What is Semiotics?

by Gareth
5 minutes
What is Semiotics?

What is semiotics? It is a question that many designers ask themselves in their university years when they study a subject. Depending on the teacher, it can be exciting or excruciatingly boring.

First, let's make it clear, if you don't know anything about semiotics don't worry, you can continue to work as a designer and have absolutely no problem at all. However, if you learn about semiotics, you will access a whole new level of knowledge, a level from which graphics, advertising or otherwise, will no longer be looked at in the same way. 

After studying semiotics, many of the advertising design awards begin to lose all meaning as you will start noticing that it is fancy adverts that get rewarded, instead of the functional ones. You will start thinking that may of the shaggy-faced 'creatives' who prance around in their agencies certainly have a clever way of thinking laterally, but don't particular understand why certain ideas are implemented. Studying semiotics undoubtedly makes you a better designer, publicist and marketer. (Tweet this)

What is semiotics? The most objective definition, although for many the more dry definition, is that it is simply the study of signs. This bring us to a different question: What is a sign? And  the answer is anything!. We ourselves are full of signs: our clothes, our cars, our gadgets, our language, everything... Why? Because everything has meaning. So, although semiotics is about the study of signs, knowing semiotics is about knowing how to manipulate the signs to transmit a message.

A sign has three levels: syntactic, semantic and pragmatic.

At the syntactic level, a sign could be made from a simple piece of fabric measuring 50 × 50 cm. This level highlights the formal part of the sign (its structural level).

At the semantic level, an example would be a small accessory used to combine with or stand out alongside clothing. The sign therefore acquires meaning.

On the third level, the pragmatic level, a sign can indicate luxury, sensuality or elegance. The sign acquires some connotation.

In this context, understanding and knowing how to manipulate signs is the fundamental task of every designer, publicist or marketer; you need an understanding that everything in the world shapes human perception and objects are seen and understood within the context each object is shown in.

In this extraordinary advert from CEMEX, at the syntactic level it is a regular picture that favors the uniformity of other adverts: a polychromatic photograph and a logo in its upper right area. At the semantic level, we are talking about an advert for CEMEX: an announcement by the Mexican cement company to sell a quick-drying mix. Finally, at the third level, the pragmatic one, we approach the rhetoric of the image: from the image we can connote that the offered product dries at an unprecedented speed thanks to the manipulated hyperbole (rhetorical figure that implies the exaggeration).

As can be deduced from the brief analysis of CEMEX's advert above, the most fascinating part of creating an advert for a designer is that related to the rhetoric of the image. There is an infinite amount of rhetorical devices to implement and use when designing an advert, and it would be impossible to learn them all. However, knowing the main ones can offer very powerful tools to designers to model a message.

So the next time you think that semiotics is a waste of time, question yourself. If you want to be a first-class professional creative, you need to understand the meaning of signs.

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