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Making Semiotics Work

Making Semiotics Work

Jennifer Murtell

illustration of people with various symbols in thought clouds above their heads

How the meaning derived from signs and symbols can help you unlock a more resonant communication strategy

Simply stated, semiotics is the study of signs and their meaning. Paddy Whannel, British author and media educator, once articulated it this way: “Semiotics tells us things we already know in a language we will never understand.” The language used by semioticians can often be overwhelming and academic, divorced from our reality as designers and message-makers. But Whannel is not wrong, in the sense that semiotics addresses things we already know instinctively; indeed, it is powerful because it engages the strong sense of intuitive understanding that many of us possess.

In this way, semiotics is a crucial tool for designers and meaning-makers, as it helps us to both understand how consumers interpret and imbue meaning, and to design meaningful artifacts for them based on that understanding. It’s a two-way dialogue between visual language and the people who are intended to interpret them: sender and receiver.

Tapping into Meaning

Semiotics reminds us, sometimes with great consequence, that our work has little gravity outside the complexities that define it. These parameters are complex because they are not static; they are fluid, ever-shifting symbols and codes, because the world around us is constantly changing. And in turn, we are evolving, changing and recreating meaning in response. The deeper our understanding of these shifting landscapes of meaning, the more accurate and responsive messages we can create.

Consider the color red. We all have a visceral and instantaneous understanding of the meaning of red, in multiple contexts. We see a stop sign and understand alert, attention, even potential danger. On Valentine’s Day, we recognize the red grocery aisle from a distance—the promise of love, passion and romance. Chinese brides often traditionally wear red as a reminder of celebration, fertility and vitality. An executive or dignitary, prior to making a pivotal speech, might choose a red dress, blazer or tie as it signals power and confidence. And everyone intuitively recognizes the Coca-Cola red from other shades of red. This is the simple, yet complex, power of semiotics.


Semiotics is also an equalizer. It reminds message-makers and artifact-creators that brand design isn’t only about our own intentions for the work, it’s also equally about the interpretation of people who experience our work. Tapping into the right codes of meaning ultimately is our best creative brief and harshest critic. Awareness of the rules and codes of this two-way dialogue between sender and receiver, between signified and signifier, makes our work more intuitive, resonant and successful. And in its mastery lies the real gravitas of visual communication and design.

Learning more about the semiotics of our category landscape is our first step. Leveraging it in a way that is meaningful and inspiring to consumers, embedding it in the work, is our challenge.

Simple Ways into Semiotics

The discipline and mechanics of semiotics comprise an intense practice of deconstruction and analysis, and it’s not something that can often be applied to fast-paced projects and tight budgets. But there are ways for us to tap into and optimize our understanding of the semiotics of our categories and the visual understanding that lives in consumers’ minds.

Leveraging qualitative research to tap into the semiotics of consumer perception that moves beyond lifestyle and behavior is a key tactic. We must endeavor to push into the land of visual signifiers and codes of meaning that live inside their heads. Language is informative, but instigating a more visual, visceral response taps into the intuitive, “indescribable” language of symbol and meaning that Paddy Whannel refers to. Asking consumers to visualize their ideal experiences and challenges can provide designers and marketers with rich intelligence that is potent with visual meaning, but otherwise tough to verbalize with any precision.

In this way, we can inform older codes of meaning with real-time evolutions and nuance. We can respond to the future with confidence, instead of leaning on old, safe representations. It removes the risk of inventing bold new visual expressions, and responds to where consumer perception is now.

Another powerful benefit of semiotics lies in the ability to see the future of visual language—when we track these codes of meaning, we can clearly see the past (residual codes), present (dominant codes) and future (emergent codes) of visual language and meaning clearly, without risk, soothsaying or launching “revolutionary” design in a vacuum.

Fast, Efficient and Actionable

Semiotics research can help if you have concerns that your current communication strategies, both visual and verbal, aren’t resonating the way they could be. This process doesn’t have to be expensive or time-consuming. Even a few qualitative groups of highly creative, early-adopting consumers can provide incredibly rich, actionable insights. Its value can mean the difference between reaching consumers and falling on deaf ears. Even on small-budget initiatives, success can be achieved through visual sorting exercises to provide consumers with the tools they need to dimensionalize their experiences. It gives them a visual “voice” to communicate how a benefit or experience should move them—now, and into the future.

Allowing consumers to visualize the energy, emotion, form, color, texture, shape and tactile qualities of an experience is highly actionable intelligence, and can inform your creative, design and communication strategies with messaging gold.

Illustration by Bill Murphy

As vice president of strategy, Asia Pacific, at Marks, part of SGS & Co, Jennifer Murtell leverages design thinking to solve business challenges, develops brand portfolio architecture, whitespace models and positioning for a variety of leading consumer packaged goods brands.