Semiotics is hard to pinpoint. To put it as easily as I can, it’s a visual representation. It began as a study of linguistics and was originally spelt as ‘semeiotics’ to honour philosopher and physician John Locke. Locke was the one whom started it all creating the name semeiotike from the Grecian word “semion” meaning mark or sign.

The problem with language is that there is no universal meaning for words due to there being cultural divisions and language barriers. This is when visual aids, known as semiotics, were introduced. However, this proved to be rather difficult as you have to be aware of other cultures and their meanings. For example, the colour red has different meaning depending on your cultural background, in China the colour represents fortune and luck, whereas in Western cultures it represents love and/or danger. As a graphic designer you have to have an awareness of everybody, especially if you go into advertising, as you may offend certain people without meaning to.

Ferdinand de Saussure defined and founded semiotics. He was considered the ‘Father’ of linguistics as studied the meaning of word and how they related to objects or things. When you think about it, some words do not describe their object. For example, a coin. When you think about it, where does the word come from? It isn’t made of a material named coin? It wasn’t invented by a Mr E. Coin?  Language is a strange concept, and how there are many different ones and how they can be translated is still something that plays on my mind. But anyway, back to Saussure and his findings. Ferdinand de Saussure coined and defined the following words:

Signifiers: These are words/phrases that are completely unrelated yet express meaning. There was no necessary connection between the sign and its meaning. The meaning expressed is unique to every culture which is important to be aware of.

Signification: This describes the transfer of information from the sign to the viewer.

Sign: Every sign is made up of a Signifier (a sound or image) and the Signified (the concept or meaning).


Charles Sanders Pierce was another founder of semiotics, he was an American philosopher who coined the following terms:

Icon: A graphic that resembles a sign, such as a road sign containing a picture of a car.

Index: The measure of the link between the sign and the object i.e. smoke and heat normally signals fire.

Symbol: A symbol has an arbitrary relationship between it and the object or concept signified, a symbol of a heart has no direct relationship to the concept of love but it is generally agreed that these two things are connected. The phrase “Think with your head, not with your heart” is often used when talking about love.

Semiosis: The meaning from the sign to the viewer. This is heavily dependant on the cultural background of the individual and the context of the sign.

Interpretant: The individual perceiving/interpreting the sign.


Roland Barthes, the most recent and influential man in the world of semiotics coined the following terms:

Convention: A convention is an agreement specific to a group or culture that a sign represents a specific thing, object or concept. For example, this sign in England means no overtaking, but in America it’s most likely to be different. screen-shot-2017-02-22-at-19-48-43

Motivation: This describes how closely a sign represents the object or thing to which it refers, e.g a photograph of a car is closer in representation that an pictogram of a car on a road sign.

Modality: In semiotics, modality refers to a specified method by which the information is presented, in either sign, text or genre.

Denotation: The surface or literal meaning encoded to a signifier, and the definition most likely to appear in a dictionary.

Connotation: Connotation arises when the denotative relationship between a signifier and its signified has layers beneath it’s immediate level of meaning. A second level of meanings is termed connotative. An example of this would be a photograph that has been given a sepia tone to bring about a feeling of nostalgia or when a photograph is black and white we automatically refer back to newspapers. So, to summarise, any deeper meaning than a  surface scratch is deemed connotative.







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