Using Semiotics in Design

Using Semiotics in Design

My lecturer introduced me to semiotics by using this analogy.

“What is semiotics…? You walk into a room and smell something bad, something horrible. Searching around the room with your nose, you determine the foul odour is coming from beneath the floorboards. While prying open the floorboards you start thinking what it could be. Has something crawled and died underneath..? A mouse maybe..? Then you loosen the floorboards to discover…… a dead bird…… that’s semiotics”

You’re more than likely sitting there with a da fuq face of wide mouth confusion. But that’s essentially what semiotics is, It is the study of signs and symbols. If you decode the gobbildy-goope Grandad’s off his meds again, and ranting in his underpants statement…It makes sense.

The ‘horrible smell’ is a signifier of something that is bad/rotting/dead…and if you notice that the smell is coming from beneath the floorboards, you associate it with connotations of what are beneath floorboards. So you automatically put your detective hat on and go full Miss Marple and come to the conclusion that, ‘bad smell’ – death, ‘under floorboards’ – mouse. (Ha, well you’re wrong it’s a bird!!)

This whole finding a bird thing is an example of how people automatically decode and receive the signs. Birds are usually associated with the sky and flying, not floorboards and the same can be said vise-versa for the mouse…(unless the mouse is Stewart Little…didn’t he fly a plane or some crap like that?) anyway, in this case the signifier is the smell and the signified is the idea we perceive from the smell i.e death. And smell of death from floorboards = dead mouse. These are predetermined signs that we have learned and stored from our hunter gatherer ‘Ug, ug’ phase of evolution, the commonsense signs that are embedded in our brain that tell us fire – hot, florescent frog – don’t lick, and Justin Beiber – don’t listen… Now, because we have evolved into a much more, hopefully coherent (minus Trump obviously) species, we now as a culture place significant values onto things to create our own signs, and these signifiers might not necessarily have anything to do with the signified notion in which these signs create…

Are we still in the room here..? Or am I trailing off into another Grandad stained underpants rant..? Oh here I’ll let someone that’s fake smarter than me explain… Sheldon explain…



But how can this knowledge be used throughout design..? Simples…all the time…

For example the choice and use of colour present in designs can create connotations to the viewer without necessarily being the langue (language) of said viewer. Let’s look at the colour red as a case study.

In the western world red is used as a colour to convey and express danger, attention, beware etc. One of the most common and recognisable places this signifier is used would be in road traffic stop signs. It’s a simple object, that’s red with the words ‘Stop’ written on it, it does exactly what it say’s on the tin, and makes you stop. But let’s look at this with the Saussurean methods of semiotics. Is it the actual words present that tell us to do this..? If you were a native English speaker driving around Spain, drinking Sangria while eating paella and you come across a red sign that had ‘Alto’ written across it, what would you do..?

STOP...... Hammer time
STOP…… Hammer time

You’d stop obviously… (if you didn’t think stop, you’ve just hit that bus full of blind orphans’ on the way to their new parents on Christmas day…you dick)… But anyway, you’d stop… and why’s that, since you’re a native English speaker that can’t be arsed to branch out and actually learn another language?  Well, it’s because of the colour red. The colour red, no matter where you are in the Western world has the same signified notion placed onto it, no matter what language you speak. Red means stop. So essentially our English speaking minds ignore the word ‘Alto’ because it has no significant meaning or place in our language, and we end up decoding the signifiers of what we do understand (in this scenario it being the colour). If you think about it, the langue (language) and parole (speech) of any country, technically doesn’t mean anything… Words and speech are just shapes and sounds, that is until we create rules and place the relevant values onto them.

Let’s go back to our dementia rant earlier if you remember, the whole mouse bird thing. Finding a bird in the floorboards was a shock to our system… It should have been a mouse for christ sake..?! But this is an example of how the speakers relevant idea can become distorted based on a listener’s embedded code.

Red equals angry..ARGHHHH
Red equals angry..ARGHHHH

Design wise, let’s go back to the colour red as an example. In Western culture the colour red has a personality, of danger, anger etc… People even say ‘I saw red..!’ to express the severity of their anger… It basically has a bad rep in our language depending on the hue… But lets look at this from an Eastern cultural perspective… their embedded code of the colour red is one of a positive significance. They see the colour red as a signifier of happiness and luck. They have placed a positive symbolic value onto something we see as a total opposite. And in design, we need to make sure we are aware of all the values in which the audience will receive the messages we want to convey, and that it will not get misinterpreted and the intended message distorted or decoded into something of complete opposite. So that red and black evil, angry poster you have just created for that heavy metal band might come out more happy Hello Kitty than evil Hell Kitty depending on the geometry and cultural factors that come along with the audience.

Also with the use of semiotics we can create much more powerful meaning with our images by letting viewers work out and decode our intended message. Let’s be real, obvious imagery isn’t your friend, and if it is, well it’s you’re obnoxious friend. You know, the one that ruins the punchline of your well set up joke or tells you Tyler Durden is Edward Norton before you’ve even seen the film… well yea, those kind…douches… People aren’t stupid and like to figure out things for themselves, and this leads viewers to create and hold more values to said images. Let’s take this imagery I created in college as an example.

The power of semiotics in imagery
Trapped in an abusive relationship

Above is imagery I created in college for a ‘Women’s Aid’ brief. ‘Women’s Aid’ is a charity that helps women desperately seeking help from abuse. I could have just dove straight in and created an image where a woman and spouse are arguing, or I could have shown a slap, or a black eye. (But I ain’t the friend that ruins the punchline) I like to create higher value by not stating the obvious. So let’s decode this said image by using semiotic methods.

The black darkness of the image creates just that, a dark, black sinister mood, it is unnerving. The placement of the hands is of significance as it is reflecting the old Japanese proverb of the three monkeys ‘See no evil, Hear no evil, Speak no evil’. And in the Western world this phrase is often used to refer to those who deal with impropriety by turning a blind eye. Which unfortunately happens the majority of times in these kind of situations. Because the hands are smothering, overpowering the woman’s facial features, it creates the feeling of being trapped, powerless. Reflecting those same emotions which are felt and seen throughout abusive relationships themselves. I’m making the viewer essentially feel these emotions, not tell them how they should be feeling. Also within these hands that are so domineering and overpowering, you can find a highly symbolic piece of jewellery placed on the left ring finger. A wedding band……..

God… that deflated the mood… So here’s a picture of my doggy as a puppy… 🙂

I hope I have wiped the da fuq expression that was derped all over your face at the beginning of this blog. And have helped explain exactly what semiotics is, in an easy understandable way, and how it should be used through design. Hopefully I have also shown by example just exactly it’s power and how it can create and say things without necessarily saying them. It can be used to influence viewers without telling them they are being influenced… It can make images contain unlimited significant value and content, making sure your ideas hit people with a closed fist… It is a powerful method to learn, or least know and understand as a designer/advertiser/brander/superhero… As being able to understand these methods, and how intended audiences decode things can have an enormous impact on how designs are received and interpreted.

If you would like to learn about the main different models of semiotics and how they are applied, you should check out the linguistics’ Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Sanders Peirce.

Keeping with the previous image theme. If you would like to find out more about images and how they can speak a thousand words please feel free to have a gander at another one of my eloquently written and thought poking, yet provoking blogs below…

If you have any questions or would like to give out or to even just chew the ear off me for some strange reason, just to drop me a ‘Hello’ you can whistle (preferably a wolf whistle) a tweet to me.