Semiotics Semionaut

Making Sense with…

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Photo courtesy of Whitney Dunlap-Fowler

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.


New York City…

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?

WHITNEY DUNLAP-FOWLER

I was a creative, imaginative child. This manifested in drawings of random shapes, creatures, and imaginary people — and singing made-up songs practically all day (something I still do).

As a teenager, I was passionate about art. Most people perceive a work of art as a unified composition — but what I’ve always perceived is a compilation of shapes, strokes, colors, etc., forming a composition. When I’m viewing an artist’s work, I love decoding their secret visual language. And I’ve enjoyed creating such languages in my own art. The ability to step back from what you initially perceive, and to analyze the “story” of an image through attention to the shapes, colors, patterns, etc., that tell the story, would become crucial to my work as a semiotic practitioner.

I’ve also always had a knack for categorization. As a teenager and in my early twenties, for example, I’d take note of and track people’s behavioral patterns, and I’d use these to categorize people as particular types. This allowed me to quickly “make sense” of new people I’d encounter — and it made me a bit of a guru among my friends, because I was very good at predicting how certain types of people would respond to various situations.

SEMIOVOX

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

WHITNEY DUNLAP-FOWLER

I first learned about semiotics through a very boring COMM Theory 101 course at Longwood University. It’s ironic that I was so uninterested in that class… since I now use these theories in my work all the time! For most of us, until we understand the real-world situations that generated its principles and approaches in the first place, a theory isn’t meaningful. I had to live life to really understand its application.

SEMIOVOX

How did you find your own way to doing semiotics?

WHITNEY DUNLAP-FOWLER

In 2011, I was able to land a role in New York as a project coordinator for a brand strategy and marketing insights company for which Malcolm Evans had developed a semiotics capability. We only had one semiotics practitioner in Added Value’s New York office, so — after completing a Masters at NYU in Media, Culture and Communications — I raised my hand to take a stab at joining the team. I wasn’t 100% sure what I was getting into, but having returned to the study of semiotics at NYU, and after spending several years in the real world scoping, designing, and coordinating client research requests, I felt fairly confident that I was going to be good at it. My lifelong relation to patterns and symbols helped too. Soon enough, I became a Senior Brand and Cultural Insight Strategist.

In 2017, I moved to Kelton Global as Cultural Insights Director — and this shift was eye-opening in terms of my relation to applied semiotics. At Added Value, I’d felt the need to produce code sets and semiotic outputs in a very European and highbrow way. Because the methodology was new in the US, we would produce long paragraphs of superfluous information to substantiate our findings — utilizing language that didn’t reflect how any of us actually communicated. At Kelton, though, our clients were mostly American — and I was able to find my own rhythm, one that was less about injecting academia into my work and more about focusing on the practical utility of the method’s outputs for our clients.

Today, in my own practice at Touch of Whit Creative, which I started in 2019, I strive to ensure that my semiotic deliverables are easy to understand and can apply to my clients’ internal business objectives.

SEMIOVOX

What are the most important attributes of a good semiotician?

WHITNEY DUNLAP-FOWLER

Semioticians can be very smart. But I’ve witnessed some of my semio colleagues use their intelligence as a weapon against those who are not in this space, and I find that disappointing.

We don’t need to prove how smart we are! It’s important for semioticians to speak about what we do, and how we do it, in approachable ways that everyone can understand and appreciate. Doing so will not only help demystify our process — which is helpful for clients and agencies trying to cost for it — but allow clients to feel a bit smarter themselves. Not everyone can do semiotics well, but lots of people are interested in it — so for those people, let’s not make it seem more difficult than it is.

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?

WHITNEY DUNLAP-FOWLER

I am technically a brand strategist who specializes in semiotics. For me, selling semiotics often comes from selling a brand strategy request (positioning work, brand architecture frameworks, innovation pipelines or messaging strategies) as it is quite literally required to get to the larger end goal. 

In other instances, I usually propose semiotics when I see or hear clients attempting to create research projects that put the onus of knowing about things happening in culture on consumers. When lofty questions like “What do you think the future of ___ is?” are being asked, I will interject and let the client know that regular consumers will never be able to answer such a question — and that it is ultimately my job to paint that picture for them.

SEMIOVOX

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

WHITNEY DUNLAP-FOWLER

Semiotics is good at revealing how a seemingly dull, boring category can actually be fascinating — I love that. For example, I once decoded B2B offerings for different telecom companies. The topic seemed uninteresting, but the visual and verbal messaging analysis ended up being very exciting. The same is true for the financial sector, and others.

Breaking through the nomenclature of the least “sexy” industries can be a pain — and it can make you feel as though you are not smart enough to succeed in this challenge. But once I begin to evaluate the messaging signifiers, the enjoyment factor is always pretty high… especially when I’m able to learn something new.   

SEMIOVOX

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

WHITNEY DUNLAP-FOWLER

When clients or agency partners who are not semioticians themselves, and who often have no clue as to what semiotics is best used for, or how it works, try to dictate how a semiotic project should go — it can create unnecessary issues.

Also, it’s not ideal to be brought in on the tail end of proposals that are vague or misleading, that promise things that can’t be delivered, or that are priced way too cheaply to get what’s desired by the client. People tend to think of what we do as a mysterious magical voodoo, which means they often think we can make masterpieces out of poorly thought-out projects. Similarly, when semiotics is added to a proposal to make it stand out from the competition — rather than in a way that would actually create value for the project — it cheapens what we do, and makes our contributions look expendable.

Semioticians can create ‘magical’ outputs — but we have a systematic process for doing so.

Semioticians can create “magical” outputs — but we have a systematic process for doing so. It’s imperative that we’re included in the project’s early planning stages, so that we can help determine where and how our methods should be applied.

SEMIOVOX

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

WHITNEY DUNLAP-FOWLER

  • You’ve really got to be into what’s happening in the world around you. News, brands, ads, art, culture, etc. You have to be willing and able to dabble in a bit of everything to be great at your craft — otherwise, you will struggle in every assignment that is thrown at you.
  • Having said that, clients sometimes think we know something about everything. (We do not, so don’t ever feel self-conscious about this. We have to google things just like the rest of the world.) What’s unique about our skillset is the ability to build off cultural shifts, trends, and themes.
  • Semiotics is also more than just piecing codes together. Great semioticians have strategic lenses, and can help clients build better brand or innovation strategies for their businesses. Semioticians who have the ability to do this will always go further in this field than those who don’t.

MAKING SENSE WITH… series: MARTHA ARANGO (Sweden) | CHRIS ARNING (England) | KRISTIAN BANKOV (Bulgaria) | CHRIS BARNHAM (England) | AUDREY BARTIS (France) | ANDREA BASUNTI (England) | HIBATO BEN AHMED (France) | MACIEJ BIEDZIŃSKI (Poland) | MYRIAM BOUABID (Tunisia) | KISHORE BUDHA (England) | MARIANE CARA (Brazil) | GIULIA CERIANI (Italy) | BECKS COLLINS (England) | DORA JURD DE GIRANCOURT (France) | NATASHA DELLISTON (England) | PANOS DIMITROPOULOS (China) | ROB DRENT (Netherlands) | VLADIMIR DJUROVIC (China) | WHITNEY DUNLAP-FOWLER (USA) | ROMÁN ESQUEDA (Mexico) | MALCOLM EVANS (England) | PETER GLASSEN (Switzerland) | JOSH GLENN (USA) | PAULINA GOCH-KENAWY (Poland) | STEFANIA GOGNA (Italy) | EUGENE GORNY (Thailand) | SAMUEL GRANGE (France) | GISELA GRIMBLAT (Mexico) | AIYANA GUNJAN (India) | EMILY HAYES (England) | HANNAH HOEL (New Zealand) | IVÁN ISLAS (Mexico) | SARAH JOHNSON (Canada) | LOUISE JOLLY (England) | GEMMA JONES (Netherlands) | CHRISTO KAFTANDJIEV (Bulgaria) | SEEMA KHANWALKAR (India) | KAIE KOPPEL (Estonia) | LUCIA LAURENT-NEVA (England) | RACHEL LAWES (England) | CHARLES LEECH (Canada) | ELINOR LIFSHITZ (Israel) | WILLIAM LIU (China) | RAMONA LYONS (USA) | KATJA MAGGIO (Netherlands) | LUCA MARCHETTI (France) | SÓNIA MARQUES (Portugal) | MAX MATUS (Mexico) | CHIRAG MEDIRATTA (India / Canada) | CLIO MEURER (Brazil) | ELODIE MIELCZARECK (France) | THIERRY MORTIER (Sweden) | SERDAR PAKTIN (Turkey / England) | MARIA PAPANTHYMOU (Greece / Russia) | VIJAY PARTHASARATHY (USA) | GABRIELA PEDRANTI (Spain) | JAMIN PELKEY (Canada) | GAËLLE PINEDA (France) | ALEXANDRA ROBERT (France) | GREG ROWLAND (England) | CARLOS SCOLARI (Spain) | COLETTE SENSIER (England) | HAMSINI SHIVAKUMAR (India) | GIANLLUCA SIMI (Brazil) | TIM SPENCER (England) | TIM STOCK (USA) | XIMENA TOBI (Argentina) | DIMITAR TRENDAFILOV (Bulgaria) | ALFREDO TRONCOSO (Mexico) | ADELINA VACA (Mexico) | ANTJE WEISSENBORN (Germany) | COCO WU (Singapore / China) | & more to come.

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