What makes a semiotician tick? SEMIOVOX’s Josh Glenn has invited his fellow practitioners in the field of commercial semiotics, from around the world, to answer a few revealing questions.
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?
At two I was reported to have said, “Mummy, that water is stagnant.” So already at an early age I was showing a precise command of language and strong observational skills. 😉
I read a lot of overseas folk tales as a child — intercultural immersion. I recall Ukrainian twins; a dagger in a tree with blood; a Chinese boy jumping off a mountain saved by the lotus flower.
As a teen I got into hip-hop culture, which with its emphasis on sampling and dense lyrics also indulged my love of digging deeper and seeing the connections between cultural texts.
Describe your first encounter(s) with the theory and practice of semiotics.
Well, I studied aspects of poststructuralism in my MA but semiotics would have to wait till I got to a research agency called Flamingo. Alex Gordon had just established a semiotics practice and I was doing qualitative research with him on a pan-European innovation project for Unilever (for Solero, as I recall). Alex allocated ice cream to what he called the ‘trough of confection’ and soft drinks to the ‘citadel of refreshment’ — not only because of their retail fixtures but in our relationship with them. One was an indulgence that we wanted, but didn’t need, the other one was a basic need — i.e., ‘obey your thirst.’ I thought it was a brutally but brilliantly stark opposition. I was hooked. I couldn’t see what the method was but grew to crave proximity to it.
How did you find your own way to doing semiotics?
Went to University of Toronto to learn the theory with [semiotician and linguistic anthropologist] Marcel Danesi and [semiotician and linguist] Roland Posner and began reading voraciously. I started to practice semiotics when I got back to London and when Alex left the agency I inherited the department. I left Flamingo myself a few years later and, after a short stint at Space Doctors, I started Creative Semiotics.
What are the most important attributes of a good semiotician?
I started a thread this on this topic at the STG [Semiotic Thinking Group, the LinkedIn listserv that Chris hosts] some time ago. So, in no particular order I would say:
- A curiosity about and interest in culture
- Being able to synthesise data at speed
- Tenacity, perseverance and resilience
- High threshold for ambiguity, uncertainty
- A flair for communication and rhetoric
What three books about semiotics have you found the most useful and enlightening in your own work?
I mean, I love reading C.S. Peirce, and dip into his Collected Papers every so often, but he never actually finished writing a book, so…
- Yuri Lotman’s Universe of the Mind: A Semiotic Theory of Culture (1990). As a massive fan of Russian literature, it’s just a rich deep-dive into the way culture works in art, literature, and theatre from a master semiotician.
- Roman Jakobson’s “Linguistics & Poetics” (from Selected Writings Vol. III: The Poetry of Grammar and the Grammar of Poetry, 1980). It is one of the most scientific descriptions of poetry ever — a ‘palpability of signs’ — and shows the link between rhetoric in language and the poetry of design.
- Umberto Eco’s The Limits of Interpretation (1990). Eco circumscribes our room for manoeuvering in the semiotics field, and he reminds us of the great discipline we need to do this thing properly.
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?
Brian Kemple, a US academic and former student of [US philosopher and semiotician] John Deely, used a phrase recently that I like very much, to the effect that semiotics is “the unveiling of the familiar unknown.”
But what about in brand communication? Semiotics for me is identifying the patterns in culture & categories to help close the gap between what brands think they are communicating and what they’re actually communicating.
I no longer try and persuade sceptical clients. Most of my clients are smart and humble enough to know that they need semiotics. And I’m smart and humble enough to keep hold of them. Clients who need too much convincing are a risk factor, for me, because they if they don’t trust the method they may distrust the findings. It’s probably going to be too much like hard work. And the semiotics itself is hard enough work as it is!
What specific sorts of semiotics-driven projects do you find to be the most enjoyable and rewarding?
- projects where semiotics can uniquely help
- big cultural challenges with foundational thinking
- projects where we can do good and have impact
What frustrates you about how semiotics is practiced and/or perceived, right now?
I was frustrated a few years ago, but things are now moving in the right direction. Semiotics is now known by most people in most UK marketing departments. Even if they can’t tell you exactly what it is for, they know it’s important!
But semiotics can still become more fundamental to how brand strategy is done. For example, like [US commercial semiotician] Oliver Perrin and [Medline SVP of Strategic Development] Michael Colton, among others, I believe there is now rich potential for semioticians to be in-house, managing brand assets on behalf of companies.
Peirce or Saussure?
Peirce is more relevant to visual culture and design (and therefore more short-term brand activation), whereas Saussure is more relevant to cultural strategy (and therefore longer-term brand building). My practice is more in debt to Saussurean frameworks (oppositions, systems of differences, etc.) but Peirce excites me more.
Both were radical and incisive thinkers, but Peirce was a stone-cold genius. The scope of his thinking (phaneroscopy) is yet to be properly reckoned with. [Phaneroscopy, as articulated and practiced by Peirce, is the formal analysis of appearances apart from the questions of to whom they appear and of their material content that discovers broad classes of appearances, describes their features, proves that a short list of classes is exhaustive, and enumerates the principal subdivisions of the categories.]
What advice would you give to a young person interested in this sort of work?
- Start a blog and write about the things that interest you
- Follow semioticians on LinkedIn, and join the Semiotic Thinking Group [on Linkedin]
- Listen to [University of Turin professor of Semiotics] Massimo Leone’s great Decalogue that he delivered at the first 2012 Semiofest in London: “How to become a semiotician”
- Come to a Semiofest, either a session (online each month) or a face to face event (biannual)
- If you can get the funding (students can apply for a scholarship), then do my course How to Do Semiotics in Seven Weeks.
MAKING SENSE WITH… series: MALEX SALAMANQUES AMIEL (England) | MARTHA ARANGO (Sweden) | CHRIS ARNING (England) | CHRIS BARNHAM (England) | AUDREY BARTIS (France) | MACIEJ BIEDZIŃSKI (Poland) | MARIANE CARA (Brazil) | NATASHA DELLISTON (England) | MYRIAM DILMI (France) | WHITNEY DUNLAP-FOWLER (USA) | VLADIMIR DJUROVIC (China) | MALCOLM EVANS (England) | NICK GADSBY (England) | PAULINA GOCH-KENAWY (Poland) | JOSH GLENN (USA) | AIYANA GUNJAN (India) | SAMUEL GRANGE (France) | IVÁN ISLAS (Mexico) | SARAH JOHNSON (Canada) | GEMMA JONES (Netherlands) | AYA KANDA (Japan) | SEEMA KHANWALKAR (India) | KAIE KOPPEL (Estonia) | LUCIA LAURENT-NEVA (England) | RACHEL LAWES (England) | CHARLES LEECH (Canada) | WILLIAM LIU (China) | RAMONA LYONS (USA) | LUCA MARCHETTI (France) | SÓNIA MARQUES (Portugal) | MAX MATUS (Mexico) | CHIRAG MEDIRATTA (Canada) | CLIO MEURER (Brazil) | ELODIE MIELCZARECK (France) | THIERRY MORTIER (Sweden) | SERDAR PAKTIN (England) | MARIA PAPANTHYMOU (Greece) | VIJAY PARTHASARATHY (USA) | GABRIELA PEDRANTI (Spain) | GREG ROWLAND (England) | COLLETE SENSIER (England) | HAMSINI SHIVAKUMAR (India) | XIMENA TOBI (Argentina) | DIMITAR TRENDAFILOV (Bulgaria) | ALFREDO TRONCOSO (Mexico) | & more to come. Also see the international series COVID CODES and SEMIO OBJECTS.