Semiotics for beginners

The science behind semiotics may make your head spin, but it's essential you know the power of the messages your images convey. Mark Penfold gets to grips with the relationship between images and their meaning.

Designers, illustrators and typographers all practise semiotics on a daily basis, but rarely is the subject discussed in isolation. Perhaps because of this, it's seen as slightly esoteric, a discipline reserved for academics and thinkers rather than gritty urban designers.

However, conceived as a science capable of explaining the relationship between systems of images and meanings, semiotics deals with the same raw material as the graphic professions; it just uses a different vocabulary.

"In this country, what we need is more intellectual input into design," says typographer and designer Jonathan Barnbrook, voicing a belief common among thinking professionals. Creative professionals need to give themselves credit for the work they're already doing if they are to avoid becoming "stylists".

Sign Language

The dictionary describes semiotics as "the study of signs and symbols" and goes on to highlight the relationship between written signs and the concepts they represent in the real world, either as ideas or objects. For the designer, the creative mark maker, it's therefore about the complex relationship between images and their meanings.

Graphic artists take various visual fields and fill them with constantly changing symbols and signs to convey meaning. As Andrew Foster, an illustrator and lecturer at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, points out: "Illustrators are visual thinkers, not stylists."

Yet, despite this dry reputation, Andrew Stiff, head of the Digital Arts MA at London's University of the Arts, says, "[Semiotics] has allowed us to re-evaluate our surrounding systems and processes. No-one in a visual profession can ignore this subject's importance."

Barnbrook backs him up: "Deconstruction is the reason I'm a typographer," he says. "There's always a difference between the signified and the signifier." A f rm believer in the potential semiotics can unlock, Barnbrook believes: "Letterforms are full of cultural inconsistencies, flukes of history and contradictions."

The creative possibilities that emerge from the gaps between meaning and object are open to exploitation by the clever designer. According to Barnbrook, half the fun comes from playing with relationships, which are, "Often unconsciously understood by the viewer." As Foster notes, "Illustration can change people's opinions."

The viewer's unconscious ability to make connections is effectively the b-side of semiotics. "There may be a desired meaning in the relationship between signifier and signified on behalf of the creator, but it is the audience that has to interpret the meaning," says Stiff.

Context is paramount

Ferdinand de Saussure, Swiss linguist and philosopher, is widely credited with the invention of semiotics. His concept? A science capable of understanding all possible systems of signs, from language to music and, of course, the visual arts.

Although de Saussure concentrated his efforts on linguistics, he and many of his followers believed that sign systems worked in similar ways, regardless of their particular make-up. One such follower was the radical French thinker Roland Barthes, whose seminal work in the field, Mythologies (1957), exposed the relationship between visual communication and the status quo as a kind of myth-building project.

Taken as a whole, the signs form a spider's web of interlinked meanings and symbols, concepts and the images that suggest them. But these relations cannot be taken in isolation. Context is of paramount importance. Essentially, an image relies on context to bring out subtle meanings, and an understanding of the viewer's context will enable the image's creator to better code meaning into his work.

Reading the signs

Signifier and signified - together, they constitute a sign, the basic object studied by the science of semiotics. The image is the signifier, the concept or object the signified. But for graphics professionals, there's just one question - how are the two linked?

Where language is involved, it's clear that the link between either spoken or written symbols and the signified object is itself completely arbitrary. Different languages operate on the same objects, for example. A cat could have been called a dog or an abacus, it's just a convention.

However, where the meaning of visual symbols is concerned, the story gets a little more complicated. At the most basic level there's a common understanding of the meaning held by images: "There are certain symbols that have a generic meaning to us all," explains Barnbrook. "These can be manipulated just enough to make the conveyance of information or the putting over of an idea achievable."

Foster highlights the grim reaper as a symbol of death: "At this level, the basic symbolism relies on clich©," he says. "Good illustration should go beyond that. All forms of communication have a level of eloquence, but good illustration should challenge the viewer."

An obvious, up-to-date counterexample comes in the shape of the World Wide Web where signs and symbols should be unambiguous and accessible to all. "The answer is to make them as generic as possible," says John Denton, creative director at Bloc media. "As soon as you imbue an icon or image with any cultural reference, you immediately start to dilute its effectiveness," he says. It seems that playing around with meanings in this situation would be counter-productive.

Creative misunderstandings

According to Stiff, "An artist or designer is someone who experiments with our understanding of objects and meaning." This experimentation is made possible because images can have multiple associations, but this can be a hindrance. The meaning can easily become buried or lost.

Barnbrook gladly welcomes the complication: "Thankfully, there is the unknown factor. Everybody brings their own universe of experience to the perception of a piece of work. That misunderstanding can be one of the most creative acts a person can do."

But how does this help when you're trying to decide how to convince an audience of a client's message? Stiff suggests we take a broader view: "Perhaps," he says, "we should enjoy the situation and experiment with greater freedom."

"If you're producing work for a billboard, then the viewer will only have a second or two to take it all in," says Foster. "In this situation, your image has to scream its message if it's going to succeed." So the first thing to look at is the likely effect it will have on your audience.

"I'm an illustrator because I enjoy it," says Foster. "Visual play is all-important - without it, your work becomes average." But as Foster ruefully points out, "One of the hardest things is trying to mix the public and the private."

Foster suggests that the real job is to match our personal set of visual meanings with those of our anticipated viewer. In a commercial setting, this is further complicated by competing messages: "This is both its great strength and its great weakness," says Foster candidly.

Understand your needs

The process of choosing images and placing them in a context that will convey your intended meaning was termed by Barthes as "coding". But as we've seen, this project is fraught with diffi culty if your goal is to control the exchange between viewer and image, to narrow the permutations so that only a single interpretation is allowed.

Instead, we should take pleasure in the fact that, as Barnbrook says, "There can be both positive and negative misunderstandings."

Once free of the desire to exert control, we can start to properly explore possibilities within the work we create. "It's about understanding your own needs", says Foster. Barnbrook is of a similar mind: "I could never accept the Modernist notion of a typographer being just a communicator of the client's message." There must, it seems, be an element of personal communication.

"The method of placing signs and symbols in a piece of work - an advert, painting or film - will always be about craft," says Stiff. Which brings us, at last, to one element of a composition that can be controlled with some degree of accuracy - the production values.

"No matter how good an idea is, the craft has to hold me," admits Foster. And he's not alone in insisting that the images he consumes are of a certain quality. At least in part, this feeds back into the idea of layered meaning.

It's a balancing act, but talent is a visual language of your own which others find attractive. As Foster puts it: "With flair, you can take a subject somewhere else."