Art, Architecture, Design & Travel

Semiotics Explained Simply

What is semiotics? Illustrate with some examples.

Semiotics is an investigation into how meaning is created and how meaning is communicated. Its origins lie in the academic study of how signs and symbols (visual and linguistic) create meaning.
It is a way of seeing the world, and of understanding how the landscape and culture in which we live has a massive impact on all of us unconsciously.

Semiotics Explained:  
Our actions and thoughts – what we do automatically – are often governed by a complex set of cultural messages and conventions, and dependent upon our ability to interpret them instinctively and instantly.

For instance, when we see the different colours of a traffic light, we automatically know how to react to them. We know this without even thinking about it. But this is a sign which has been established by cultural convention over a long period of time and which we learn as children, and requires a deal of unconscious cultural knowledge to understand its meaning.

Viewing and interpreting (or decoding) this sign enables us to navigate the landscape of our streets and society.

Everyone is a semiotician, because everyone is constantly unconsciously interpreting the meaning of signs around them – from traffic lights to colours of flags, the shapes of cars, the architecture of buildings, and the design of cereal packaging.

And signs don’t only need to be visual – they can be aural or sonic signs too, such as the sound of a police siren, usually heard before the vehicle is seen.

We know for instance that the following sign in the West means everything is OK. This can be dated back to its alleged use by Roman emperors to signal whether a gladiator would live (hence be OK). Its reverse – thumbs down – signified death.
But in scuba diving this sign means go up to the surface, and by the side of the road it means you want to hitch a ride.

In other words, we need to understand the context in which a sign is communicated in order to comprehend its real meaning, and hence act appropriately. What is going on around the sign is usually as important for us to know as the sign itself in order to interpret its meaning.

Semiotics is a key tool to ensure that intended meanings (of for instance a piece of communication or a new product) are unambiguously understood by the person on the receiving end. Usually there are good reasons if someone doesn’t understand the real intention of a message and semiotics can help unravel that confusion, ensuring clarity of meaning.

Semiotics started out as an academic investigation of the meaning of words (linguistics), it moved into examining people’s behaviour (anthropology and psychology), then evolved to become an enquiry into culture and society (sociology and philosophy), following that it moved onto assisting with analyses of cultural products (films, literature, art – critical theory), and finally and more recently became a methodology for researching and analysing consumer behaviour and brand communications.

We can apply the high-level thinking of semiotics to enable clients to understand the commercial implications of the culture around their brands and its impact upon consumers. Ultimately, we can assist with the development of culturally relevant brand strategies and meaningful communication (packaging and point of sale).


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