Semiotics Semionaut

Making Sense with…

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Photo courtesy of Gabriela Pedranti

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.


Barcelona, Spain…

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?

GABRIELA PEDRANTI

I was an imaginative, happy (and talkative, ahem) child, always inventing stories and games with my sister, cousin, and friends. I read a lot and paid attention to the “little details” from life that many people missed, from shapes and colours in nature to people’s gestures, appearance, and expressions. I had a family (not only my mother and father, but my aunts and grandmother) who loved classic movies, read a lot, and listened to different types of music. I was lucky to have so many inputs, and I paid attention to all of them — so as to frame, understand, and enjoy the world I lived in.

I think I’ve been true to myself from a very young age. When I was three or four, I started ballet classes that I decided to give up in favour of “Expresión corporal” (“self-expression through movement”), for which I had my own name — which my aunt still reminds me of— “Expresión CorporOl”. Already playing with signifiers!

SEMIOVOX

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

GABRIELA PEDRANTI

When I started my undergraduate degree in Communication at the University of Buenos Aires, I had an introductory year in which we had “Semiology.” I loved the basic ideas and perspective it offered, because I already tended to see things that way. So I continued studying semiotics, with a focus on media — an important tradition in Latin American semiotics. This was great in the 1990s, a decade during which many exciting things were happening in the media — particularly on television. We were encouraged to apply this thinking not only in our coursework but in our personal life (which of course, I did).

SEMIOVOX

How did you find your own way to doing semiotics?

GABRIELA PEDRANTI

After spending a (bad) year in Madrid, I moved to Barcelona and found work with a market research agency — where I started as an office manager and finished as an international project coordinator. This experience allowed me to see that market researchers were missing out on something crucial: the cultural background and context of the people who were “forced” to answer questions in artificial situations. In 2007, my friend Ximena Tobi (whom I’d met at university, and who was still living in Argentina) and I decided to do something on our own with semiotics and market research. What few courses there were on this topic were given in English; there wasn’t anything appropriate for Spanish-speaking markets. So we offered semiotics training in Spanish — but never managed to interest any market researchers in our offering. A couple of years later, though, Malex Salamanques — then with the UK semiotics agency Space Doctors — started hiring us to conduct research. Xi and I founded Semiotica Studio in 2009; we still regard Malex as our fairy godmother.

The big game-changer, for us, was attending Semiofest [the global commercial-semiotics conference series] in London in 2012, then organizing it in Barcelona in 2013. These events gave us visibility within the global applied semiotics community. Also, we’ve discovered that potential clients are more readily persuaded when they see us in action (delivering talks, through our work, in meetings, etc.). Word-of-mouth helped a lot. Xi and I have gone on to build our own network of collaborators throughout Spain and Latam; this has been possible due to the fact that we are lecturers in Buenos Aires and Barcelona, so we often work with former students. We still attend Semiofest every year, and also think about new tools that we can develop for our existing clients and potential ones. Recently we’ve expanded beyond brand communication, and are now also working with publishing houses and audio-visual production companies. We love it!

SEMIOVOX

What are the most important attributes of a good semiotician?

GABRIELA PEDRANTI

Being curious and stepping outside of your own perspective and prejudices — in order to understand rather than judging. Also, you have to be a good, full-time observer — paying attention to phenomena and social developments that are not in your areas of interest, and keeping your senses very attentive whenever you travel, share moments with new people, watch a series or a movie, read, etc., etc.

PS: Massimo Leone’s “How to become a semiotician” offers useful tips, too.

SEMIOVOX

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

GABRIELA PEDRANTI

Victorino Zecchetto’s Seis semiólogos en busca del lector (“Six semioticians in search of a reader”) is a great book about the life, studies, theories, and implications of Saussure, Peirce, Barthes, Greimas, Eco, and [the Argentine semiotician Eliseo] Verón. It helped me not only to understand some of the more difficult aspects of these thinkers’ theories, but also to learn more about who they were.

Umberto Eco’s Signo (originally, Segno). I love Eco’s novels, and this book, which takes us through the fictional example of a day in the life of Mr. Sigma (when he travels to Paris and suddenly gets a stomachache) is pure semiotics in action.

I teach undergraduate courses in design semiotics, and I’ve found David Crow’s Visible Signs: An Introduction to Semiotics in the Visual Arts very useful. It’s beautifully designed, and takes the reader through the main concepts of semiotics in a very visual way — with activities and original ideas.

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?

GABRIELA PEDRANTI

Xi and I adapt our “pitch” to each situation. Offering basic and clear examples about misunderstanding people from different cultures sometimes helps to explain the value of the methodology. As a complement to our “live” pitch, we sometimes also share a deck that we’ve created; it’s titled Why Cultural Analysis Can Help You. As you can see, we don’t always use the term “semiotics” with prospective clients.

SEMIOVOX

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

GABRIELA PEDRANTI

I love projects that go beyond analyzing brand communications. The more explorative, the better — even if the projects are finally for brands. For example, I’ve enjoyed analyzing various aspects about being a woman in Latin America. At some point, we’ll produce a public-facing report that shares insights from these studies.

I’m also enjoying the more recent work we’re doing for audio-visual companies: how to adapt written content into a series, making it meaningful for a broad audience but keeping the core fans. We’ve also done this type of work for an upcoming biopic of someone who is alive (which is extra-challenging).

What Xi and I would love to work on are projects that can really change the world. We have been working on sustainable and circular economy matters for a long time, as volunteers, trainers, etc. — but not (yet) for paying clients.

SEMIOVOX

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

GABRIELA PEDRANTI

I struggle with people who just apply fixed formulas — that’s why I don’t enjoy typical marketing practices. We’ve been trying to “educate” clients (and some colleagues, too) about the complexity of each situation and how to address it uniquely. I see semiotics and cultural analysis as a useful toolbox, but you have to understand the situation first and then decide which tools to use… not the other way around. If everyone understood this, it would lead to better results; however, it’s hard to persuade people to abandon a cookie-cutter approach.

I’ll never forget one project, where we hired by a marketing agency to solve a problem that a Spanish brand was having. The problem, it was clear to us, had to do with the brand’s failure to comprehend the changing cultural context; only once the brand understood the big picture would it be possible to make wise decisions about changing the pack design. When we tried to persuade the agency that we should be looking at the big picture, though, we were firmly told to stick to a narrow focus: “We were hired to analyse the packs.” That sort of a thing is waste of time and money!

SEMIOVOX

Peirce or Saussure?

GABRIELA PEDRANTI

A little bit of each. I like the “movement” of the process that Pierce’s theory proposes — from his definition of the sign itself, the basic ideas about “firstness,” “secondness,” and “thirdness” with all the philosophical echoes. But his extreme classification (and the sub- and sub-sub-classifications) are not very practical for everyday thinking. Saussure thinks less about the movements and connection in the process of meaning, which makes his theory more straightforward to apply.

SEMIOVOX

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

GABRIELA PEDRANTI

Instead of just surfing your own reality unreflectively, get curious and “dive in.” Develop this way of thinking in your everyday life — and find interesting books, papers and audio-visual material to learn more about semiotic theory and practice. Attend Semiofest, a conference that combines elements from the academic and the commercial semiotics worlds in a useful balance. Contact people who are doing this work and ask to work with them, even if they are not offering a job. You never know…

Tags: Making Sense