldier saluting the French flag.

In Barthes’ example, the denotation is the image of a black soldier saluting the French flag, and, subsequently, the second denotation is the soldier himself saluting the French flag. This is the literal depiction; what the audience actually sees. The connotation of the image, then, is what people think when they see the image, so possibly an image of patriotism, duty, loyalty, or discipline. The last term, myth, is the concept that the great empire of France has great, loyal, and equal subjects. This myth is something that can only come to be when placed in the context of a greater society and a greater discussion.

These three men and the nine terms associated with them form the basis of semiotics, and also inform the following case studies and thought processes which were inspired by the class.

Case Study One: Seven to Seventy; Cultural Progression in Relation to Lingual Terminology

Time is a construct and so is language. So what about language and time?

The sentence at the very beginning of this piece is a classic example: “…we must start at the very beginning, which is, as Julie Andrews so aptly explains, a very good place to start.” Now, if you have ever seen The Sound of Music, or know anything about its songs, you will immediately understand the reference and its implication: understanding a complex topic from relatively no knowledge by taking one step at a time, or, just as appropriately, find a smile on your face caused by light-hearted nostalgia. But this difference of individual connotations aside, the point remains clear; you know what I mean and even where it comes from.

However, show that same sentence to a child, say, around the age of seven to nine, and they might not register anything beyond “well…duh, the beginning is a good place to start,” let alone recognise the name Julie Andrews. This exemplifies the metamorphosis associated with our culture, its ever-changing rhythm, and its system of cultural significance. In design, this same system is very clear, as what may resonate with the populace now in regards to styles, trends, use of language, and, yes, symbols, may not have in the past and may not in the future.

As a small aside on the topic, I’ll also give you something fun and downright strange to think about: the divide even goes down to a linguistic level. For one example, we as a culture no longer speak in Old English or even Shakespearean Early Modern English, because we have evolved in such a way that it no longer holds relevance. So then, words like “forsooth”, meaning “an ironic use of the word ‘indeed’” become a wide-eyed demonstration of creased foreheads and confused debates on how to pronounce this strange and generally unused collection of phonemes. Simple enough, it’s an old word, and why would you ever use it anyway?

But now put this in a modern context. We all love music, and those of you readers who grew up listening to Billy Joel, Elvis, and the Beatles on records or have ever heard your parents talk about it know perfectly well what I mean when I say, “Listen to that vinyl!”.

Now repeat this same exercise with the seven-year-old. The likelihood is that they will not know what on Earth a “vinyl” is, what it does, or even, possibly, how to say the word. In other words, the collection of sounds we have attributed to mean a synonym for a ‘record’ mean nothing to them, because there is no tangible or intangible meaning associated with that combination of sounds.

In design and in art, we see this all the same, particularly with symbols. As we discussed in class, current Uni students rarely are aware of a system of flag gestures used by aeroplanes and ships, and fewer could tell you the name ‘semaphore’. Yet the Peace Sign, shown below, is created by that system, and is universally acknowledged and understood among the population.

Meaning and even phonetics change over time, and especially in design, this is the great challenge: how do we shape a common, understood, and prevailing visual language from all areas of society?

Case Study Two: Language is arbitrary. Meaning is not.

An object is only half the symbol; a sign is created through the interaction of the user. So, in theory, it does not matter what phonetics you assign to anything, it is the cultural and societal, as well as deeply personal, interpretation that activates the symbol in a lingual and communal sense.

Indeed, this is why languages work: they are a convention of similar meanings based on an agreed-upon set of sounds, dots, and symbols. The interesting bit comes in when connotations create variant feelings and meanings for each individual in a society. While based on a common cultural database, individual associations highly influence the essence of language, i.e., its ability to communicate specific meanings.

Not to mention, someone who lives in the very northern communities of Greenland might have a very different connotative meaning of snow then we do where I grew up in the north-eastern United States. This is also what makes translation so difficult; every language has a common cultural database which is shared by those who speak it, yet may be impossible to replicate with words, or even emotionally for other peoples and other cultures.

In incredibly varied and different languages, such as Chinese versus Arabic versus English, this may be a commonly understood fact; it makes perfects sense that the three languages are difficult to transcribe and fully understand to one other, as each has a completely different system of writing and culture. However, a very interesting plot twist comes in when we use the exact same symbols, both visually and verbally, but speak different languages, i.e. body language.

For example, let’s say I am mad at my brother. When I say, “I’m fine. (emphasis on the full stop)” and subsequent turn away from him to play on my phone, I mean I am not at all fine and generally furious. But that may come across to him as “oh ok, she’s fine and just wanted to check the time on her phone.”

This is the equivalence of people speaking different languages with the Latin alphabet. We both have the same system of writing, and we have, generally, the same body structure, but if you speak French and I speak English, we will not be able to effectively communicate. The interesting twists then, come in when you introduce new and uncertain symbols, like the French c-cedilla (ç), which usually does not exist in English, and I must learn how to fathom this new character and its pronunciation/meaning. Though on the opposite side of the spectrum, we may speak two completely different languages, and yet still understand the implications of body signs and even have direct equivalents for language.

However, in another interesting thought experiment between those two extremes, people may, as in written or spoken languages, learn to be bilingual in body language; so, for example, you can learn to interpret your partner’s body language differently than your Mum’s. In design, this comes up when analysing target groups; especially if you have more than one, you must learn to be bilingual in that.

This, however, is a more specific example on this topic.

Body language exists in dialects, as does the language of connotation. For example, someone from London could be talking with someone from Austin, Texas, and the meaning each wishes to relay to the other may be wholly impossible to achieve because of the varied upbringings, speech patterns, and connotations each person brings to the table. They are both speaking English, but each get something different out of the conversation, or hear something different. Indeed, during this lecture, I heard the word “arbitrary” as “arbour tree” because I have an American, and not a British, accent like the speaker did. Aside from vocals, however, the individual connotations of symbols and language go down to an individual level, say between two people with different family structures.

This is a key challenge in design. You as the designer are speaking a specific dialect of a visual language, which is informed by culture and research, and you must then speak to your audience, whether that’s one person or eight million. And each of these people may have a specific connotative history that makes them see what you design in entirely different ways.

Our question then, as designers, is asking how the symbology we produce interacts with the world, and, more challenging, how we can use the changing culture and the ever-present evolution of signs and language to forge a common ground and a common visual dictionary in humanity – or if that is even possible.

Case Study Three: Mythology

Roland Barthes’s description of the myth is a core tenant of semiotics, branding, and propaganda. In semiotics as a whole, a mythology can grow around a term, a person, a word, until it becomes something that far outreaches its initial meaning.

A similar cycle can occur in the branding world, as brands use mythologies, connotations, and text as directions, selling points, and cult connections. Many brands build an experience, a persona, a myth, and not just a product or a service. And with the perpetuation of the myth, they grow into a self-validating body of experience and human luxury.

Take the example of Starbucks. With a consistent brand identity across many countries and a persona of very specific coffee and a very specific, unique, and ‘royal’ experience. While also a connotation, the brand took new life with social media and its unique myth being perpetuated through its audiences’ spheres of influence.

The same is true of Nike and Adidas; the shoe brands make the consumer think that its products increase speed, as a connotation, but the myth surrounding them, which is also in part built by advertisement and sponsorships, promotes the myth of unprecedented quality, speed, and other athletic values.

In class, we completed worksheets which fully exemplified these brand mythologies, such as our example of Vodafone versus Giffgaff.

Like Adidas and Nike, both companies have similar products, but market them slightly differently. In this case, however, the difference is much more severe, with Giffgaff’s hip teen target market and corresponding advertisement compared with Vodafone’s target market of professional working adults. Through their brand, testimonials, and advertising, each company portrays a very clear mythology around itself, what it can do, and what it stands for.

Now, on to politics. The first thing to understand is that mythologies are self-validating truths: one person perpetuates an idea, another agrees, and so it becomes a common consensus.

This is what happened during the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. Donald Trump was elected as Commander in Chief following a series of media campaigns and news reports which perpetuated the myth of a candidate who would make radical change to America.

The myth snowballed into a xenophobic, racist, and downright terrifying agglomeration of stories and self-validating facts to promote the image of a presidential candidate who would “solve all problems”, all while villainizing the contender Hillary Clinton with a series of false accusations. The dangerous part in that was that the people began to believe what were, essentially, wild fabrications, based on no factual information. For example, Trump and many other Americans created imagery like the collage below under the hashtag #HillaryHealth, which perpetuated that Hillary Clinton was unfit to be president because she was seriously ill.

In this piece, those who sent out the photographs used the denotation (photographs of Hillary coughing) and their connotation (that Hillary was seriously ill) to perpetuate a myth (that Hillary was unfit to be president).

Especially in biased social media posts, newspapers, television media, and images, the myth echoed around the voting American populace and continues to impact the situation even today. Particularly note the concept of so-called “fake news”; one of the many Trump myths is that the media is biased and fake. This mythology took a dangerous swing and has become the default excuse for many politicians and for the administration as a whole, and all though no more than marginally true statements and the myths reverberation in an echo chamber of American citizens.

The same is true of the current Brexit situation, which was provoked, in large part, by inadequate information and mythologies based on loose ideals. For example, when Boris Johnson claimed that all the money the UK pays to the EU would be redistributed into the NHS, he pushes that denoted statement and its connotation into the popular discourse.

               Modern politics are a highly visual and highly mythological game, where reputation often outweighs policy. In this way, mythologies in visual communication have an immense power to create and change perceptions, and, if the candidates use them correctly, to defame one party while lifting the other, all through the simple act of putting one person’s connotation into discourse.

Final Notes and Analysis

As a final note, in relation to this lesson, I have isolated four key topics I would like to explore in a further analysis essay:

  1. How does mythology and the self-validating fact influence the media surrounding politics? (This would, of course, be called Facebook, Facebook on the Wall)
  2. How do arbitrary symbols and language affect and reflect our changing times and generations?
  3. How can semiotics transcend – or harm – the language barrier?
  4. How does branding and mythology play into social causes and social branding?

Denotation, connotation, and its surrounding implications are a staple of our world, the way we interact, and how we receive and send knowledge in our society. Especially in branding and politics, this use of visual semiotics can have widespread consequences, and no matter in what sphere of life we find ourselves in, we are impacted by them.


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One thought on “De-Sign: A Lecture on Semiotics and Meaning

  1. Fabulous post Karoline, try to include links, and more images. Case studies are excellent to show your analysis (Saussure nationality Swiss!). Sets and example to the class, and try out the Dear Andrew and Dene approach to the next blog.


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