Semiotics and the Making of Meaning

Today with lecturer Anna Powell we focused on Semiotics.  I looked forward to this lecture, as I already had a basic understanding of semiotics. After recapping on last weeks “What is Theory?” we began by looking at “Visual Signs” a book by David Crow. Last year, I studied semiotics for one of my projects and went to borrow this book from the library; at the time the book was on loan, so it was quite useful to get an insight to it during the lecture.

Semiotics is a theory which explores the system of signs to make meaning. Anna frequently referenced designer Anthony Burrill and used his “oil and water do not mix” project as an example of how semiotics are used in design practice. Anna claimed that we are the creators as well as consumers of visual art and design and that every good designer is a semiotician.

Semiotics are taught subconsciously from an early age- it is how subjects are categorized and how association is used in signs. Anna showed us Paul Rand’s IBM (Eye Bee M) logo created in 1981. It is a very well known logo, simply and cleverly designed in which the visuals represent the letters   It was said that the logo didn’t create a corporate identity but a basic philosophy creating corporate consciousness and self awareness.

Paul Rands 'Eye-Bee-M'

When then moved onto Colour Semiotics which is the relationship between the object and the understanding. We explored how colours are express certain information to make the viewer understand the meaning, and how colours can create a chain of associations. For example with traffic lights; we know that red means danger and to stop and that green is safe and means to go. Anna also used a good example of colour semiotics in supermarkets. Chains such as Asda-Green, Sainsbury’s- Orange, Tesco-Red and Morrisons- Yellow used these colours in adverts and branding. It is a way of associating the colour, to the subject.

After touching upon how semiotics are used in information graphics, we then moved on to theorists Saussure and Peirce. Last year we covered semiotics and these theorists with lecturer Spencer Roberts, therefore I had some insight, however I hoped to learn more. We started with Saussure’s classic example of the signifier>sign>signified. Saussure looked at the phoneme of words, the words that are signifiers and what it refers to. E.g. c-a-t

cat= signifier (the object)

the cat= signified.

The two together= sign.

Peirce on the other hand, somewhat inspired by Saussure created his own version of this theory. He focused less on linguistics and more on how to make sense of the world through our experiences. His version included the sign (representaman), this was equivalent to Saussure’s signifier. The “referent” which is equivalent to the signified and the “interpretant” which is the equivalent to the sign.  Peirce defines three categories of signs:

Symbol- No logical connection- arbitrary  (signifier)

Icon- Resemblers the sign (clear visual)

Index- Direct link between sign and object, e.g. smoke is an index of fire. 


After a few contemporary examples of semiotics put into practice, again featuring Anthony Burill’s “Water and Oil don’t Mix”, we moved onto Semiotics and Humour, looking at a couple of examples:


This image cleverly visualizes Mrs Hammond (the name) as how her son has drawn her (the signified)

My favourite example used one of my favourite TV shows; the Big Bang Theory. It features Sheldon requiring a lesson from roommate Penny to understand the meaning of the tie on the door. The irony of subject that Penny teaches Sheldon (the scientist)  her cultural insights to how this example of semiotics is used.

We moved on to look at the theory of Roland Barthes and his Anchorage and Relay. The Anchorage is text which anchors or constraints how an image is read; this is used in adverts. The Relay is how the words and images tell a story equally, this is used in comic strips. We then took this a step further and explored semiotics in art. I found this lecture rather insightful. With a basic understanding of it from last year, I now feel more certain to it, and can provide examples with justified reasoning. I look forward to our next lecture which will be focusing on Iconography and Iconology.