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?
From an early age, I was fascinated by people — and the language, objects, and stories that constructed their worlds. Every day at 3 pm, at age 6 or so, I’d sit in a rickety blue chair next to my Grannie and listen to her radionovelas, laughing at the silly characters yet immersed in their stories; I even kept a list of the words they used that I found the most amusing. I also enjoyed secretively watching people walk past our house, and inventing stories for them — which I’d write and illustrate.
I was also fascinated by objects as a child. We didn’t have a telephone, at home so I was transfixed by the first one I saw — a square box, cream-colored, with a rotary dial, sitting on someone’s side table. It looked sublimely gorgeous, and also like an alien artifact. Nervously, I put the handset to my ear and listened to the beeeeee dialtone — it felt as though time was standing still. I’ve believed ever since, I think, in the power of objects to communicate.
Describe your first encounter(s) with the theory and practice of semiotics.
While earning a degree in Modern Languages (c. 1994–1996), I was intrigued by an Applied Linguistics class — which opened me up to a new way of thinking about how meaning works.
Later, as part of my BA program in Graphic Design in Colombia (c. 1996–2000), Mariluz Restrepo, Armando Silva, and Jaime Rubio taught a four-year Communication Theory class, fueled by semiotics, which was explicitly geared towards designers. The logical and philosophical thinking of Peirce, Ricœur, de Certeau, and other theorists appealed to me, and I ended up doing a semiotics-influenced final project (about the meaning of poses and how they evolve over the decades, found in family albums). I wasn’t thrilled about the use of obscure language and the overly intellectual aura cultivated by some practitioners, but I found semiotics a very practical and tangible methodology for my own design thinking and practice.
I also earned an MA in Anthropology (c. 2005–2007, at UCL in the UK), where Daniel Miller encouraged me to make a connection between my background in semiotics and design and what I was learning in this program — especially concerning Material Culture and Consumption Studies. My work ever since has merged semiotics, design, and anthropology methodologies.
How did you find your own way to doing semiotics?
Before moving to the UK, I suspected commercial semiotics practices of being shallow and superficial — my own applied-semiotics projects tended to have a strong academic focus. However, living in London opened my eyes to what was really going on in commercial semiotics, and I realized that academic and commercial semiotics can complement each other nicely. In fact, academic semioticians can learn a lot from those of us working in the business space.
Working for an agency that specialized in Employer Branding, then other advertising agencies, I developed my own semiotics approach — before moving to strategic communications and cultural research agencies, working as a semiotician and Head of Semiotics. At the time, it was difficult to persuade anyone that design and cultural approaches meshed well with semiotics and anthropology. The conversations with Malcolm Evans and Virginia Valentine were encouraging. In order to bring these disciplines together on my own terms, in 2010 I started my own firm — Visual Signo.
What are the most important attributes of a good semiotician?
- Logic and rationality coupled with intuition. You need to develop a trained eye and mind — in order to think critically, see beyond the surface level of everyday objects and actions, break things down, formulate questions, and identify patterns. But to see the big picture, you also need to have a creative mindset.
- Empathy. Working with people from diverse cultures and industries demands respect and seeing things from other perspectives. The ability to understand how others see the world is essential to building good relationships and trust with those with whom you’re working.
- Eclecticism & Curiosity. Semioticians crave new knowledge. We devour literature, music, and all sorts of experiences to gain a deeper understanding of the world around us.
- Sense of History. Understanding how the past has shaped the present is crucial for us to interpret the meaning behind what we see — and help create new meanings in the future.
- Diligence. A good semiotician pays close attention to detail and takes the time to ensure that all the details are accurate. She’ll have a keen eye for spotting errors and inconsistencies, and will be relentless in her pursuit of accuracy.
No matter how disruptive our insights may be, we must communicate them fearlessly.
- Transparency and Fearlessness. It’s essential to be transparent with clients, and to avoid sugar-coating problems. To make informed decisions, they need to see the good, the bad, and the ugly. No matter how disruptive our insights may be, we must communicate them fearlessly. So great communication skills are also crucial.
- Humility. The more we learn, the more we know that we can’t know everything. So instead of seeking to impress others with our knowledge or cleverness, semioticians should inspire them to see the world the way we do — that is, with fresh eyes, and enjoying the process.
- Adaptability. No two projects are the same. For each challenge, we need to think creatively about the appropriate theoretical and methodological approaches.
- Perseverance and self-motivation. Ours is a challenging field, and sometimes you’re stuck on a problem for days. The determination to see it through and the motivation to keep going are essential. Also, our work is often done alone, so being able to work independently is vital.
- Sense of social responsibility. Semioticians have the chance to influence key decision-makers at large organizations, and we should use that power to make a positive difference.
What three books about semiotics have you found the most useful and enlightening in your own work?
- Régis Debray’s Vie et mort de l’image: Une histoire du regard en Occident (Life and Death of the Image: A History of Gaze in the West). A mind-opening exploration of the history of the western “eye.” It debunks long-standing beliefs about art history and takes you on a journey through three different eras — inviting us to question how we’ve been engaging with the visual in the West, making us think about future possibilities, and challenging our spectacle societies. Like John Berger, Debray is a good read for anyone interested in semiotics.
- Jean-Marie Floch’s Identités visuelles (Visual Identities). Nearly 30 years old now, but still relevant to commercial semiotics. It’s packed with practical examples that are easy to follow, making it a great resource for designers, strategists, and marketing professionals.
- Sean Hall’s This Means This, This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics. I recommend this book to those just starting to study semiotics. It provides a foundation of knowledge with clear examples, so you can grasp the concepts without getting bogged down in theory.
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?
If someone is totally unfamiliar with the topic, I will often begin by explaining that my work revolves around understanding the meanings in culture and all that is taken for granted. I’ll tell stories about brands that people are familiar with, or use other examples from pop culture, in order to make the point that analyzing cultural symbols helps brands and organizations connect with their desired audiences in different cultural contexts — and helps create new meanings.
In a business context, I might first begin with questions of my own. I ask about their cultural, strategic or communication challenges and how they would typically tackle these. Then I might talk about how shifts in culture influence industries and brands — and how brands who “get” culture (through semiotic analysis) can make the right strategic and tactical decisions needed to develop authentic and relevant strategies for their desired audiences.
Here in the UK, most potential clients already understand the value of semiotics — so we can get right into a discussion of what particular semiotic methodology will help them with their specific challenges.
What specific sorts of semiotics-driven projects do you find to be the most enjoyable and rewarding?
It’s fun to work in categories where I have a great deal of experience — because then I get to challenge myself to get out of my comfort zone and bring new ideas to the table. But it’s also fun to work in categories where I don’t have any experience — because I’ll learn so much.
I’m particularly fond of design audits and packaging evaluations — particularly when I’m permitted to dialogue directly with the design and strategy teams. There are so many cultural and technical constraints with packaging projects — global projects, even more so — which makes them a very satisfying challenge. It can also be a nice change of pace to drill down and focus only on one specific aspect of pack design — color schemes, say, or typography.
Markets are constantly changing, and we semioticians tend to be brought in when brands and organizations need to think about future scenarios. Taking advantage of the synergy between anthropology, semiotics, and design in order to think about the influence of AI, metaverses, and the immaterial for specific brands in the coming years is the best sort of challenge.
It’s very rewarding to work on projects that contribute to positive social change. I’ve worked on such projects in Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Colombia, Brazil… too many examples to name. A project developing communications that challenged discriminatory anti-LGBTQ discourses in sub-Saharan Africa, and another creating strategies to minimize HIV in Malawi stand out. Also, helping a beauty brand disrupt racially discriminatory narratives in the West — what a thrill.
What frustrates you about how semiotics is practiced and/or perceived, right now?
I used to be annoyed by conflicting expectations, and definitions of “good” semiotics, between the academic and commercial worlds — since I tend to have a foot in each world — but these days that stuff all just looks like ego anxieties. We all have our different journeys with semiotics.
I would love to see our community reflecting on and having conversations about critical topics for semioticians — around professional ethics, mental health, sustainability, diversity, equality, and more. Semiofest, which I cofounded in 2011, is a good forum for that sort of exchange.
Peirce or Saussure?
It depends on the project, but my heart is with Pierce. He just killed it! Abduction, logic, and the infinite potential of the sign make him quite relevant to contemporary innovation cultures. Dualism will always exist, but with Peirce the signs equations never end.
What advice would you give to a young person interested in this sort of work?
Be unique — don’t be afraid to improve upon existing methodologies, or to create your own.
Build community — get to know others who think the way you do, and do the same sort of work. Again, attending Semiofest is a terrific way to nurture your mind and soul while networking.
Stay curious — remain on the lookout for sources of inspiration, and be diligent about working these new ideas into your practice.
MAKING SENSE WITH… series: MARTHA ARANGO (Sweden) | CHRIS ARNING (England) | CHRIS BARNHAM (England) | AUDREY BARTIS (France) | MACIEJ BIEDZIŃSKI (Poland) | GIULIA CERIANI (Italy) | DORA JURD DE GIRANCOURT (France) | NATASHA DELLISTON (England) | VLADIMIR DJUROVIC (China) | WHITNEY DUNLAP-FOWLER (USA) | MALCOLM EVANS (England) | PAULINA GOCH-KENAWY (Poland) | JOSH GLENN (USA) | SAMUEL GRANGE (France) | AIYANA GUNJAN (India) | HANNAH HOEL (New Zealand) | IVÁN ISLAS (Mexico) | SARAH JOHNSON (Canada) | LOUISE JOLLY (England) | GEMMA JONES (Netherlands) | 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) | CARLOS SCOLARI (Spain) | COLETTE SENSIER (England) | HAMSINI SHIVAKUMAR (India) | TIM STOCK (USA) | XIMENA TOBI (Argentina) | DIMITAR TRENDAFILOV (Bulgaria) | ALFREDO TRONCOSO (Mexico) | & more to come.
Also see these series: COVID CODES | SEMIO OBJECTS | MAKING SENSE WITH… | COLOR CODEX