Symbolism and Semiotics

Martin Hoskin – lecturer of Critical Studies at Falmouth University

In the lecture we will be looking to unpack the theory and symbolism of ‘the message’

The world is overflowing with a multiplicity of different messages, images and intentions so this is no small task.

Etymology of the word: its Latin meaning is ‘missus’: to send away, dispatch or release. This original meaning emphasizes the sender, the one who messages. However, in this case it is important that we don’t just look at the person who sends but also the medium and format, as well as the receiver.

 The world of advertising and the different platforms available for advertising is vast and have expanded rapidly in recent years. Advertisements are usually trying to sell a product or service or make people aware of something.  The sender focuses on intention, medium and understanding.

Academia is now focusing on research into how companies use image, text and sound to advertise.

In order to really unpack this area, it is important that we look at the wider premise of communication; to do this, we should look at the possibility that it did not occur i.e. the message did not get through.

It is not a given; did the receiver receive the message or not?

Playwright George Bernard Shaw:

“The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place”

How could communication fail?

We must rely upon language. The meaning of language is dependent on intention. If language is not to be taken at face value, what are the first difficulties we face? The same message can mean different things to different receivers.

What is the intent of the sender?

What are they trying to share?

What are the different ways we can receive and interpret the meaning of the image? The heart of communication lies at the front of the images.

The emoji strips away the use of words to convey emotion to the receiver. They convey the intent through representation of the image.

The swastika – when you look at this image it evokes lots of the images of the Nazis and Germany; however, this symbol did not always have this meaning. Before Hitler’s rise to power, this simple motif was used by many brands such a Coca Cola to symbolize purity and strength.  Images carry meaning that is dependent on context and this meaning can change.

Social usage and codes in our culture are based upon a dynamic system of production, reception and meanings. These are culturally specific and dependent on context.

Semiotics – the study of signs and symbols, their use and interpretation.

This can be used to map communication through different mediums

Anything that has a direct meaning is called a sign. The sign should have two elements:

A signifier – Things that give meaning such as a word or image

The signified – What it evokes in the mind such as a mental concept.

These things must interact together to form the sign

 Signs can be arranged into three further categories

Icon – a sign that resembles something such as photographs of people. It has a physical resemblance to the signified, the thing being represented.

Index – evidence of what’s being represented or applies some character of the original event

Symbols – no resemblance between the signifier and the signified. They must be culturally learned such as numbers or letters. Religions use symbols to portray their religion but it is not until you learn about the religion that you will understand the true meaning behind the sign.

 The rose can become symbolic of love because it is something symbolic but not understandable.

The sign and its relationship to delivery of the message – to qualify as a sign in opposition to a symbol a sign needs to possess a clear signifier and a clearly designed signifier.  

Signifier – the wooden arrow

Signified – the direction it is drawing attention to.

Signification – act of signifying

Roland Barthes –  Published the book Image, Music, Text. He used semiotics to use what he saw as bojoir, social, cultural values and how they were imposed upon the populous by unpicking the images and rhetoric of the cultural material. He talks in his book about the brand Panzani and how the name doesn’t just signify the brand but also its country of origin, Italy. He looks at the symbolism and placement of the tomatoes in the advertisement, the logo colour, and the colour of the poster, which is red green and white, the colours of the Italian flag. It is trying to promote not just the food but the Italian way of life.

4 signs


get ready


And pay attention to the red triangle

So is this an icon, index or symbol? As there is no evidence of the signified on the traffic light sign we can say that the sign acts as a symbol. This joins many other sign symbols which we can learn as codes. 

They act of systems of signs that we use to navigate our shared environment and we can see that codes underpin our sense of community.

Decode – the way we read and interpret codes and signs so that we can navigate our way through the world

Anchorage – refers to the pinning down or guiding of the intended meaning. When one signifier, text or image, is needed to pilot the meaning of another text or image. This way, anchoring is linked back to the reinforcing of the intention.

Relay – when the text or image stand in complementary relationship and both interplay to build to two signifiers into a larger sense of an anecdote, story or narrative. When both copy and image equally say the same thing and reinforce the other’s meaning by signifying the same thing as each other we can refer to the idea of relay. Put simply, the words and the pictures tell a story equally.

Meaning – comes from the relationship between the signifiers, the intended message within a system. But it also comes from our differentiation of understanding within a given sign code system.

Walking through my local area. What are the signifiers and signified?

Part 2: Case Study

Taking graphic design today and unpacking it  – Take one story to see how it is reported globally

Brands make things with global contexts in mind because of the internet and technology.

The Olympics

Every four years, the Olympics is given an identity that is a visual distillation of the selected country. This identity is within existing parameters of the 5 rings and the ideology of the games; there is room to adapt and change.

People are familiar with what the Olympics is. The visual thing that is displayed is about the country.

How have graphic designers used the 5 rings and given it an identity of the country.


Designer – Lance Wyman

He looked at patterns on old Mexican ceramics and used these to design a circular pattern which was developed into 3d, statue and typology. Based on one idea and applied in many different ways.


Designer – Otl Aicher

 Modernist aesthetics are what inform the entire identity. The whole system was built on a detailed iconography and grid system.  All of the icons were constructed on a series of diamond grids, which gives continuity and rigour to the concept .

TOKYO 1964

Designer – Masaru Katsumi and Yusaku Kamekura

The approach is very emblematic and direct. The rising sun is associated with Japan and the Olympic logo and type sits underneath it. The gradients in the red and gold are very beautiful. Feels very designed and considered.


Designer – Michael Bryce  

Emblematic but very incorporated design. Lots of things are going on and it is quite illustrative in terms of suggesting things about Sydney.


Emblematic but very redacted. It is an illustration that sits on top of something else.  It is suggestive and is still showing a concept but in a very separate way.


Referring to ancient Chinese seals. The logo is not very direct but there is a gesture to the culture. Feels calligraphic and a gives a sense of a process of how the seals are produced in the country


Designer – Wolff Olins

Abstract nature of the logo gives it its identity; a completely different aesthetic to all the others and seems to gesture beyond both London and the Olympic games. The image indicates that the system is what is providing the aesthetic and that’s what is setting it apart. 

To compare

The visuals had to show what the Olympics were because they didn’t have an understanding or a base of what the Olympic games was; now we don’t have to make the Olympics designs so literal.

Variables remain the same. Global context that shifts. Multiple variables that designers lend.

Part 3: Patrick Thomas and Susanna Edwards giving a tour of his Breaking News 2.0 Installation at the London Design Festival 2018 at the V&A

Interacting with breaking global headlines that they pulled off the internet via RSS feeds. He is also inviting the visitors to the exhibition to interact with this idea by creating their own headlines. These can be whatever they feel like-  non sensical or serious.

The most prominent sections of the exhibition will be the large vertical projectors. Pulling in headlines from all over the world mixing in many different languages. These headlines are projected vertically onto the walls. On top of this, randomly, they drop in graphic forms that are suggestive and combine in an interesting way with the headlines.

How do the public engage and find this inspirational?

Anybody who visits the space can interact if they have a smart phone. They have to open their camera and take the QR reader built into the smartphone; this brings up a simple template where they can write their message. Then hit return and the message is programmed into the changing screens and will appear at a random point amongst the other messages. 

You can also type in the headlines using a terminal situated in the space.

The idea is that he is questioning how we receive our news: where it is coming from; how authentic and trustworthy it is?  He is opening this area up for discussion as opposed to trying to provide specific answers.

The exhibition is designed to bombard and confuse people. They are also simultaneously exposed to audio of news in a variety of different languages that is impossible to follow, as an indication of how the same story can be portrayed in different countries, and cultures with the ‘truth’ impossible to determine.

Breaking news 1.0 – took place in a public space in a a disused shop front so it caught people off guard – as opposed to the V&A where people are expecting art installations. The Liverpool installation was also differentiated by the fact that people were writing hand written notes, which were then being manually typed into the computer and projected.

Graphic design thinking behind it

Thomas has used Arial Narrow Bold – he thought this would be funny at the London design festival as a font that is frowned upon by the design community.

The symbols are fairly random but they are not meant to complement the text so they are contrasting with each headline. You get these interesting juxtapositions.

He is touching on censorship as well with some quite hard black forms that appear over the text on some screens.

The next version, 3.0 Manchester Design Festival, will have a different setup. He will be using more hidden cameras and no projectors in a northern corner of Manchester in a shop window. Because of the lighting, they will stack pc screens and iPad. The idea is the same it just takes a different physical form.

Then he will take it to Serbia in the public square on the side of a building; then Barcelona; and then would like to take the exhibition to New York and somewhere in the mid west of the US.

He doesn’t want to tell people what they should be saying. He is giving the people the way to communicate but they have to come up with their own things to say.

They are gathering the materials and there will be archives and a publication in the future

What made you do this?

He received a phone call from the Rapid Response Unit, which is a funding body that was trying to get artists to interact with news.