Semiotics Semionaut

Making Sense with…

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Photo courtesy of Samuel Grange

What makes a semiotician tick? SEMIOVOX’s Josh Glenn has invited his fellow practitioners in the field of applied semiotics (from around the world) to answer 10 identical questions and submit a candid photograph.


Paris, France…

SEMIOVOX

When you were a child/teen, how did your future fascination with symbols, cultural patterns, interpreting “texts,” and getting beneath the surface of daily life manifest itself?

SAMUEL GRANGE

I was raised in a hippie community, with a father who was running a business and mother, brother, and sister who were a decorator, designer, and artist. I spent a lot of time explaining my family’s originality to people and I had to “rationalize things,” help them decode so as not to be perceived as a freak. It was a necessity at first and then it became a pleasure to “rationalize the sensitive.”   

SEMIOVOX

Describe your first encounter(s) with the theory and practice of semiotics.

SAMUEL GRANGE

It was reading Barthes at 16 years old. His book Mythologies was an enlightenment of how we could explain our society, its symbols. I felt very at ease and I knew I had found something.

I hesitated between qualitative research and semiotics for a while. But I preferred working with symbols than with people directly. So at 17, I chose semiotics.

SEMIOVOX

How did you find your own way to doing semiotics?

SAMUEL GRANGE

There was no school to study it. I was told to go to university and study anthropology, linguistics, and epistemology. But I knew that if I followed that path I wouldn’t end up being a practitioner. So I decided to study marketing — thinking that would be my future clients’ culture. I started to read everything I could about semiotics by myself.

I quickly spotted Jean-Marie Floch [French pioneer of applied semiotics]. He was my favorite compass, working on visual analysis and explaining his applied approaches. I looked for him and knocked on his door. I was 19 years old. We started corresponding, and he agreed to take me on as a trainee during my school vacations and internship periods. He made me a list of all the authors and books I had to study. I learnt how to do applied semiotics by working with him. I owe him everything.

Thanks to Jean-Marie, at age 24 I got an opportunity to work for a design agency — on understanding the suburban landscape of Paris, in order to adapt a new public transportation system to that territory. I haven’t stopped since then.

SEMIOVOX

What are the most important attributes of a good semiotician?

SAMUEL GRANGE

An analytical mind combined with a strong curiosity.

Many marketers who try semiotics tend to go straight to an intuitive “answer.” But the process of analysis — a systematic approach that takes time — reveals underlying systems and values to which an intuitive mindset alone cannot provide access. One needs to accept that. At the same time, a purely analytical approach can’t answer the question of what and where to analyze. For that, you need to depend on your own curiosity. 

SEMIOVOX

What three books about semiotics have you found the most useful and enlightening in your own work?

SAMUEL GRANGE

Jean-Marie Floch’s Sous les signes les stratégies (translated as Semiotics, Marketing and Communication: Beneath the Signs, the Strategies) and Identités Visuelles (translated as Visual Identities). These books about logos and advertising are great for understanding the techniques of applied semiotics. They’re easy to read even for non-semioticians.

Joseph Courtès and A.J. Greimas’s Analyse sémiotique du discours  (translated as Semiotics and Language: An Analytical Dictionary). A terrific theoretical synthesis of semiotic tools.

SEMIOVOX

When someone asks you to describe what you do, what is your “elevator pitch”? How do you persuade a skeptical client to take a chance on using this tool?

SAMUEL GRANGE

If I’m dealing with a potential client, I never start by talking about semiotics, but rather I pose questions like the following. What if we could get the appropriate imaginaries [those aspects of culture that support a community’s identity], including their dynamics, associated to the project — to identify those that we need to build on? What if we could understand the different logics that shape the market, the positions of the main actors and the specificities and potentials of the client’s brand? In this way, I help the potential client understand the value that semiotics brings.

If I’m not speaking with a potential client, I explain that semiotics is about understanding the stories and codes associated with a market or a cultural theme — in order to map the world of possibilities when it comes to positioning a project or brand. I often use this metaphor of a map. It’s difficult to travel when you don’t know where you are and where you want to go. My job is to produce and explain that map and to show the starting point, potential destinations, and how to get there.

SEMIOVOX

What specific sorts of semiotics-driven projects do you find to be the most enjoyable and rewarding?

SAMUEL GRANGE

Globally, semiotics is powerful for positioning questions (understanding markets and brands), but I’m particularly energized by using this tool for innovation projects.

To avoid analyzing patterns of usages in a rearview mirror (which is what every type of qualitative analysis does), it’s important to analyze what influences people, and therefore their future usages. Working to understand the imaginaries associated with a particular cultural theme (the evolution of feminism, say, or the dynamics of relationships with the outdoors, or our emotional relationship with technology) through analysis of cultural expressions (such as video games, social networks, news, films, and brand communications) allows us to identify the evolutions of codes, the vessels of new human experiences. Which is why semiotics is one of the most “human-centric” disciplines! And much closer to design culture, I’d say, than to marketing culture.

My favorite projects are those which challenge society’s taken-for-granted norms. I like to imperil “common sense.” Finding new expressions of empowerment for women, new types of relationships with technological objects, making sustainability sexy…

SEMIOVOX

What frustrates you about how semiotics is practiced and/or perceived, right now?

SAMUEL GRANGE

The work I’ve done during my 25 years’ career has proven very useful for designers, researchers, marketers, and every sort of project director. Whenever I’ve spoken with anyone in these roles about semiotics — even when I started my career in New York, where the commercial semiotics field was underdeveloped — I’ve found it easy to overcome any doubts about how this work adds value. And yet… somehow, here in France (where semiotics started) semioticians are perceived as either academics in the university or guerrilla marketers. I’m heartened to see commercial semiotics become more mainstream in other countries, like the UK. We need to build a new dynamic, along these lines, in France too.

SEMIOVOX

Peirce or Saussure?

SAMUEL GRANGE

Greimas! Therefore Saussure. Even if Peirce is definitely right, I’ve always found paradigmatic approach more helpful when it comes to my work as a practitioner. 

SEMIOVOX

What advice would you give to a young person interested in this sort of work?

SAMUEL GRANGE

Being paid to understand the meaning of the world around you is probably one of the best jobs on earth. And using those tools to make change is even more rewarding. So it’s essential to be careful in choosing the types of projects that you take on. 

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