Semiotics: Principles in Action for the Graphic Designer

Semiotics: Principles in Action for the Graphic Designer by Thomas Ockerse

(September 21, 1984 STA conference, and portions from previous lectures at VCU, RISD, and other places). Nota bene: The following texts are excerpts from the above. They are intended for the private use of graphic design students in my course at RISD. (Ockerse) The inherent nature of semiotics is interdisciplinary. Simply stated — and according to the American philosopher and founder of modern day semiotics, Charles Saunders Peircesemiotics concerns the logic of relations…whatever type of relation one wants to consider…Nadin has stated that semiotics is the logic of the vague. In this broad view semiotics is seen as a mode of extending our perception of the world.

Historically, semiotics is at least as old as Greek medicine and philosophy. The word itself comes from the Greek word sema for ‘mark’ or ‘sign’, and the Greek word ‘semeiotikos’ which means ‘observant of signs’. In Greek medicine semiotics, or the interest in so-called diagnostic signs, constituted one of three branches of medicine.

Over time philosophers have continued to concern themselves with semiotics. In the Middle Ages a number of scholars elaborated a comprehensive theory of signs known as the ‘scientia sermocinalis’, which included grammar, logic and rhetoric. At the end of the 17th century John Locke, one of the British empiricists who was also a physician by profession, re-introduced ‘semeiotike’ in philosophy, declaring the ‘doctrine of signs’ to be that branch of his tripartite division of the sciences (namely: logic, physics, and ethics) as ‘the business whereof is to consider the nature of sign the mind makes use of for the understanding of things or conveying its knowledge of others’. Jean Henri Lambert, in the 18th century, picked up on Lockes’ ‘semeiotike’ and wrote ten chapters concerning principles of communication and signification in a semiotic frame.

But it was not until the turn of this century that the theoretical components were more fully developed, principally by two important figures: the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, and the American philosopher/ mathematician/ logician Charles Saunders Peirce.They represent two schools of thought: de Saussure calling it Semiology, and Peirce calling it Semiotic. (A third so-called school of thought – the Prague School – represented by such figures as Jan Mukarovsky and Roman Jackobson, can also be mentioned, but it is not important enough to elaborate on this now).

The key to semiotics is the concept of the entity called ‘sign’. Signs participate in a symbiotic relationship with language, but it is in fact a priori to language. Roughly stated, a sign is that entity which allows someone to interpret something that represents meaning in reference to something else. In other words a sign is actually a process. Through signs we are able to represent and interpret, and to develop knowledge and signification.

While everything can be considered as a sign, not everything is a sign. A sign results from a certain process which Peirce calls semiosis. This is a cooperative interaction among three components: 1) the conditions of interpretation; 2) that which represents; and 3) that which is represented. Only when this three part action is completed is any information possible, – including the perception of this entity we know as sign. We also require the use of signs to mediate among signs and sign systems. Thus, anything involving information, regardless of the level or quality of that information, involves this percept of semiosis. In fact, signs are the mediating entities for all we do: to act, react, identify, represent, associate, assimilate, express, evaluate, produce, etc. In other words, signs are part of all our work and fundamental to all we learn and know. In fact, for Peirce there is no thought without signs.

To fully understand and appreciate this mediation percept, one must know the conceptual model of sign. The mediation is among the three components mentioned earlier which Peirce named: Interpretant, Representamen, and Object.

The Object is anything intended to be represented, such as a corporation, an event, an information, a relation, a commodity, an object, an idea, a system, a function, etc. The Object is the ultimate objective of the sign, that which is pointed at or being conveyed. The Object is made up of the Icon, Symbol, and Index.

The Representamen is that thing which acts as a sign. Although in common practice we tend to refer to these things as ‘signs’, they are not. They stand for and represent the Object. They are the means to the end, the components of a language used to project or stimulate what is not seen (the Object). They manifest in numerous language forms: spoken or written systems, pictures, graphics, posters, products, tools, environments, gestures, sounds, behavior, and so on.

At this point let me briefly elaborate on the subject of representation. One of the things Peirce also did was to develop the concept of a typology of signs, a classification of sixty-six aspects.

Icons are ‘direct’ representations based on likeness (such as images, maps). Because an iconic representation only gives one view it is the weakest type. The interpreter does not have to be informed. But, perhaps for these reasons the iconic representation tends to be the most commonly used.

Symbols are ‘abstract’ representations based on agreement or a convention (for example the color red for danger, the number one for first, the cross for Christianity, a flag for a country, words). Some are more easily accepted than others. In different environments with different conventions there is a need for different symbols.

Indexical representations are ‘indirect’. They point to or are the physical mark left by the object (such as smoke for fire, a finger print, colored leaves, the indent on a tool handle). Indexical signs, by the way, are the most interesting of all three because the conceptual leap one’s mind has to make, which makes one more actively involved in the sign.

Of course, how we classify a representation depends ultimately on the function or context (that is, it depends on the Interpretant). Furthermore, all representations and signs are context sensitive.

These discrepancies are the concern of the third and perhaps most complex component of the triad: the Interpretant. Here the interpreter, user/consumer, or market is considered; and the function of the sign is actually defined. Here the conditions of context and value are realized. In the design process the Interpretant component acts as something like a filter through which the other components of the sign are tested and qualified, through which the Representamen as well as the Object are constantly defined, re-evaluated and clarified. Understanding fully what is involved in the Interpretant, and consequently in the Object and Representamen, is crucial to the design task. The more complex the sign is, the more involving our design tasks are, especially in respect to meditation.

Through the Interpretant component of the sign, one views the logistics of representation and negotiates a design solution.

In Peirce’s model of semiosis the notion of the Interpretant – or, as we might call it, context, or condition, or function – is especially important. This is essentially where the difference is between the two schools of thought mentioned earlier that of Peirce and semiotics versus de Saussure and semiology.

De Saussure’s version, the linguistic perspective of semiology, views the sign from a frozen state – the word within the text where it is located, the sign as fixed and dictated by the linear order of the text. Semiology is basically a didactic (two part) perspective of the sign, that of the ‘signifier’ and ‘signified’ (Peirce calls these Representamen and Object respectively). This is essentially a reductive attitude, which may be suitable for a linguistic sign but becomes problematic for the visual sign. Visual signs do not generally exist in a given linear construct, and have therefore the tendency to be context independent. The changing elements of time and context can constantly influence – and alter – the representations. Peirce recognized this and therefore added the so-called Interpretant. Since the semiologists view linguistics as the dominant system for all signs, the difficulty becomes even more evident when their reductive attitude is applied to other sign systems. Peirce, however, perceived all possible sign systems equal in value – none to dominate or subject another. In fact, he saw the entire universe as being perfused by signs – if not composed exclusively of signs.

With this in mind and since Peirce’s work is by far the most elaborate and determined attempt to give an account of most signs and their meaning Peirce’s work lends itself best as the source to develop a design or visual communication theory on semiotics.

Language, as a system, both correlates signs in sets and coordinates the rules which permit meaningful use and consumption of these signs. Such correlations can be broken down into three types that we are familiar with in our own language: syntax, the formal/structural relations between signs – we might call this the grammar of form, or how things are constituted; semantics, the relation between that which represents and the object to be represented – the way things are conveyed or recognized in the act of interpreting (therefore pointing to the system that we know as sign); and pragmatics, or the functional relations of signs within the language to the user/consumer. The semiotic model of sign allows us to put these three components in a logical perspective: the three are not actually separate but interdependent in an hierarchical fashion. When we realize their correct relation we achieve what we call in design ‘appropriateness’. The syntactic level is the easiest to identify and control, whereas the pragmatic the most difficult.

Learning a language means to be able to identify a particular systemic logic, its structure, and to be able to describe the logic in relating parts to the whole, parts to parts, and the whole to its parts. This is (and can only be) accomplished through the mediating principle of signs. Once we perceive the logical relations of the system’s components can we understand its language.

Understanding this principle of mediation, as described by semiotics, is crucial to the designer. The languages we find ourselves engulfed in should at least be defined with some logical basis which reflects a purpose in some concrete, not arbitrary relation.

The semantic component in language points to a system’s semiotic activity. Whether designers realize it or not, and no matter what the nature of their design task is (that is, environments, products, or message; or technical or conceptual concerns), as designers we are constantly and expressly involved in this mediation. This includes all levels and all phases of design: between intention and non-intention; among client, market objectives, and the real market; between form and counter-form; among form, function and representation. Attention to detail means to consider the semiotic ‘sign’ concept.

What the designer needs to understand also is that the product is most likely to exist in the form of a complex set of signs. This refers to the systemic universe mentioned earlier, or the language concept. Its complexity is obvious when a visual design is analyzed since we are likely to discover a variety of elements which, when separated and out of context, would not seem to be harmonious at all; but somehow are when brought together with a certain harmony, as in a corporate language. Verbal forms and visual elements as well as space – time relations are just some examples. Moreover, the so-called language may involve different types of representation which actually cooperate toward the same objective (for example: a title, a more detailed text, a picture, and a symbol – each referring to the same object but from a different perspective – a ‘parallax’ view you might say, with layers of information.

A design search for alternative viewpoints can be considered by applying Peirce’s three sign operation: substitution – insertion – omission – as a generative means. These three operations can be applied to all three elements of the sign, that is the syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic. At the syntactic level it is, of course, the easiest, whereas at the pragmatic level it becomes much more difficult. A selection from these (the ‘vocabulary’) can be combined to optimally express the information.

According to this model it is clear that there can be several Representamen in correlation to several Interpretants, with each set referring to the same Object. This creates in reality a ‘SUPER sign’, that is – like a ‘word’ is to a ‘text’, a ‘sign’ is to a supersign. Thus, a supersign is meant in the same way that we generalize the word ‘language’ to be, but it is a more precise term than language because it reflects the semiotic principles of mediation and relation. Semiotics is the integrating device for the development of supersign. Generally know this,for example, as a ‘corporate language’, which includes consistencies for elements such as identity, graphic products, packaging, advertising, and even corporate behavior. Or another example, the integration of consistencies for a computer, its abilities to interface, the company name, the quality of the machine’s function and the output.

All that is incorporated in the ‘supersign’ principle becomes the system and model for our design tasks. Given any design problem one can follow these principles as a methodology for the design process of mediation. (Interpretant/Expression Matrix) In this mediation process, each component of the sign triad essentially acts as a filtering element through which the others are constantly modified. Through the sign or semiotic discipline we are compelled to ask the right questions – from the client and from ourselves – which can unravel what otherwise appears as mystical. The more complex the problem the more the designer needs a semiotic perspective.

Finally, whereas the designer mediates between all aspects of the design activity and culminates this with the development of the so-called Representamen, it should be understood that the interpreter/user begins the identification process through the pragmatics of that Representamen and involves a process of reverse or retrosemiosis – the ‘access’ mentioned earlier. What was filtered by the designer through the interpretant should have become manifested in the super-sign design. The designer must realize or predict the potential associative characteristics of the signs within the system as well as the entire supersign – the special functions of the Interpretant.

Semiotics, as an integrating device, remains a precise tool for both evaluation and analysis. However, it also manifests itself to be a generative tool and a significant aid in the creative development of design strategies. Because semiotics serves to stimulate investigation and aid in discovery, the designer can be individualistic and yet remain appropriate. Design contribution will be richer, and less stereotypical. In the future this will be more and more important because, after all, it will become increasingly simple to put stereotypical solutions on the computer.

Text corrected by Thomas Ockerse during his lecture/workshop week of 24 – 27 September 1991 at Arizona State University.


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