Semiotics Semionaut

Making Sense with…

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Photo courtesy of Sónia Marques

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.


Lisbon…

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?

SÓNIA MARQUES

I am afraid I was not an easy kid to acculturate.

Gendered rules struck me as bizarre: “playing with knives is a boy thing,” “opening one’s legs while sitting is not for girls,” “being opinionated is not proper.” Also, I was a keen observer of social performances — the lack of authenticity in encounters. Phatic communication in particular struck me as useless: social scripts, typical greetings, repetitive formulas, like “Merry Christmas,” “Are you well?,” “Great to see you!”

Knowing how to behave, how to say hello, how to respond — from an early age, I was aware that all of this was a form of everyday theater, and I was curious about it.

SEMIOVOX

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

SÓNIA MARQUES

My Sociology degree afforded me my initial encounter with Semiotics and Anthropology. The most challenging and seductive texts that I read employed the intriguing term “sign” — which I felt motivated to understand further. This “sign” appeared to be a portal opening up into a deeper understanding of the central issues.

SEMIOVOX

How did you find your own way to doing semiotics?

SÓNIA MARQUES

Twenty-two years ago, at age 29, I became a planner at a design agency — tasked with managing focus groups, and so forth. I found doing these sorts of thing boring ; I almost fell asleep, once, reading a proposal. Observing “consumer talk” from behind the one-way glass was also tedious, and the results of such observation were sterile — unproductive, lifeless. Just as I’d been puzzled by taken-for-granted customs as a child, here I was baffled by the tacit understanding that consumer insights were the key — even though it was apparent that these “insights” weren’t helping improve our clients’ brand communications. The transmission model [which describes communication as a linear, one-way process in which a sender intentionally transmits a message to a receiver] wasn’t working — but year after year, we kept trying the same thing. And the war metaphors that everyone favored at the time didn’t help.

I didn’t trust the tools in which everyone else placed such faith, and finally I admitted to myself: I know that I do not know. We were sending messages to the consumer — and it seemed to me, at the time, that we should first “open the messages,” in order to properly evaluate and understand what it was that we were communicating.

After two years of this, I quit my career as a planner, took a sabbatical year, and went back to school with the goal of figuring out how to decode brand communications. Instead of a structured degree program, I sampled subjects from various disciplines — Cinema Studies, Anthropology, Communication Studies — and used Semiotics as an overarching discipline. Outside of the classroom, I read intensively on my own, 200 pages per day, and searched for relevant guides in bookshops and libraries in Madrid, Lisbon, Antwerp, and Utrecht. People worried that my behavior was eccentric and my goal unreasonable… but I perceived a void in the market, and stuck to my program. At the end of the year, I founded the consultancy Indiz (roughly, “inside what is said”), and I’ve been “selling semiotics” — my own version of applied semiotics — ever since.

SEMIOVOX

What are the most important attributes of a good semiotician?

SÓNIA MARQUES

  • It’s so difficult to question the “given” — that which is presented as unquestionable. So first and foremost, you need to be rebellious enough to ask the difficult questions.
  • A bottomless appetite for culture.
  • Also, although we call this work “Semiotics,” in fact it’s a theoretical patchwork — so what’s required is a passion for interdisciplinary learning: History, Psychoanalysis, Fashion Theory, Linguistics, Material Culture…
  • Finally, a semiotician must be a “possibilist” — someone who investigates different paths of signification, opens up new hypotheses, and provokes new ways of thinking.

SEMIOVOX

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

SÓNIA MARQUES

As is already obvious, I am a voracious reader, so I will cheat a little bit…

  • Jean-Marie Floch’s Visual identities, and also Semiotics, Marketing and Communication: Beneath the Signs, the Strategies — awesome books.
  • Umberto Eco’s Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, and also The Absent Structure — fundamental.
  • John Fiske’s Introduction to Communication Studies — one of the first books I read during my sabbatical, and one which continues to help me on a daily basis. It taught me that clients rely on the “transmission model,” which is valuable to keep in mind as I attempt to persuade them that a semiotic approach is more useful.

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?

SÓNIA MARQUES

None of us enjoy being made to feel ignorant, so presenting clients with new words and viewpoints can put them on the defensive — which is unhelpful. I warn them frequently that they may experience discomfort, and as much as possible I try to show case studies and examples rather than talking about abstract models or approaches. When I say the word “semiotics” or “semiotician,” I try to do so in the most blasé way.

SEMIOVOX

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

SÓNIA MARQUES

I love my job — and I enjoy sorting out every sort of client challenge. However, if forced to choose, I’d say I especially like to take on projects with environmental aims. 

SEMIOVOX

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

SÓNIA MARQUES

It’s tiring to be asked to “include people” and to “interview consumers,” and it’s exhausting to deal with people who can only trust numbers. So, I must say it’s frustrating to be negatively perceived as “non-consumer” and “non-numbers.”

SEMIOVOX

Peirce or Saussure?

SÓNIA MARQUES

Greimas! Therefore Saussure.*

SEMIOVOX

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

SÓNIA MARQUES

It’s all about reading, reflecting, and enduring. Semiotics is a long-term investment.


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.

Tags: Making Sense